AMMAN, Jordan — The Islamic State group captured a Jordanian pilot after shooting down his warplane over Syria, Jordan said Wednesday, in the extremists’ first successful downing of an aircraft from the international coalition waging an air campaign against the extremists.
The show of the extremists’ capabilities underscored the risks for the United States and the multiple Arab and European countries whose warplanes are participating in bombing campaign aimed at pushing back the jihadis’ control across much of Syria and Iraq. It also posed Jordan with a nightmare scenario – its pilot was the first foreign soldier to fall into the extremists’ hands.
It was not immediately known how the fighters shot down the warplane. But the Islamic State group is known to have stocks of 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 down a British Tornado jet, for example. More recently, militants in Chechnya have used them to down Russian helicopters.
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani told The Associated Press that the plane was shot down by “ground fire” but did not elaborate.
Activists monitoring the conflict said Islamic State group fighters shot down the warplane near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
The Raqqa Media Center published a photograph said to be of the pilot – in a white shirt, naked from the waist down and sopping wet – being pulled by gunmen out of what appeared to be a lake. Another picture shows him surrounded by more than a dozen fighters, some of them masked. The center said IS fighters are scouring the area in case there is a second pilot.
The United States and several Arab allies have been striking the Islamic State group in Syria since Sept. 23, and U.S. and other international warplanes have been waging an air campaign against the extremists in Iraq for even longer. The campaign aims to push back the jihadi organization after it took over much of Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate.”
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are participating in the Syria strikes, with Qatari logistical support.
The pilot’s capture raises a nightmare scenario for Jordan, which has been sharply criticized by militant sympathizers for its participation. IS in the past has beheaded dozens of Syrian soldiers it captured in operations around the country. The group has also beheaded three Americans and two Britons.
Moman, the informational minister, vowed that “the war on terrorism will continue,” saying, the fight with the extremists was “to defend the Islamic religion.”
Jordan’s military said in a statement that as its air force was carrying out a military mission against the Islamic State group Wednesday morning, “one of our warplanes crashed,” it said. “The pilot was taken hostage by the Daesh terrorist organization,” it added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
It said IS and “those who support it” will be responsible for the safety of the pilot. It did not give the cause of the crash or identify the type of aircraft.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had confirmation from activists on the ground that the aircraft was shot down, either by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile or by heavy machinegun fire.
The Raqqa Media Center, an agency of activists that operates openly in IS-ruled areas with permission of the group, said the plane was downed near the village of Hamra Ghannam outside Raqqa. It posted photos of militants posing with shards of wreckage. It also posted a photo of the pilot’s military identification card, identifying him as Mu’ath Safi Yousef al-Kaseasbeh.
The group later showed the plane’s glass canopy that was taken to a Raqqa main square where it was placed on the pavement for people to watch.
In Jordan, the pilot’s cousin Marwan al-Kaseasbeh confirmed by telephone with The Associated Press that the photos are of his cousin.
Momani, the information minister, identified al-Kaseasbeh by name saying “he is a symbol of heroism and sacrifice.”
Activists say the Islamic State group is widely known to have Igla missile systems, either captured or bought from rival Syrian rebels, who were provided them by international patrons or bought them on the international market. State arsenals in both Iraq and Syria have been looted, so that could also be a source of Iglas circulating among rebels.
Asaad Kanjo, an activist based in the northwestern province of Idlib, said IS is believed to have acquired the Igla missiles by buying them from mainstream rebel commanders or after some opposition fighters defected and joined the jihadi group.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said they are aware of the claims being made over social media that a pilot has been shot down, but they could not confirm the report at this time. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the reports by name.
Also Wednesday, a suicide bomber infiltrated a group of pro-government Sunni militiamen at a military base south of Baghdad as they gathered to get their paychecks. The bomber detonated his explosives, killing at least 24 militiamen and soldiers and wounding 55 others, police said.
The Sunni militias, known as Sahwa or Awakening Councils, were formed at the height of Iraq’s sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, and allied with U.S. troops against al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State extremist group. They are viewed as traitors by Sunni extremists fighting to overthrow the Shiite-led government.
In another attack, four civilians were killed and seven wounded when a bomb tore through an outdoor market in the town of Youssifiyah, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Baghdad. Both bombings bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group.
Associated Press writer Will Lester contributed to this report from Washington. Mroue reported from Beirut.