The release and subsequent deletion of a new online video claiming that a Japanese hostage had been executed by militants of the Islamic State group has raised eyebrows, with some questioning the veracity of the recording.
Japanese government officials said they had not confirmed the authenticity of the recording and an image of what appeared to be the decapitated body of Japanese captive Haruna Yukawa, who went missing in Syria in August.
While the Japanese government and others were working to verify the authenticity of the video, President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning what he called “the brutal murder” of one of the hostages. His statement did not say how the United States knows that Yukawa, a 42-year-old self-styled security contractor, is dead.
Obama said that the United States will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Japan and called for the immediate release of the second Japanese hostage, journalist Kenji Goto. Obama’s statement was issued at Ramstein Air Base in Germany as the president was en route to India for a visit.
Obama’s comments, echoed Saturday by British Prime Minister David Cameron who condemned the group’s “murderous barbarity,” suggested that Western intelligence had authenticated the video posted online.
The Japanese government had no immediate comment on either of the leaders’ statements. However, a statement issued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in English and Arabic demanded the safe release only of Goto.
The message in the video seen Saturday demanded a prisoner exchange for the 47-year-old Goto. But the post was deleted quickly Saturday, and militants on a website affiliated with the Islamic State group questioned its veracity.
Still, Abe said after a late-night Cabinet meeting: “Such an act of terrorism is outrageous and impermissible and causes me nothing but strong indignation. I resolutely condemn this act.”
The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group. The terrorist group now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.
Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, told NHK in a televised interview that in the purported message her son, “seemed to be taking seriously what may be happening to him as well.”
“I’m petrified,” Ishido said. “He has children. I’m praying he will return soon, and that’s all I want.”
But Ishido also was skeptical about the voice claiming to be Goto. “Kenji’s English is very good. He should sound more fluent,” she said.
One militant on the Islamic State-affiliated website warned that Saturday’s new message was fake, while another said that the message was intended only to go to the Japanese journalist’s family.
A third militant on the website noted that the video was not issued by al-Furqan, which is one of the media arms of the Islamic State group and has issued past videos involving hostages and beheadings. Saturday’s message did not bear al-Furqan’s logo.
However, the U.S.-based SITE monitoring group said it could confirm the video was in fact released officially by the Islamic State group, citing its research and understanding of the online infrastructure of the group and other militants.
“The video was made in a different style than the other beheading videos,” SITE director Rita Katz said, “seemingly rushed and even lacking the usual attribution to al-Furqan Media Foundation, a primary media arm of the group.”
The militants on the website post comments using pseudonyms, so their identities could not be independently confirmed. However, their confusion over the video matched that of Japanese officials and outside observers.
The Islamic State group had threatened on Tuesday to behead the men within 72 hours unless it received a $200 million ransom. Kyodo News agency reported that Saturday’s video was emailed to Goto’s wife.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said U.S. intelligence officials were also working to confirm whether it was authentic.
Yukawa, 42, was seized by militants in August, after he went to Syria in what he described as a plan to launch a security company. Goto, a veteran war correspondent, went into Syria in late October seeking to secure Yukawa’s release, according to friends and business associates.
The Islamic State has executed five British and American aid workers and journalists in recent months. Yukawa’s capture by Islamic State fighters outside Aleppo, Syria, in August was the first time a Japanese citizen has been held by the group.
Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida expressed sympathy for what Yukawa’s family was going through after the release of the video.
“Fully aware of the unbearable pain and sorrow that his family must be feeling, I am at a loss for words,” Kishida said.
Kishida said he planned to issue a safety warning to all Japanese citizens traveling outside the country through its embassies around the world.
Nobuo Kimoto, a business adviser to Yukawa, told NHK: “I was hoping he would be released, or at least that his life would not be taken.”
“I wish this was some kind of a mistake,” he said.