Muslim outrage grows against Islamic State but questions linger over next steps in fight

Baghdad — Declarations of outrage swept the Middle East on Wednesday as a region already steeled to the brutality of the Islamic State expressed horror at the group’s killing of a Jordanian pilot by setting him on fire.

The region’s leaders have denounced the militant group on many occasions in the past, but the spectacle of an Arab pilot being burned alive in a cage triggered some of the harshest reactions yet.

Images of the grisly killing of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh were broadcast on TV channels around the region, and the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat headlined its coverage with a single word: “Barbarity.”

“This killing really strikes at home for audiences across the region. Most of the people executed by [the Islamic State] have been foreigners, but this time it was an Arab Muslim man,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst based in the Jordanian capital, Amman. “That has had a bigger impact on people.”

Despite the condemnations, however, this latest atrocity is unlikely to sway many opinions in the already polarized region, said Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on the group who advises the Iraqi government.

The video of the burning follows a series of battlefield setbacks for the Islamic State, including defeats in the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobane and in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala.

The video released Tuesday has shifted attention away from those reverses and back to the group’s uncompromising tactics, which may horrify the public but have become the Islamic State’s chief rallying call among extremists, Hashimi said.

“The Islamic State has gained more from this than it has lost,” he said.

The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, justified its method of executing Kaseasbeh by saying the immolation matched what he had done in “burning Muslims with the fire of his plane,” according to a statement posted on one of the group’s media forums and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant forums online. Kaseasbeh had flown missions as part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State broadcast video of the pilot’s death on giant video screens and filmed the reactions of the crowds who gathered to watch. One photograph posted on Twitter accounts showed a young boy’s face caught between horror and joy as he watched the burning. Crowds shouted “God is Great” as Kaseasbeh writhed in agony in his cage.

Religious leaders and clerics rushed to assert that there was no basis in Islam for such a punishment.

In Cairo, the head of Sunni Islam’s most respected center of learning, al-Azhar, said the Islamic State militants merit punishments under Islamic law such as “killing, crucifixion or chopping of the limbs.”

“Islam prohibits the taking of an innocent life,” said the al-Azhar grand sheik, Ahmed al-Tayeb.

Iyad Madani, secretary general of the largest Muslim political bloc, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, condemned the killing as an affront to Islam.

The Islamic State “utterly disregards the rights of prisoners Islam has decreed, as well as the human moral standards for war and treatment of prisoners,” Madani said.

He also lamented the “depth of malaise” in parts of the Middle East, along with the “intellectual decay, the political fragmentation and the abuse of Islam, the great religion of mercy.”

The United States’ Arab allies also issued statements denouncing the act. Kuwait’s emir, Sheik Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, said the “vicious” killing trampled on the values of Islam. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry called it “a criminal act contravening the tolerant principles of the Islamic faith, human values and international laws and norms.”

Saudi Arabia condemned the “brutal, heinous crime” and urged the international community to redouble its efforts to fight terrorism. The official Saudi Press Agency asserted Riyadh’s determination “to move forward in the fight against this misguided thought and all extremist organizations that support it.”

Kaseasbeh’s capture had already sown doubt among some members of the international coalition assembled by the United States to fight the Islamic State.

A report in the New York Times said the United Arab Emirates suspended its participation after Kaseasbeh’s capture in late December because it felt the U.S. military had not made plans to rescue pilots who were shot down.

A senior U.S. defense official disputed that view Wednesday, saying that “combat search and rescue assets were available and were dispatched immediately” after the Jordanian’s F-16 went down and that such contingencies are always factored in when airstrikes are planned.

“They got as quickly as possible to the last known location” of the pilot, the official said. “When they got to the location, he wasn’t there. He had been picked up very quickly, almost immediately after the crash.”

U.A.E. officials are “quibbling over the speed with which the response happened,” the defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This is a vast area. They were available; they were dispatched. . . . We don’t fly missions without thinking through having search and rescue available as quickly as possible.”

Another U.S. official said that although U.A.E. planes stopped flying in December, the country is still participating in all other aspects of the operation against the Islamic State. In any case, U.A.E. participation in airstrikes in Syria was limited: of 1,022 such coalition strikes to date, U.S. aircraft carried out 943 and other coalition partners accounted for the remaining 79.

The second official said there has been no other change to Arab government participation since the Jordanian pilot was captured. “The Jordanians are infuriated by what happened to their pilot, and they’re going to do something about it,” said the official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general, said in Beirut that the killing would be more likely to rally Arab states behind the campaign against the Islamic State than to deter them.

“This is a challenge for them, and if they pull out, they will be seen as weak and having lost to ISIS,” he said. “We’re probably going to see an intensification of fighting against ISIS by the coalition because of this killing.”

It could also potentially tilt public opinion, he said — but in what direction isn’t clear.

“We’re at a turning point now in terms of public perceptions of ISIS,” he said. “But the question now is, will ISIS continue to be seen as religious-national heroes among these supporters, or will they be seen as brutal criminals?”