ISIL hated Moaz al-Kassasbeh because air strikes work

What Jordanian pilot’s slaying really showed was how scared ISIL is of their enemies in the sky.

Moaz al-Kasasbeh
The air campaign has had a dramatic impact on the fortunes of ISIL, writes Cuss [Getty]

Aircrews have long feared capture, more than other combatants. Beatings, even lynchings, have occurred at the hands of civilian populations who have impotently suffered the horror of bombing raids. The immolation of the Jordanian air force pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, set as it was among the supposed ruins of a raid, was meant to mirror this suffering. 

A veneer of legitimacy was even sought from the Quran: “And if you punish [an enemy, O believers] punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed.”

Yet, what the execution really highlighted, apart from ISIL’s utter barbarity, was its impotence to counter the coalition’s airpower and the particular enmity they hold towards Jordan – a monarchical state that stands against their supposed “caliphate”.

Driving the air campaign

The air campaign, which started in August last year, has had a dramatic impact on the fortunes of ISIL. It has stopped their advances in their tracks and bought the Iraqi army breathing space in which to regroup and retrain.

ISIL’s new tactics

Figures available for up until the end of 2014 show that since the campaign started, there have been 6,981 sorties which led to 5,886 weapon systems being dropped. Notably the levels of attacks increased as the year progressed, rising from 760 in September to 1,867 in December. The missions were conducted by 12 countries including four from the Middle East.

While air strikes alone cannot win a campaign, they can prevent its loss as was seen in Libya in 2011. Although the NATO air campaign was not sufficient to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi, it blunted his advance and ultimately thwarted his defence against the oncoming rebel ground forces.

The same is now being proven true with ISIL. Despite isolated tactical successes, they have suffered strategic setbacks notably around Baiji and Kobane.

After their retreat from Kobane, ISIL combatants said that the bombings were the reason for their withdrawal. In a recent video one fighter says: “It was fated for us to retreat from Ayn al-Islam [Kobane] bit by bit, because of the bombardment and because some of the brothers were killed.”

Another added: “They flattened the land with their rockets, so we were forced to retreat,” continuing that aircraft, “bombarded day and night”.

Psychological impacts

Similarly, the air campaign will have had a psychological impact across all ISIL’s rank and file. The constant attrition reveals how perilously exposed they are outside urban areas, and the flow of texts to families in Europe announcing the martyrdom of their relatives recently killed will have helped slow the flow of recruits. 

Not only is Jordan a participant in these air strikes but there might be an additional reason that contributed to the manner of Kassasbeh’s death; the unique enmity ISIL has towards Jordan.

The air campaign will have had a psychological impact across all ISIL's rank and file. The constant attrition reveals how perilously exposed they are outside urban areas, and the flow of texts to families in Europe announcing the martyrdom of their relative recently killed will have helped slow the flow of recruits.


When ISIL announced the foundation of the caliphate, following their capture of Mosul, and renamed themselves the Islamic State, it confirmed an intent to expand beyond the borders of Iraq and the Levant. Not only has the contribution of Jordan to the air campaign helped thwart this advance but the nature of the Hashemite kingdom represents everything ISIL claims to reject. 

Jordan, much like Iraq, was born out of the aftermath of the Arab Revolt during World War I. While its figurehead T E Lawrence had wanted the region to secure outright independence the resulting amalgam included the British protectorate of Transjordan with Abdullah as its emir.

When Jordan finally secured its independence in 1946, Abdullah became king and his descendants have ruled it ever since.

In contrast, while Iraq was founded in similar circumstances with Abdullah’s brother Faisal on the throne, his descendants would be gunned down in a coup d’etat in 1958 that set the conditions for the emergence of Saddam Hussein.

A struggle to retain balance

With such a striking example of the perils of government, Jordan’s rulers have struggled to maintain a balance between placating its liberal urban elite – and their western allies – with a sizable proportion that remains more conservative and insular leaning. Inevitably it is a policy that leads to accusations of hypocrisy and chicanery from all sides.

One extreme opponent of the government was the radical Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who, after spending time in both Afghanistan in the late 1980s and then a Jordanian prison, would ultimately become leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

It was under his leadership that AQI would claim responsibility for the bombings of Shia shrines in Karbala and Baghdad as well as numerous other car bombings and atrocities. It was also during this period that he was accused of responsibility for three hotel bombings in Amman that killed more than 60 people. An accusation that led to the Jordanian authorities collaborating with US intelligence services in Iraq and Zarqawi’s resulting death in an air strike less than a year later.

Therefore, not only does ISIL see Jordan as a colonial legacy whose monarchy stands in contradiction to their Islamist principles, but they also hold it responsible for a role in the death of a man many in ISIL would recognise as their founder.

Jordan’s position is unenviable. There are many Jordanians who have no wish to be involved in what they see as an “American war” yet the country genuinely faces a real enemy that seeks its destruction.

Kassasbeh was involved in that fight. While there are no positives to be drawn from the manner of his death, its brutality highlights the impact of his mission and hence a way out of this morass: more air strikes.

Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East.  He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.