By giving Tokyo just 72 hours to come up with an eye-popping $200 million ransom for a pair of Japanese hostages it is threatening to kill, the Islamic State group has likely made its demand with the implicit knowledge that it won’t be met.
Instead, the group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq in its quest to create an Islamic caliphate, is likely using the situation to generate controversy and keep its name in the news, according to leading analysts.
“The Islamic State has specialized in manufacturing attention-grabbing international crises,” Joshua M. Landis, a prominent Syria analyst and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Japan Times.
“Why not ratchet up the price and shorten the time? Makes for great drama. Will Japan pay? Does it care about its citizens? Can ISIS get its money? Or, is it totally unrealistic? These are the questions on everyone’s mind. I must say, I am dying to find out the answers myself,” he added. “It’s working.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State group.
James Simpson, a Tokyo-based defense analyst and contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly, agreed.
“They kept (hostages Haruna) Yukawa and (Kenji) Goto locked up . . . waiting for Japan to announce their role in the fight against ISIS,” he said. “They then issued a video on very short notice asking for more money than any government would be willing to pay.
“They win either way: Either Japan pays up and ISIS hits the jackpot, or they kill the hostages and spread their message of fear and terror to a new target.”
The hostage situation could also further split Japan on the issue of constitutional revision.
“I believe that this is going to further divide and indeed polarize Japanese opinion more than anything else,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“On the one hand, the government and the conservative media are likely to claim that this serves as a reminder that Japanese lives are at risk and Japan must strengthen both its role and commitment in the U.S.-led global ‘war on terror,’ and perhaps even that this is all the more of a reason to get rid of the constitutional constraints on the use of military,” he said.
“On the other hand, the critics of Abe’s ‘proactive contribution to peace’ policy are already voicing their dismay and anger that this is clear evidence that Japanese lives are now more exposed to terrorist threats for precisely this policy, and that his claims that he was lifting the ban on collective self-defense to better protect Japanese lives are logically bankrupt,” Nakano said.
Tuesday’s video was the first time the terrorist group, which is being targeted with airstrikes by a coalition of Japanese allies led by the United States, has specifically demanded a ransom for hostages. Previously, the group murdered three Americans and two Britons in a series of grisly videos that it used to frustrate the two nations, both of which say they refuse to pay ransoms.
Last April, four French journalists were released after being held captive in Syria for months by the Islamic State, while two Spanish reporters seized by the group in the war-torn country were freed in March.
Although the French and Spanish governments didn’t make an announcement publicly, those hostages were reportedly released after ransoms were paid.
The Islamic State group has suffered recent losses from the airstrikes, and with global oil prices down, the cash made from selling stolen oil has dropped. The militants have also made money from extortion and kidnapping. Before the fall of oil prices, the group made as much as $2 million a day selling pilfered oil, according to analysts.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that his government would do all it could to save Goto, 47, and Yukawa, 42, he will likely face pressure not to pay the ransom from allies, especially Washington, which fears negotiating with terrorists would open the door to even more kidnappings. Some European nations have stoked the ire of the U.S. for quietly securing the release of nationals held by the Islamic State by paying the group.
Although Abe and others in his government declined to say if they would pay a ransom, the prime minister and his top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, may take a page from the playbook of Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s predecessor during his first term as prime minister.
Koizumi famously refused demands in 2004 by an earlier incarnation of the Islamic State group to withdraw Self-Defense Force personnel deployed to Iraq or risk the murder of hostage Shosei Koda.
“We cannot tolerate terrorism and we will not give in to terrorism,” Koizumi said in response to the threat to behead Koda, who was later executed.
Speaking at a news conference in Israel during the final leg of a trip to the Middle East, Abe echoed similar comments, saying: “The international community needs to cooperate and take action without yielding to terrorism.”
In Tokyo, Suga said Japan was examining the video’s authenticity, but would not give in to threats.
“We will not give in to terrorism, and will continue contributing to the international community to fight against terrorism,” he said, adding that Abe had ordered him to place “top priority” on saving the hostages’ lives.
Nakano said he has “a hard time imagining the government paying the ransom demanded, at least openly. The public might however become very critical of Abe if he doesn’t appear as if he is doing all he can to have the hostages released.”
In Tokyo on Wednesday, Masahiko Komura, vice president of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said that Japan would not comply with the group’s ransom demand.
