Jordan’s warrior king ‘suits up’ to fight ISIS – on Twitter

Looking tough in full combat gear complete with black gloves and an epaulette of the national flag, Jordan’s King Abdullah semi-scowls at the camera, his feet positioned manfully apart.

The photograph seemed almost too good to be true – which should have warned the Twitter true believers. But then the social media site can sometimes be a thermometer of the national zeitgeist and in Jordan right now, the fever is running high.

The image of the king in combat gear began making the cyber rounds on Tuesday, not long after Jordanian authorities announced that two convicted al Qaeda militants – including a failed female suicide bomber – had been executed.

The executions followed the release of a gruesome ISIS (or ISIL or IS) video purportedly showing captured Jordanian air force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive in a cage.

The particularly grisly nature of the murder shocked Jordanians, prompting widespread anger and calls for revenge by the family of the deceased pilot.

It wasn’t just Kasaesbeh’s killing that rattled the nation, though. The slickly-edited, 22-minute ISIS video ended with mug-shots of other Jordanian air force pilots along with their names and locations identified on Google Earth. The message accompanying the photographs could not have been more explicit: “The Islamic State announces a reward of 100 gold dinars to whoever kills a crusader pilot. The diwan [ministry or council] for state security has released a list containing the names of Jordanian pilots participating in the campaign. So, good tidings to whoever… achieves a kill that will liberate him from hellfire.”

Against an apocalyptic backdrop of hellfire and brimstone, came a New York Times report that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a symbolic Arab ally in the US-led international coalition against ISIS – had suspended airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group due to fears for its pilots’ safety.

But tiny Jordan was not going to be beaten or browed.

And so, when the image of Abdullah in combat gear first appeared on Twitter, it didn’t take long for the photograph to go viral – fueled by imaginative rumors and reports of reports.

If the early tweets were to be believed, the Jordanian monarch himself would be leading a combat mission against ISIS targets. As the retweeting cycle picked up, the posts gradually picked up #BombISIS hashtags and “God bless you, sir” messages.

It helped of course that the 53-year-old monarch served as a commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces as a young prince and is known to fly the odd, lucky journalist in a Black Hawk at daringly low altitudes.

‘Brian Williams didn’t see combat, King Abdullah will’

Soon, a split screen image of the king in the pilot’s seat alongside a photograph of a building hit by an aerial strike began doing the rounds. By then, the Jordanian monarch had already conducted his “first personal air attack on ISIS” – according to Twitter, of course.

As the cyber-mill swung into overdrive, the tweets got more hilarious and ironic.

“Looking forward to Brian Williams sharing his memories of flying today’s combat mission against ISIL with King Abdullah,” read one tweet, referring to the NBC anchorman’s infamous claim that he was aboard a US military aircraft hit by enemy fire during the Iraq War. Williams later apologized and admitted he was not aboard the helicopter forced down by enemy fire. He was “instead in a following aircraft”.

By the end of the day, tweeter comics were signing off with, “So Brian Williams didn't see combat in a helicopter but King Abdullah will”.

Alas, King Abdullah had not gone any closer to combat than the hapless Williams.

It wasn’t quite the emperor has no clothes, merely that the king’s combat clothes were old.

“Correction: it seems that this photo is old. King Abdullah of Jordan is not flying a jet to hit ISIS,” tweeted Egyptian blogger @TheBigPharaoh.

Then came the age of retraction, with journalists and broadcasters asserting that the photos appear to be, “old and misleading. Arabic reports of a planned attack are numerous but unverifiable.”

Twitter as medium and message

But that didn’t stop the rumour mill on the streets of Amman, with some Jordanians insisting as late as Thursday that the Hashemite monarch would soon make an appearance in full combat regalia in some fittingly military locale issuing suitably pugnacious threats against the vicious jihadists.

The posts may have been inaccurate, but Twitter had fairly accurately plugged in to the current Jordanian zeitgeist.

Barely a week ago, pundits and journalists (this author included) were wondering about the dire consequences of the latest ISIS hostage crisis on Jordan.

As protesters brazenly gathered outside the Royal Court in Amman to angrily demand that their king do more to secure the Jordanian pilot’s release, headlines worried about the uneasy “head that wears the Hashemite crown”.

But in the tit-for-tat propaganda war that jihadist groups launch against the detested Arab monarchs, this battle (if not the war) has been won by King Abdullah.

The latest ISIS video has united the nation behind the king. Gone are the nostalgic recollections of how his father, the late King Hussein, had managed some of the worst crises in Mideast history. When Abdullah cut short a long-planned US visit to fly back to Amman this week, he was greeted by large, cheering crowds at the airport.

For the moment at least it doesn’t seem to matter if the royal combat robes are old. With the ISIS threat nipping at the country’s frontiers and jihadists indulging in medieval inferno fantasies, Jordanians are willing to all hail their king. And Twitter, as ever, was the medium as well as the message.
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