Militants belonging to the Islamic State reportedly shot down a Jordanian F-16 jet fighter and captured its pilot near the Syrian city of Raqqah, raising fears that American and other coalition jets bombing the group’s locations could be just as equally vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.
The downing of a coalition jet fighter would be a first for the militant group that was suspected to have captured some anti-aircraft missiles when it overran Iraqi military bases in June and established control over the country’s Anbar province. American officials have long known that the group had tanks, armored Humvees, and heavy armaments. The group has shot down three Iraqi helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles but warplanes that fly at higher altitudes have seemed to be beyond the group’s reach, until now.
The loss of an Arab nation’s plane and the capture of its pilot potentially could further raise tensions within the 40 nation, U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. Most Arab partners in the alliances that includes regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan have been reluctant to publicly detail their role in the military operations against the Islamic State because of fears reprisal attacks within their own countries.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website that the Islamic State had shot down a warplane with anti-aircraft missiles and captured an Arab national. In a statement on Petra, Jordan’s state-run news service, the Jordanian military confirmed that one of its pilots was in militant hands but declined to specify whether its plane had been shot down or crashed for other reasons. “The pilot was taken hostage by the terrorist organization,” an unnamed Jordanian official told the news service, according to media reports from the region.
Supporters of the Islamic State posted pictures on their Twitter accounts of the captured pilot as well as an identification card that gave his name and rank as First Lt. Moaz Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, the New York Times reported. The newspaper, citing Jordanian news outlets, said Jordanian officials had spoken to the pilot’s family and said the country’s military was working to ensure his safe return. Given the Islamic State’s practice of beheading journalists and aid workers, it seems highly unlikely that the pilot would make it out of their hands alive.
Neither Jordanian sources nor officials at the U.S. Central Command’s Combined Joint Task Force would confirm that the plane — a Jordanian F-16 jet — was shot down because the crash was still being investigated. It remains possible that the plane had mechanical difficulties.
The U.S. military has not ordered any change to how its pilots operate in the region because it’s too soon after the Jordanian plane crash, said Gary Boucher, a spokesman for the task force based in Southwest Asia.
“The cause of the crash has yet to be determined and it would be very early to change anything without knowing what caused the crash,” Boucher said. “We are taking the exact same precautions that we have always taken. There’s no plan or contemplation to change the operation itself and no I don’t think it has affected how we operate.”
The U.S.-led coalition has carried out about 1,300 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, the top U.S. commander overseeing the coalition efforts said at a Dec. 18 Pentagon news conference. The strikes have slowed down the group’s advances within Iraq, he said.
The U.S.-led coalition is also helping the Iraqi army mount a counteroffensive against the militant group’s strongholds in the city of Mosul and the province of Nineveh early in 2015, even as countries in the region try to figure out how to dislodge the Islamic State from Syria.
Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.