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.
Nearly a decade later, the 44-year-old woman is at the center of an unfolding international drama, and could soon be released from prison and exchanged for a Jordanian pilot captured by the Islamic State group.
An audio message purportedly issued by the extremist group has given Jordan until sunset Thursday to release Sajida al-Rishawi, threatening to otherwise kill a Japanese hostage and Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, the 26-year-old airman who was captured in Syria after his Jordanian F-16 crashed near the de facto Islamic State group's capital of Raqqa.
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. She could now be released in the first ever publicly disclosed prisoner swap with the Islamic State, a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq, which orchestrated the Jordan attack.
The Islamic State group earlier this month 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.
In messages purportedly from the IS released later, the group dropped its demand for ransom, claimed Yukawa had been beheaded and demanded the release of al-Rishawi. The Associated Press could not independently verify the messages' contents.
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 IS 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 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.
Al-Rishawi, who hails from the city of Ramadi in Iraq's militant stronghold of Anbar province, has close family ties to the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida. Three of her brothers were killed during U.S. military operations in Anbar, perhaps providing her with a motive to engage in extremist activities. One of them was a lieutenant of al-Zarqawi.
On Nov. 9, 2005, al-Rishawi and her newlywed husband, Ali al-Shamari, entered the ground-floor ballroom of the luxury Raddison SAS hotel in Amman, which was hosting hundreds gathered for a wedding reception. Al-Shamari set off his explosive belt, ripping through a wedding party with 300 guests in the ballroom. Al-Rishawi fled.
The bombing was one of three-near-simultaneous attacks on Amman hotels on that day and killed 60 people.
Al-Zarqawi later claimed responsibility for the attack and mentioned a woman being involved. Jordanian officials arrested her four days later at a safe house, one of two apartments the suicide team rented in a residential neighborhood. Several days later, al-Rishawi appeared on Jordanian state television, opening a body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosive belts, one with RDX and the other with ball-bearings.
"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.