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Woman Held By Jordan Has Close Ties To Islamic State


A deadline has passed today and still no word on the fate of two hostages held by the group that calls itself the Islamic State. The group has indicated that it would spare the life of a Jordanian pilot if Jordan released a woman in its custody. At the same time, another country, Japan, is trying to determine how this negotiation will affect the life of one of its citizens. At the center of all this is that women being held by Jordan. Her name is Sajida al-Rishawi, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that she has close ties with the founding members of the so-called Islamic State.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Sajida al-Rishawi is best known for taking a belt loaded with explosives and ball bearings into a luxury hotel in the capital of Jordan.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: She was part of a husband and wife suicide bombing team.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: Together with a third man, in November 2005, attacked three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But when al-Rishawi pulled the cord to detonate her suicide belt, it malfunctioned. She ran from the hotel with the crowds that fled the attack and was arrested in Jordan a short time later. She's been in prison ever since. The so-called Islamic State demanded her release because she has long-standing ties to the group. The group that ordered those hotel bombings was al-Qaida in Iraq, and a top lieutenant there was none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of today's ISIS. So in a way, this woman is a natural candidate for a high-level prisoner swap. Again, Georgetown's Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: I'm not surprised that they're demanding it, and I'm not surprised either that the Jordanians are willing to trade her.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Not surprised because pilots are elite members of the Jordanian military. And Jordan has swapped terrorists for hostages before. Last year, Jordan returned a Libyan terrorist in exchange for the Jordanian ambassador to Libya, who had been taken captive.

HOFFMAN: For the Jordanians, I think getting back this Jordanian pilot has become very important to them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Prisoner exchanges are not uncommon. Amos Guiora served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and as part of his responsibilities, he helped broker lots of prisoner exchanges. Guiora is also a law professor at the University of Utah, and he said the Israeli government feels a moral and legal obligation to do whatever it takes to get its soldiers back because they were drafted.

AMOS GUIORA: If the state drafts the soldier then the state is obligated to do everything it can to return the soldier - the kidnapped soldier.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's why, he says, you've seen prisoner exchange after prisoner exchange. The most controversial was the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for just one Israeli.

GUIORA: The argument is always going to be made that there's the possibility that if you release a thousand prisoners that you're going to do nothing more than lead or directly contribute to future acts terrorism in the context of recidivism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the risk with ISIS if it gets Sajida al-Rishawi back. For Guiora, the risk is outweighed by a state's obligations to its soldiers, and that applies, he says, in Israel, but also to the situation in Jordan. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.