BEIRUT – In the moments after her husband blew himself up in the ballroom of a Jordanian hotel as part of an al-Qaida plot, Sajida al-Rishawi fled the scene of chaos wearing her own explosive belt.
The 2005 assault on three hotels in Amman, the worst terror attack in Jordan's history, killed 60 people. Al-Rishawi, an Iraqi, was sentenced to death. But now, almost a decade later, she has emerged as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations over Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group, a breakaway group from al-Qaida in Iraq that orchestrated the Jordan attack.
The Islamic State group last week threatened to kill Kenji Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war, unless it received a $200 million ransom.
On Saturday, a day after a 72-hour deadline for the ransom passed, an online message purportedly issued on behalf of the Islamic State group claimed Yukawa had been beheaded and demanded the release of al-Rishawi, 44.
"They no longer want money," the message said. "So you don't need to worry about funding terrorists. They are just demanding the release of their imprisoned sister Sajida al-Rishawi."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told national broadcaster NHK on Sunday that the online message likely was authentic, though he said the government still was reviewing it. U.S. President Barack Obama later called Abe to offer his condolences over what he called the "brutal murder" of Yukawa.
The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the online message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group.
But securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State, following months of battlefield setbacks — most recently in the northern Syrian town of Kobani where Kurdish fighters on Monday managed to drive out the extremists after months-long fighting and hundreds of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
It would also allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq, which battled U.S. troops and claimed the Jordan attack. The Islamic State group had a brutal falling out with al-Qaida's central leadership, but still reveres the global terror network's onetime Iraqi affiliate and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
On Nov. 9, 2005, al-Rishawi and her newlywed husband, Ali al-Shamari, entered the ground-floor ballroom of the Raddison SAS hotel in Amman, which was hosting hundreds gathered for a wedding reception. Al-Shamari set off his explosive belt among crowd. Al-Rishawi fled.
Al-Zarqawi later claimed the attack and mentioned a woman being involved, leading Jordanian officials to arrest her. Several days later, al-Rishawi appeared on Jordanian state television, opening a body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosive belts.
"My husband detonated (his bomb) and I tried to explode (mine) but it wouldn't," al-Rishawi said during the three-minute television segment. "People fled running and I left running with them."
Later at the trial, al-Rishawi pleaded not guilty and said through her lawyer that she never tried to detonate her bomb and was forced to take part in the attack. But an explosives expert testified that the trigger mechanism on al-Rishawi's belt had jammed.
Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death by hanging and an appeals court later ratified her sentence, describing her as "guilty beyond doubt of possessing explosives and having had the intention and the will to carry out terrorist attacks whose outcome is destruction and death."
Her sentence can be overturned by Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Islamic State group could be demanding al-Rishawi's release because she is a woman and comes from a powerful Iraqi tribe that claims many senior Islamic State group members.
"Sajida was close to al-Zarqawi and this gives her special status with Daesh," Jalal said, using an alternate Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Associated Press writers Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.
Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bmroue.