AMMAN, Jordan — A young Jordanian fighter pilot, a female al-Qaida recruit who tried to blow up a hotel ballroom in Amman and a veteran Japanese war correspondent are at the center of a life-and-death standoff with the Islamic State group.
The militants, who hold the pilot and the journalist, have purportedly threatened to kill the airman at sundown Thursday, Iraq time, if the would-be suicide bomber is not released from death row in Jordan. Here is a look at the three.
Sajida al-Rishawi has close family ties to the Iraqi branch of the al-Qaida terror network that became the forerunner of the Islamic State group. Still, she never explained why she strapped an explosives belt to her waist and, along with her husband, who also wore a bomb, walked into the luxury Radisson hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Nov. 9, 2005. Her husband set off his bomb, ripping through a wedding party with 300 guests in the ballroom, but al-Rishawi’s explosives failed to go off.
The bombing was one of three near-simultaneous attacks on Amman hotels on that day and killed 60 people in Jordan’s worst ever terror attack. The Iraq branch of al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
Al-Rishawi fled, but was arrested four days later at a safe house. In a three-minute confession broadcast on Jordan TV shortly after her arrest, she appeared anxious, but offered no motive and suggested she was simply following her husband’s lead. She said he had brought her to Jordan and told her what to do.
In the TV appearance, she opened her dark body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosives belts, one with RDX and the other with ball-bearings. “My husband detonated (his bomb) and I tried to explode (mine) but it wouldn’t,” she said at the time. “People fled running and I left running with them.”
Al-Rishawi later recanted, saying she was an unwilling participant.
A military court sentenced her to death by hanging. Her appeal was rejected and judges ruled she was “guilty beyond doubt.” She is the first woman sentenced to death in Jordan on terrorism charges.
The 44-year-old is from the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province. One of her brothers was a lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late al-Qaida chief whose followers form the core of the Islamic State group. Both men were killed in Iraq fighting a decade ago.
Kenji Goto is not a thrill seeker, his friends and relatives say. He has been covering wars because he is committed to social justice and wants to tell the world about the suffering of people in conflict zones.
The 47-year-old set up his own video news company, Independent Press in 1996, mainly covering refugees, children and poverty in war-torn countries. He has contributed reports to major Japanese networks and has worked with U.N. organizations and non-profit groups. He has also written books about children in conflict zones and lectured at Japanese schools.
In late October, just two weeks after his wife gave birth to their child, Goto left for Syria to try to rescue his assistant, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, who had been captured by Islamic State militants. Goto was also seized by the militants, with his Twitter feed ending Oct. 23.
Yukawa has reportedly been killed by his captors.
Goto, who speaks fluent English, seems to have been a mentor to Yukawa, a weapons geek who wanted to set up a private security service despite having few language skills and scant experience. Goto rescued Yukawa from an anti-government militant group in Syria early last year, and since then the two had traveled together in Syria a few times before the younger man was taken hostage last summer.
Goto’s mother has made tearful appeals for his release.
Since childhood, Muath al-Kaseasbeh had dreamed of becoming a pilot, but in recent months refused to share his feelings about Jordan’s bombing missions against Islamic State militants, his family says.
Jordan’s participation in the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State group is unpopular in the pilot’s home village of Ay and the nearby provincial town of Karak, said his brother, Jawdat. “People here believe our boys shouldn’t fight outside the country,” he said. “They should fight only in defending the soil of the country.”
Al-Kaseasbeh, 26, is one of eight siblings, four boys and four girls. After high school, he attended flight college. In 2009, after graduation, he joined the military and began flying F-16s and other warplanes, earning the rank of lieutenant.
“Since his childhood, he wanted to be a pilot,” Jawdat, 30, said of his brother.
Al-Kaseasbeh got married last year to a woman from a nearby village, a university graduate, and the young couple moved to Karak. Jawdat said his brother is a devout Muslim and had joined his parents on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The pilot’s F-16 went down over northern Syria in December, near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, and he ejected. Militants pulled him out of the Euphrates River.
He became the first foreign military pilot to fall into the extremists’ hands since the international coalition began its air strikes in September, making him a valuable bargaining chip.
Jordan has offered to swap Rishawi for al-Kaseasbeh, a sign of its desperation to win his freedom, even though this could set a precedent for dealings with Islamic State hostage-takers and could encourage more kidnappings.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.