Islamic State terrorists captured a Jordanian pilot after his warplane crashed in Syria while carrying out airstrikes Wednesday, making him the first foreign military member to fall into the extremists’ hands since an international coalition launched its bombing campaign against the group months ago.
Images of the pilot being pulled out of a lake and hustled away by masked jihadis underscored the risks for the U.S. and its Arab and European allies in the air campaign.
The capture — and the potential hostage situation — presented a nightmare scenario for Jordan, which vowed to continue its fight against the group that has overrun large parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded foreign captives.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but the U.S. military insisted the plane was not shot down. “Evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organization is claiming,” Central Command said in a statement.
A coalition official, who was not authorized to discuss the episode publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the pilot was in an F-16 fighter and was able to eject.
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani earlier told the AP that the plane was believed to have been shot down.
“It is our expectation that the plane went down because of fire from the ground, but it is difficult to confirm that, with the little information we have,” he said.
The Islamic State group is known to have Russian-made Igla anti-aircraft missiles. The shoulder-fired weapon has long been in the Syrian and Iraqi government arsenals; it was used during the 1991 Gulf War by Iraqi forces to bring down a British Tornado jet, for example.
The warplane went down near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital.
Images showed the pilot — in a white shirt and sopping wet — being pulled by gunmen out of what appeared to be a lake. Another picture showed him surrounded by more than a dozen fighters, some of them masked. The images were published by the Raqqa Media Center, a monitoring group that operates in areas under the extremists’ rule with the group’s consent.
The plane’s glass canopy was taken by IS and put on display in the main square of Raqqa, according to the media center.
Jordan identified the pilot as 1st Lt. Mu’ath Safi al-Kaseasbeh. His cousin Marwan al-Kaseasbeh confirmed to the AP that the photos were of Mu’ath.
Apparently seeking to blunt criticism of the country’s participation in the air campaign, Jordanian media published reports of al-Kaseasbeh’s family expressing support for Jordan’s King Abdullah.