Jordanians protesting for prisoner swap
Jordanians protesting for prisoner swap Reuters

Failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, thrust into the spotlight by the demand by Islamic State (ISIS) that she be released in a prisoner exchange, is an important symbol for the jihadists, experts told AFP.

Closely linked to ISIS's predecessor organization in Iraq, Rishawi is on death row in Jordan for her role in 2005 suicide bombings in Amman that killed 60 and shocked Jordan.

ISIS has said it would trade Rishawi for Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, most recently threatening to kill captured Jordanian F-16 pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh if the exchange does not go through.

Rishawi, now 44, was arrested four days after the November 9, 2005 attacks in which her husband Ali Hussein al-Shammari and two other Iraqis blew themselves up in Amman.

The heaviest casualties came when Shammari detonated his explosives belt at the Radisson SAS hotel as a wedding was in full swing. Two other hotels were hit in the coordinated attacks and most of the dead were Jordanians.

"Rishawi is important for her link to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and one of the most significant operations outside Iraq in its history - the Amman bombings," Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, said in reference to the group that preceded ISIS.

The sudden focus on Rishawi is mainly down to the fact that ISIS has the Jordanian pilot, presenting an opportunity for a prisoner exchange, he said.

ISIS "wants to be seen as a state by other actors and this proposed mutual prisoner swap with an enemy nation - as opposed to a mere release for ransom that is common among armed groups - is one way to realize that goal," Tamimi said.

Televised confession of a failed bombing

"She was with Zarqawi in the basic group that founded the original ISIS," Hassan Abu Hanieh, an expert on Islamist groups, said in reference to Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian.

Explaining her value he elaborated "she is very important because she is Iraqi, she is Sunni and from Anbar. She is the sister of a former emir (leader) and her brothers are martyrs."

Oraib Rentawi, the director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, agreed, saying: "IS(IS) wants Rishawi and no one else for the moral and symbolic importance she has. Her name was linked to Zarqawi and to the bombings (in) Amman."

Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air raid in Iraq in June 2006, claimed the triple bombings in Amman. Rishawi's brother, Samir Atruss al-Rishawi, was a Zarqawi lieutenant who was also killed in Iraq.

After her arrest, Jordanian authorities paraded Rishawi on state television for her to confess that she had accompanied her husband to Jordan to carry out the attacks.

During her televised confession, Rishawi displayed an explosives belt strapped across her long black robe and spoke calmly about how the operation was to have been carried out.

Rishawi, who appeared with a white head scarf, said that at the last minute she had not managed to activate her belt to blow herself up.

She said her husband was one of the bombers, that they had traveled from Iraq using fake passports and he had shown her how to activate the explosives.

Her trial opened in April 2006, with Zarqawi also on the charge sheet, and she was later sentenced to death. A security source said she now spends most of her time in a women's prison reading the Koran and watching Islamic TV channels.