The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The horrific failure of Jordan’s ‘prisoner swap’ with the Islamic State

This combination of two photographs shows the detail of a poster of an undated photograph of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, left, used during a demonstration calling for his release from the Islamic State group and a still image from video, right, of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack on a hotel that killed 60 people. (AP)

For weeks, Jordan was clear that it would do whatever it took to secure the release of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, a pilot captured by the Islamic State in December. As recently as Sunday, Amman had reiterated its offer to swap Kaseasbeh for Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed Iraqi suicide bomber held by Jordan since 2005, whose release the Islamic State had demanded.

That proposed prisoner swap has failed. On Tuesday, the Islamic State released a horrific video appearing to show the Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage. The Jordanian government has now confirmed that Kaseasbeh is dead.

While it brought with it a fair amount of controversy, there was some praise for the proposed prisoner swap. The logic was fairly clear: The Islamic State had shown itself willing to release prisoners for ransoms, but countries such as the United States and Britain refuse to pay, arguing that ransoms both offer an incentive to kidnap and provide more funds for such extremist groups.

Prisoner swaps are different. Jordan's proposed release of Rishawi, a failed terrorist mostly forgotten by the wider world, might have been a personal victory for the Islamic State (she is said to be a sister of a former close aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq), but it appeared to be of negligible strategic value. The United States has been willing to do similar things: Last year, the U.S. government released five members of the Taliban in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the group since 2009.

However, Amman let its deadlines to release Rishawi slide. Last week, Jordan demanded proof that Kaseasbeh was alive before proceeding with the swap. “We asked for evidence about the health and safety of our hero, but it did not come," Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser S. Judeh tweeted Wednesday. Notably, the Islamic State had initially mentioned Rishawi in a video showing Japanese hostage Kenji Goto. (Over the weekend, the Islamic State released footage that appeared to show Goto, a journalist, being beheaded.)

The skepticism may have been warranted. On Tuesday, shortly after the video that appeared to show Kaseasbeh's death was circulated, Jordanian state television announced that the pilot had actually been killed a month ago. Unconfirmed reports from activists on social media suggest that Islamic State members were discussing details of the Jordanian pilot's death in mid-January.

If true, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that the Islamic State was been accused of duplicity in hostage negotiations: Experts believe that a video from last month showing Goto and another Japanese hostage was digitally manipulated, and some of the ransom requests made for hostages, in particular the American ones, were so high that analysts couldn't believe they were serious offers.

It's likely that the new video will cause more opposition to negotiations with the Islamic State: Perhaps the group simply can't be trusted.

That may not be the only effect of the new video. Jordan's involvement in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State has been controversial within the country, and the offer of a prisoner swap was a reflection of that -- Kaseasbeh was a member of a large and influential tribe, further heightening tensions. Footage of the exceptionally brutal killing of Kaseasbeh may well harden attitudes toward the Islamic State among Jordanians.

Meanwhile, Rishawi's fate may be sealed: There has been much speculation that she and other extremists on death row would have their executions fast-tracked if Kaseasbeh were killed. Before December, the country had not executed anyone for eight years.

See also: Islamic State video claims to show burning death of Jordanian pilot