Crisis Over Japanese Hostages Heightens

PM Shinzo Abe in Egypt

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Cairo; photo courtesy of Reuters

Crisis Over Japanese Hostages Heightens
| published January 21, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


Speaking at public events on several occasions during the early days of his tour of the Middle East, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was committed to the battle against radical Islam, and promised to support the fight against terror by setting aside billions of dollars.

Now, with the lives of two Japanese citizens at stake, the Prime Minister has cut short his Middle East trip and returned to Japan. On January 20, ISIS posted a video which showed two men being held hostage by ISIS militant units in Syria—captives identified by intelligence sources and some Japanese officials as Haruna Yukawa, 42, and Kenji Goto Jogo, 47. Both men are Japanese.

ISIS has said it will execute the two hostages unless Japan provides $200 million in cash, and the militants have set a deadline of the end of this week.

Abe has said that Japan will not give in to terrorism, but has also committed his government to doing everything within its power to free the two men. Abe dispatched Vice-Foreign Minister Yasuhide to Amman, Jordan, where he will consult with regional military and political officials, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II, though it is not clear what progress he can make in Amman.

ISIS posted its most recent video online, and the video quickly made the rounds of the internet, You Tube, and social media worldwide. Though reticent at first to confirm the identities of the two Japanese men in the video, Tokyo now says that it appears that the video is legitimate and that the threat is genuine. Yukawa is a military contractor and (some suspect) an arms trader who travelled freely to Syria to broker weapons sales to rebels, as well as to gain firsthand battlefield experience. Goto Jogo is a journalist who had gone to the region to provide up-close coverage of the civil war in Iraq, as well as reporting on the humanitarian troubles along the Turkish borders with Iraq and Syria. According to some who knew both men, the journalist introduced the arms expert to key contacts within the Syrian rebel community. It is not clear, however, how Yukawa ended up as an ISIS hostage.

Both Japanese men appear in the video, kneeling to the left and the right of a knife-wielding masked militant—possibly the same terrorist, known as Jihadi John, featured in previous ISIS videos. In the video, the masked man equates Abe’s commitment to providing financial and material support to the coalition forces fighting the Islamic State to the demand for ransom in exchange for the hostages.

According to foreign policy experts and many intelligence experts, the government of Japan is eager to open discussions with ISIS—formal or backchannel—to negotiate the release of the two prisoners. The problem, Middle East experts say, is that there are no easy, readily-available channels by which to communicate to ISIS military commanders. Yasuhide’s mission to Amman is to establish contact, possibly through regional or tribal emissaries, to find a solution to the crisis before the Friday deadline.

This particular incident represents the first time ISIS has asked directly for cash for its hostages. Previously, ISIS has demanded large sums of cash in exchange for the safe return of the bodies of those it has executed.

In the meantime, Japanese officials have continued to stand by Abe’s original promise to provide at least $200 million immediately to support those already engaged in the fight against ISIS, presumably the moderate rebel forces, the free Syrian Army forces, and the Kurdish forces now battling ISIS inside northern Syria and northern Iraq.

Abe was heading up a large contingent of roughly 100 Japanese leaders—some government officials, some in business—on a week-long tour of the Middle East when the video emerged purporting to show the two Japanese men held hostage. At the time the video was posted, early on Tuesday, the black-clad militant said that Abe has only 72 hours to make good on the $200 million payment. If the money was not received by the deadline, ISIS militants would behead both men.

Japan is not participating directly in military operations by the coalition forces now engaging ISIS by air, though it is a strong political and economic ally of the United States and the United Kingdom. But in the wake of spreading terror attacks worldwide—especially the attacks in Paris last week, and the violent round-up of terror suspects in Belgium—Japan has made it clear it will support any larger coalition whose purpose is to confront ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terror organizations. Abe has pledged money to support the international fight against terror and extremism.  But some Middle East analysts suggest a more cynical view of the current hostage crisis: ISIS may be simply exploiting the Japanese Prime Minister's visit to the Middle East for news attention, and for cash.  Though it continues to enjoy relative victory on the battlefield, even after months of heavy air bombardment by coalition forces, ISIS has been facing touch times financially as oil prices continue to drop worldwide.

Though ISIS is not well-known for demonstrations of mercy, it did release about 150 Yezidis from captivity last week. ISIS said it was setting the captives free for humanitarian reasons, though many analysts suggest that ISIS simply did not have the logistical ability to continue to keep such a large group of civilian hostages, many of whom were sick or underfed. ISIS has made good on its previous threats of beheadings with dramatic, sometimes shocking videos showing the executions of Americans and British citizens.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS Threatens Japanese Hostages; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 20, 2015.