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Brutal treatment of prisoners is traditional jihadi tactic, former SEAL says

Dan O'Shea

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: February 5, 2015

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — The burning death of captured Jordanian F-16 pilot Muath Al-Kaseasbeh is a dangerous blend of traditional jihadi brutality with new targets and sophisticated messaging, say local veterans with deep experience in the region.

For Dan O'Shea, a former Navy SEAL living in Tampa, watching the Islamic State video of Al-Kaseasbeh's demise brought back horrific memories of other prisoners meeting a similar fate.

For Jerry Lavely, a retired Air Force pilot living in Pinellas County who flew hundreds of hours of combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan in U-2 spy planes and P-3 Orions, Al-Kaseasbeh's gruesome end brings up concerns about how to train pilots to react in previously unimaginable situations.

"They've been doing this for a decade," said O'Shea of the use of fire to kill. O'Shea was directly involved in hostage situations, having coordinated the interagency Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006, working with the military and organizations like the FBI to help find and rescue those captured.

O'Shea, who watched the 22-minute, slickly produced video of Al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive, said when he was in Iraq in 2004, Islamic State's al-Qaida predecessors often immolated captured prisoners.

In one video he recalled vividly, "they doused captured Iraqi police prisoners with gasoline," said O'Shea. "They had them kneel in front of a trench, which they probably had dug themselves. They pushed the first guy in, light the match, started the trench on fire and push guys in one after the other, where they were all burned alive."

Those prisoners were Iraqi army and police, said O'Shea. Al-Kaseasbeh being torched alive while inside a cage is the first for a captured pilot.

"This is just sort of unchartered territory," said Lavely, who helped pioneer the use of the venerable spy plane for aiding troops under fire. "All of our SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training goes for another nation state capturing you, when the conventional rules follow. My concern is that we continually want to mirror image our adversaries, but we can't mirror image these guys. We don't know what they are going to do."

Another change since he was in Iraq is the level of sophistication of the video released via Islamic State's social media, said O'Shea.

"This is Hollywood-production quality," he said. "Very polished, using high-definition cameras and complex editing."

The burning of Al-Kaseasbeh, 26, is just part of a video that shows the Arab nations and leaders who are cooperating with and participating in Operation Inherent Resolve, the bombing campaign against Islamic State. It also shows the purported damage from those airstrikes and the pilot is held in a location that was hit, said O'Shea. It ends with the names and locations of other Jordanian pilots and an offer of 100 gold dinars for attacks against them.

By releasing the video, the Sunni insurgent group is delivering three messages, said O'Shea.

"One is to the west — one of terror," said O'Shea. "One is to any Arab country that is aligned with the west — that you are also crusaders, more allied with infidels and not the Muslim world. It is also a threatening message to Arab fighter pilots. Do you really want to fly over ISIS territory?"

Though the jihadis have long burned people alive in addition to beheading them, this latest video represents an amping up of their message, said O'Shea, and will likely lead to an escalation of horror.

"The sad part is that ISIS and al-Qaida have to make dramatic attacks like Charlie Hebdo, to continue garnering news headlines and worldwide focus. I would expect more of this macabre theater to drive media attention, drive awareness and supporters to their cause."

Such escalations would be concern to pilots and the combat search and rescue crews who are on standby to rescue them, said Lavely.

"It's never more important than now to have those guys there," Lavely said of the combat search and rescue crews. "It elevates the importance of those individuals and capabilities."

Lavely said that he doesn't know if those crews will be re-evaluating their procedures, but given what Islamic State did to Al-Kaseasbeh, it adds another level of urgency to getting to pilots who have crashed.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the region, would not comment on what, if any changes are in the works for getting to downed pilots.

"We continue to enhance our capabilities within the region, including those associated with personnel recovery," said Army Maj. Curt Kellogg, a Centcom spokesman. "However, we do not discuss specifics on the locations and numbers of personnel recovery forces or the procedures they follow."

The timing of the video release, several weeks after Al-Kaseasbeh was actually killed, is also important to consider when decoding the Islamic State messages, said O'Shea.

In addition to being released while Jordan's King Abdullah II was visiting the U.S., forcing him to return home early, O'Shea said the timing also seems to add credence to an earlier analysis by the AP that Islamic State pops out these horrific videos to counter battlefield losses.

A few days after being pushed out of the Syrian town of Kobane, the jihadi group released the video of the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, the second of two Japanese hostages killed by the group. Shortly before the Al-Kaseasbeh video was released, Islamic State fighters had recently been beaten back by Kurdish forces, who recaptured eight bridges near the town of Kirkuk, according to Centcom.

"While ISIL still has the ability to conduct small-scale operations, their capacity to do so is degraded and their momentum is stalling," said Marine Maj. Andrew Aranda, a Centcom spokesman, in a media release issued after the immolation video was posted. "The increasing tenacity of anti-ISIL forces along with coalition airstrikes has degraded ISIL's ability to command and control forces; recruit, train and retain fighters, produce revenue from oil sales, and maintain morale."

Though the website Long Wars Journal reports that Islamic State has also made gains in Anbar province, O'Shea said that the jihadis are using messaging to mask setbacks.

"They are fighting fire with fire," said O'Shea of the Islamic State videos. "They are trying to dispel any perception they are being defeated. They want to counter that and that's very much what they are using the video propaganda for."

haltman@tampatrib.com

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