AMMAN/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - When her husband blew himself up in a luxury hotel during a wedding in Amman a decade ago, Sajida al-Rishawi was meant to die too, but her suicide bomb belt did not go off. Today, as a death-row prisoner in Jordan, she is a heroine to jihadists in the region, who may be willing to swap a Jordanian pilot for her.
Rishawi, now in her mid-40s, has an influential background in militant circles: she hails from a powerful Sunni clan in Western Iraq, and her brother was a top lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda’s Iraq branch. Today, that group has since transformed itself into Islamic State, breaking off from al Qaeda and controlling swathes of Iraq and Syria.
One of her cousins, Abdul Sittar Abu Risha, was a major figure in establishing the Sunni Awakening, a tribal movement that joined forces with the U.S. military and turned against al Qaeda.
Although she is just one of thousands of suicide bombers and would-be bombers who have been sent to kill and die by al Qaeda and its offshoots, her background has helped turn her into a symbol to jihadists, who would make the most of her release.
“She is an old woman, she does not have that much importance,” said Sheikh Mehdi Abdel Sittar Abu Risha, another cousin and senior figure in her prominent Abu Risha tribe in Iraq’s Anbar province. “But (Islamic State) has used this as a political matter to say, ‘We take pride in our people more than you take pride in yours.’”
Winning her freedom would be an important victory for Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, Zarqawi’s successor, whose aim is to show that his organization is the foremost protector of Sunni militants across the Middle East, particularly among Iraq’s tribes.
He has evoked her personally, vowing in a rare public address in the newly captured Iraqi city of Mosul in July to win freedom for female jihadist prisoners.
“He made the name of Sajida synonymous with the name of Baghdadi,” said an Iraqi security source.
It is still far from clear that any prisoner swap can be negotiated. In statements released last week a Japanese journalist said his captors wanted to swap him for Rishawi, but any negotiations failed and he was beheaded.
Jordan has offered to free Rishawi in return for its pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh who was captured in December after his jet crashed in territory controlled by the militants in Syria. Islamic State has called for Rishawi’s release in exchange for Kasaesbeh’s life but has not said it will free him. Jordanian officials say they have not been sent proof he is alive.
Rishawi was sentenced to death in 2006 after surviving the attack on the Radisson Hotel in Amman, part of an operation that targeted four hotels across the city and killed 60 people, the worst hardline Islamist suicide attack in Jordan’s history.
She confessed on Jordanian television days after the bombings but then pleaded not guilty at her trial.
“I have no one ... I am alone with Allah protecting me,” Rishawi told the judge at the trial in 2006 where she appeared dressed in a long black coat and headscarf.
Her lawyer Hussein Masri told Reuters she had begged him to defend her staunchly, saying she would hold him “accountable in front of God in the day of reckoning” if he failed her.
Her importance to Islamic State stems from the links she had to late Iraqi al Qaeda leader Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006 after leading the Sunni Muslim insurgency against U.S. occupation forces. The hotel attack with her husband was the first ordered by Zarqawi outside Iraq.
“Zarqawi made a vow to free Sajida. Whoever fulfils this vow will win the sympathy of all the jihadists loyal to Zarqawi. This will be a point for (Islamic State) against al Qaeda,” the Iraqi security official said.
Since breaking away from al Qaeda, Islamic State fighters have sought to establish themselves as the main jihadist force in the Middle East, declaring a caliphate last year in land they control in Syria and Iraq.
Attempts to free her are also aimed at embarrassing Jordanian intelligence, widely seen as one of the most sophisticated agencies of its kind in the Arab world, the official added.
She is classed as a high security detainee and has been in solitary confinement in Jweideh prison since she was arrested, a Jordanian security official said. None of her relatives have ever asked to see her, another source added.
The Rishawis hail from the city of al-Khalidiya in Iraq’s central Anbar province. Sajida comes from a pious family which brought her up under hardline Salafist doctrine. Her brother Haji Thamer, who was killed in Fallujah in 2004, was said to be a leading aide of Zarqawi. Two other brothers also died in Fallujah in 2004, site of seminal battles against the U.S. Marines.
Rishawi and members of her Abu Risha family were treated as “VIPs” in Islamic State circles, a U.S. government source following the case said. The Jordanians are worried about releasing her because of her importance to the group and the fear the pilot would remain in captivity, the U.S. source added.
Her release could win support from her tribe in Anbar, an important constituency for jihadists in Iraq.
“All her family are a jihadist family that gave many sacrifices and who are still in the Islamic State in Anbar. So she is a potent symbol from the first generation of al Qaeda in Iraq who formed the nucleus of present day Islamic State,” Jordanian jihadist scholar Hassan Abu Hanieh said.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Peter Graff