Komura told reporters at party headquarters that “withdrawal of the humanitarian support is out of the question.”
In the video released by the militants, a figure clad in all black nicknamed “Jihadi John” slammed Abe for pledging about $200 million in nonmilitary aid for countries battling the Islamic State, demanding that the money instead be used to ransom the hostages.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, had no immediate comment on whether the U.S. was urging Japan not to pay. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to speak later with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on the hostage crisis, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
In a statement, she said Washington “strongly condemns ISIL’s threat to murder Japanese citizens,” and called for the immediate release of all hostages. “The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter. We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely,” the statement said. ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.
If Japan refuses to negotiate, will the hostages likely be executed?
“Count on it,” said Landis, an expert on the Syrian conflict. “The Islamic State is not filled with softies.”
But more than the payout, the kidnapping could also be about something else, he added.
“This is also about driving Japan, and the West, crazy.”
Still, Akira Kato, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and a political science professor at Obirin University in Tokyo, said what the Japanese government must do now is to negotiate with the group to lower the ransom amount — and buy more time.
“I believe they won’t kill the hostages that easily, immediately after 72 hours when there is a chance to get a huge amount of money,” Kato told The Japan Times by phone. “As long as their main goal is to get money from Japan, I believe there is a chance to prolong the time limit.”
Though Abe has said he wants a more muscular military, he has ruled out sending Self-Defense Forces troops overseas and the Constitution commits the country to pacifism. That would put the onus on allies like the U.S. to attempt any hostage rescue.
Last July, the U.S. launched a secret raid into Syria to try to free American hostages held by the Islamic State group, but were unable to find any captives. Journalist James Foley, an American national, was beheaded just over a month later.
Japan has been in contact with France, Britain and the U.S., but it remains unclear if Tokyo has asked its allies to conduct any rescue mission.
“I think it’s quite possible that the Americans may be planning an operation to free them,” said Kyle Mizokami, a San Francisco-based defense analyst who specializes in East Asian security issues.
“The U.S. and Japan are extremely close and although this doesn’t really under the terms of the Mutual Security Treaty, the U.S. may do so as a courtesy to an ally.”
But any rescue within the 72-hour deadline would be extraordinarily treacherous, Mizokami noted.
“The kidnappers will be alert for a rescue, however. There’s no time for them to drop their guard. ISIS will be prepared and a rescue operation would be very dangerous,” he said.
But Simpson, the defense analyst and Jane’s contributor, disagreed about the likelihood of any rescue operation.
“I think at this stage, with a 72-hour deadline and no inkling that Japan or its allies are aware of the location of the hostages, a rescue is very unlikely,” Simpson said.
“Operations like this are exceptionally complicated. While the British, French and Americans could mount a rescue if they had the right intelligence, but the intelligence just isn’t there.”
Nakano also fell into this camp.
“I also don’t think it’s likely that Abe requests the U.S. to make a military intervention under the current circumstances,” he said. “That would be too risky and too divisive.”
Ultimately, how the hostage situation plays out could have broad ramifications for Abe’s collective self-defense push and his drive to boost Japan’s international defense standing.
“I think it will actually spur calls to make Japan more capable of mounting such rescue operations,” Mizokami said. “This will include everything from buying long-range transport planes to closer cooperation with the American military, especially special forces, and the intelligence community. These sort of things can only happen so many times before Japan looks hapless, unable to protect its citizens abroad.
“If Abe wants to create the image and substance of a stronger Japan and not have it appear it is directly challenging China, addressing the threat to citizens abroad is important. Also, militant Islamists have kidnapped and killed more Japanese than China has,” he added.
It is also likely that Abe will face criticism from a public questioning why a faraway nation like Japan is involved in the fight against the Islamic State in the first place, Simpson said.
“In the broad sense, however, I don’t think this will impact CSD (collective self-defense) in any significant way,” he added.
Abe, who has maintained deft control of the narrative in his move toward loosening the country’s strict rules on collective self-defense, could, however, be derailed in his quest by the endgame of the hostage situation.
“If Abe’s seen as having mishandled the crisis, his plans would be jeopardized, but if he manages to come out of this in control, he would no doubt argue that his plans are working and he needs to move fast,” said Nakano.
Information from Kyodo, AP added