What’s behind Islamic State’s prisoner swap demand?

The Jordanian government said it would release a female Iraqi suicide bomber who had been sentenced to death, in exchange for a pilot captured by the Islamic State in December. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss why Jordan appears to be negotiating with the terror group.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A potential exchange of prisoners may be in the works between Jordan and the Islamic State group. Officials in Amman announced their willingness today to deviate from a longstanding policy against negotiating with terror groups.

    The Jordanian government issued its statement on state television, saying it's willing to meet Islamic State demands to win the release of a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh. He was captured in December, after his jet crashed in Northeastern Syria during a bombing mission against Islamic State forces. Supporters of the pilot rallied outside the royal palace in Amman this evening, as his brother pressed for action.

    JAWAD AL-KASEASBEH, Brother of Jordanian pilot (through interpreter): We have been waiting for 35 days to get a statement or a decision from the Jordanian government in Muath's case. We have been waiting for any word from the Jordanian government.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Jordanian government said nothing today about a Japanese hostage, journalist Kenji Goto. He spoke in an Islamic State message yesterday.

  • KENJI GOTO, ISIS Hostage:

    I only have 24 hours left to live, and the pilot has even less.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The message again demanded that Jordan release an Iraqi woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, who was sentenced to death for a 2005 suicide attack. Jordanian officials said today she will be freed if the militants free the pilot.

    Meanwhile, in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced mounting pressure to save Goto, after the militants beheaded another Japanese hostage over the weekend. Abe spoke at an emergency cabinet meeting today.~

  • SHINZO ABE, Prime Minister, Japan (through interpreter):

    This was an extremely despicable act, and we feel strong indignation. While this is a tough situation, our policy remains unchanged in seeking cooperation from the Jordanian government for the early release of Mr. Goto.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kenji Goto's mother issued her own statement today, urging the prime minister to save her son's life.

    There was still no word this evening on whether the Islamic State accepted Jordan's offer, or on the fate of either hostage.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins us now with more on the shifting winds.

    Margaret, last week, we were talking about money. They were asking for money in order to spare these hostages' lives, two Japanese hostages. This week, we're talking about prisoner swaps.

    What changed?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, no one knows for sure, Gwen, why I.S. changed its demands.

    But the belief among both Jordanian and U.S. officials is that they wanted to cause serious political problems for King Abdullah of Jordan. They know and they read Jordanian politics accurately that the war against I.S., or the anti-I.S. coalition that Jordan has joined that the U.S. leads is really unpopular in Jordan. Many agree with the pilot's father, who wrote a letter to the king and has been part of these protests, saying this isn't our war. We send our sons to fight to defend Jordan, not to fight outside our borders.

    And so the king has a very delicate balancing act anyway, ruling with all these different tribes and ethnicities. And if you have got trouble with the Sunni tribes, he's got trouble.

    The second, officials believe, was to cause rifts within the anti-I.S. coalition, which has adopted this no-dealing-for-hostages policy, but in fact Japan and Jordan want to in this case.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Even though we don't see that Japan is involved in this proposed swap?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No, though the — yes, the Jordanian foreign minister did late today in an overseas interview that — he implied that Goto was part of the swap.

    What we don't know is, has Japan decided to also privately pay some money, which the British, certainly, foreign secretary leaned on the Japanese last week in London not to, because that just gives I.S. money they want, they need.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There seems to be pressure happening on a couple of different levels here, one at the King Abdullah level. We were talking about kind of the international politics, but also at the domestic level, at the street level. There's a lot of pressure for him to act.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Oh, absolutely.

    I mean, once the fate in that video you just showed of the pilot and the Japanese hostage were brought together, the king — and this pilot's become a national hero. It's a lot like Shalit in Israel.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So he had no choice but to show he was doing absolutely everything he could to save the life this national hero. He wasn't going to trade this would-be suicide bomber…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do we know if there's been any proof of life of…pilot is still alive?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No.

    And that was one thing I was going to mention, Gwen. We do know that negotiations are still going on, but it's hour by hour. And early today, it was much more optimistic in Amman. By late today, officials were saying, not only have he heard nothing, but, as the king tweeted out, we have asked for proof of life, and we have heard nothing back.

    So there is some concern that the pilot may be dead.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And there's also some concern that ISIS, as we have discussed before, you and I, are so hard to figure. It's not like it's a government, a state actor who you can know who to go to, to get a response.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No. No.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. So there is the U.S. in all of this. The U.S. says, we don't do these deals. We don't encourage our allies to do these deals.

    Do they just sit on their hands and let Jordan do Jordan has to do?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It's very interesting. They have said publicly.

    There has been no repetition of, we don't deal for hostages. It's: We have our own position. Every country should make its own position.

    The U.S. officials do see a difference between a prisoner swap, which actually the U.S. engages in too — look at Bergdahl, the soldier in Afghanistan — and paying cash for civilian hostages. But the main point here is, Gwen, Jordan is so key to this anti-ISIS coalition. They provide training, space for training. They provide political cover for the U.S. as a non-Gulf Arab state.

    And to have the — have Abdullah weaken and have the coalition's commitment — or, rather, his commitment to the coalition going all wobbly, that would be a disaster. And one former Obama administration official said to me, I cannot believe they would try to second-guess the king on this.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    About so much more than even just these two lives.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Oh, yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Margaret Warner, thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    My pleasure.

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