AMMAN, JORDAN — As Japan reels from the apparent beheading of a second citizen by ISIS, another country half a world away is holding its breath.
With the purported beheading of journalist Kenji Goto — just days after ISIS murdered another Japanese citizen — Tokyo has been dragged squarely into a conflict it has long sought distance from. Goto's image is everywhere and Japan's bleary-eyed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed the country will "never, never forgive" the terrorists who took him.
But while the world's attention focused on the fate of two Japanese hostages — and collectively expressed outrage over their murders — ISIS has threatened to kill another captive whose fate has much greater significance in the battle for control of large swathes of the Middle East.
Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al Kasasbeh was on a bombing run over Syria in December when he was forced to eject and immediately captured by ISIS fighters. His continued captivity — and ISIS threats to murder him — are a national trauma for Jordan.
Kasasbeh's case underscores how ISIS has Jordan in its crosshairs. The terror group loathes the moderate Muslim regime and its king, viewing Jordan as a treacherous country for its decades-long alliance with the United States. ISIS is at Jordan's border and wants nothing more than to destabilize the country and ultimately make it part of its 'caliphate.'
While ISIS has demanded the release of a female al-Qaeda member imprisoned in Jordan in exchange for the pilot's life, the negotiations are nothing more than a ploy. Rishawi — an illiterate Iraqi who strapped on a suicide vest and went with her husband to bomb a wedding hotel in Jordan's capital in 2005 — was never part of ISIS. She and her family members were al Qaeda — and it is important to note that al Qaeda and ISIS are most certainly not allies.
The true value of Rishawi, then, appears to be that of a bargaining chip. ISIS is bargaining for al Rishawi as a tactic to undermine Jordan; to turn its people against the government and to foment unrest against Jordan's participation in the war on ISIS.
In part, it appears to be working. Jordan, to the consternation of many of its allies, says it is willing to swap the imprisoned suicide bomber for its pilot. It reiterated the offer on Sunday, hours after a video emerged purporting to show the beheading of Japan's Goto.
There has been little evidence ISIS is interested in a deal or in the Iraqi woman. After initially issuing messages regarding both Goto and the pilot, the latest dispatches from ISIS — including the latest apparent beheading — have not mentioned the Jordanian.
The Kasasbeh family has told news agencies they want their government to be more open with them about the negotiations for their captive relative. "Tell us the truth" urged his uncle.
The pilot's older brother told NBC News the family is in pain and fears for his brother's life. As the family gathers each day at an Amman community center to keep vigil, pray and worry, Jordan's government is grappling with a lose-lose situation. It fears a backlash from its own people if it fails to save Kasasbeh, but also knows it is being manipulated by a terror group.
ISIS holds the hostages and, it seems, all the cards. For now, Jordan is monitoring the internet and jihadi sites with dread. The life of their pilot hangs in the balance — so too does the unity of the fragile country.