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Killing Jordanian Pilot May Backfire Against Islamic State Militants

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Condemnation from that hard-line cleric in Jordan makes you wonder if ISIS will face consequences after carrying out such a gruesome killing. ISIS has captured world attention by beheading journalists and aid workers. And their viciousness appears to have helped them recruit new fighters. But the group's decision to burn the Jordanian pilot might have crossed a line. They could end up losing what little support they've had in the Muslim world. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The Islamic State's hostage strategy isn't really about ransoms, though it has collected tens of millions of dollars by kidnapping people. The real focus is on recruitment, on getting new foreign fighters to show up in Syria and Iraq.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Their strategy I think is to use hostages to underscore their presentation of themselves as the most brutal, the most vicious group around.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Daniel Benjamin is a professor at Dartmouth and former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

BENJAMIN: We saw, on the recruitment side of the balance, it seems to be working for them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Both U.S. and independent estimates say that ISIS is getting about thousand new foreign fighters every month. Benjamin says where the group may have miscalculated is in how their bloodthirsty tactics play in the Arab street. Burning a pilot to death on camera makes it difficult for citizens to remain ambivalent.

BENJAMIN: I think that by and large, this will repel fence sitters and make them want to take the fight to ISIS.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And he's not the only one to think so.

BRUCE RIEDEL: I think this act of savagery is likely to be seen as a tipping point.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Riedel is the head of the intelligence project at the Brookings Institution and spent three decades at the CIA. He says ISIS could see a backlash like the one against al-Qaida 10 years ago.

RIEDEL: Al-Qaida in Iraq blew up several hotels in Amman, Jordan, in the midst of wedding celebrations. That produced a revulsion against al-Qaida in Iraq and a real blowback against the movement throughout Jordanian society. I think we're going to see the same thing here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Just last week, the Islamic State had asked Jordanian authorities to release a woman who had been involved in those 2005 hotel attacks. That woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, stood in a wedding hall in Amman and pulled the cord on her suicide vest. But it failed to go off. Jordan agreed to trade her for their pilot but demanded ISIS prove he was still alive before releasing her. Riedel says there was a reason Jordan was so insistent about that.

RIEDEL: I suspect the Jordanians and the U.S. government was aware that he was dead - maybe not all the particulars, maybe not with the degree of savagery that we now know. But I suspect the Jordanian government has known for some time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which means that ISIS was engaged in a public negotiation for a hostage that it had already killed.

BENJAMIN: There's a primitiveness to all this that is kind of staggering.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Dartmouth's Daniel Benjamin.

BENJAMIN: It's just a part of the nature of these groups to overstep their boundaries and overstay their welcome. I believe that this will ultimately come back to hurt them in a significant way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.

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