MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The small Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan has long been a loyal ally of the United States. President Obama speaks effusively about his friendship with King Abdullah. He's a key Arab ally in the U.S.-led coalition against the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, but Jordan is now focused on the fate of the Jordanian pilot recently captured in Syria. NPR's Alice Fordham spoke with his relatives, whose statements questioning the pilot's mission are ringing through the kingdom.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Talk of Moath al-Kasasbeh, the pilot captured by ISIS on Christmas Eve after his plane crashed in Syria, dominates the media in Jordan - a rare Middle Eastern country accustomed to stability and peace.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Moath al-Kasasbeh (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: On the radio, hosts pledge their support. Little is known of the pilot's fate since the extremists tweeted pictures of him, bloody and bewildered, after the crash. The radio hosts wish that he come safely home. That home is here, nestled in hilly, tribal heartland two hours south of the capital, Amman.
SAAFIA AL-KASASBEH: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: On a bleak, windy day with snow flurrying around the olive trees, the pilot's parents welcome me in the mountain village of Aie. His father, Safi, is a sheikh of the Kasasbeh tribe, a retired education professor. His mother, Saafia, is a retired teacher. Their elegant parlor is stiff and formal, and it's so cold we all keep our coats on as they tell me about their son.
SAAFIA AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Of course, I'm proud of my son for being a member of the Jordanian Royal Air Force, but I'm very pained about the incident.
FORDHAM: The 26-year-old was married five months ago. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca with his parents. News of the downed plane came like a thunderbolt, says his father.
SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) I was very, very panicked and very, very sad. I was on the verge of a breakdown.
FORDHAM: And not just shocked - angry.
SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Yes, I'm proud that my sons are serving in the armed forces in order to defend the homeland, but only to defend the homeland.
FORDHAM: He says there's no way his son should have been bombing Syria in the first place. Jordan has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. and its economy depends on American aid. So, he reckons, that's why Jordan's in the coalition, but he says he hated it from the outset.
SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) I wasn't OK with it at all and all Jordanians strongly condemn our participation in the coalition.
FORDHAM: A big part of his problem is that the airstrikes are striking Sunni Muslims like them. These people are our sons, our brothers he says.
SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Our army is for defending Jordan. It's not supposed to spread throughout the world like American forces.
FORDHAM: Back in the capital, Amman, I meet the pilot's brother Jawad.
J. AL-KASASBEH: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: He himself was in the Jordanian Air Force and served in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan where he says he too was confused about why Jordan was battling fellow Muslims. He and the other relatives speak carefully. They know the people holding Moath could be hearing them. They don't even know if he's still alive. But analysts say these doubts coming so publicly from loyalists to the King and the armed forces present a problem for the country's leader as he tries to satisfy internal opinion and his U.S. allies - a problem which will get much bigger if ISIS fulfill their threats to kill the pilot. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Amman.
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