Analysts: Who is Sajida al-Rishawi?

Why did ISIS drop its demand for $200 million in ransom, and instead seek the release of a female terrorist in Jordanian custody?

Yaakov Levi ,

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

After executing Haruna Yukawa, one of its two Japanese prisoners, after Tokyo failed to pay a $200 million ransom, the Islamic State ISIS terrorists who are holding a second Japanese citizen, Kenji Goto, as hostage, have changed their demands: Instead of money, they are demanding that Jordan release prisoners it is holding – specifically Sajida al-Rishawi, who in November 2005 participated in a terror campaign that killed at least 57 people in Jordan. 

According to analysts, the reason ISIS is demanding her specifically is because she may be a relative of none other than ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself.

Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death by hanging by a Jordanian military court on September 21, 2006. An appeal against the sentence was dismissed in 2007, but she filed a second appeal in 2010. That case is still ongoing, sources in Jordan said.

In a video released over the weekend, the voice of Goto is heard, and a still photo of him is seen holding Yukawa's body. Goto is heard to say that Japanese leader Shinzo Abe is “responsible” for Yukawa's death, because “you were given a deadline” and missed it.

But Japan could still save his life, Goto said – and if Tokyo was reluctant to pay a ransom to a terror group, he said, “they no longer want money, so you don't need to worry about funding terrorists. They are just demanding the release of their imprisoned sister Sajida al-Rishawi.”

Analysts scrambled to figure out who al-Rishawi was and what made her unique enough to ISIS that the group would demand her release over that of many other Islamist terrorists held in Jordan and elsewhere. According to analysts interviewed by CNN, al-Rishawi is the sister of a top deputy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the former leader of ISIS's previous incarnation, Al Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in a US strike in 2006, according to then Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher.

Lt. Col. James Reese, a former U.S. Delta Force commander, noted that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was a a lieutenant of al-Zarqawi. In any event, he told CNN, it is clear that there are close ties between al-Rishawi and the ISIS leadership.

"There's a link back to this woman," Reese said of the Islamic State's demands. "This is just another way to help them (ISIS) bring these people back and help with their propaganda,” he added.