BEIRUT – Secret talks were underway Tuesday in Jordan in the presence of a Japanese envoy to secure the freedom of a Japanese journalist and a Jordanian pilot captured by Islamic State extremists and purportedly threatened with death within 24 hours.
The global efforts to free Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh gained greater urgency with the release of the apparent ultimatum from the Islamic State group.
In the message, the extremists say the two hostages will be killed within 24 hours unless Jordan frees Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack on a hotel that killed 60 people.
The pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, made a last-ditch appeal for Jordan “to meet the demands” of the Islamic State group.
“All people must know, from the head of the regime to everybody else, that the safety of Mu’ath means the stability of Jordan, and the death of Mu’ath means chaos in Jordan,” he said.
About 200 relatives of the pilot demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office in Amman, chanting anti-government slogans and urging it to meet the captors’ demands.
A member of Jordan’s parliament said the country was in indirect talks with the militants to secure the hostages’ release. Bassam Al-Manasseer, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told Bloomberg News the negotiations are taking place through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq, adding that Jordan and Japan won’t negotiate directly with Islamic State and won’t free al-Rishawi in exchange for Goto only.
Manaseer’s comments were the strongest suggestion yet that authorities in Jordan and Japan may be open to a prisoner exchange, something that would go against the policy of the kingdom’s main ally, the U.S., which opposes negotiating with extremists.
The militants’ demand of a prisoner swap is seen by analysts as an attempt to chip away at the U.S.-led coalition against extremism in the Middle East.
The Islamic State group, whose brutal rule stretches across swaths of Iraq and Syria, is hoping to sow dissent among Jordan, Japan and the United States by offering to spare the life of Goto.
For Tokyo, scarred by the apparent beheading last week of Goto’s fellow captive, Haruna Yukawa, it appears to be an attractive offer.
But it leaves Amman trying to balance the demands of a big donor while not losing its best bargaining chip in efforts to secure the release of al-Kaseasbeh, who was captured by Islamic State fighters after they shot his plane down over Syria.
“The Jordanian public would become extremely angry if (al-Rishawi) were to be released,” said Masanori Naito, professor of Islamic studies at Doshisha University. The attack in which al-Rishawi participated is sometimes referred to as “Jordan’s 9/11,” a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
That anger would be amplified if Amman played its best hand — releasing al-Rishawi — only for Tokyo’s benefit. “That would deal a serious blow to the Jordanian government. It is a very difficult situation,” he added.
It would also risk angering the United States, Japan’s bedrock ally and the foundation of its foreign policy, said Monday that it considered a prisoner swap as “in the same category” as paying a ransom.
“We don’t make concessions to terrorists. That remains the case,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Jordan, as a moderate Muslim nation, is one of Japan’s best diplomatic friends in the Middle East.
On his recent regional tour, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met King Abdullah II, praising the country’s efforts “on the front line of the fight against” Islamic State militants, including its effort to help refugees fleeing war in Syria.
The Japanese leader also announced a fresh $100 million loan to Jordan, on top of $28 million of assistance to be given via international organizations.
Tokyo turned to Amman when a video emerged last week showing two Japanese men apparently kneeling in the desert as a masked man threatened they would be killed if Japan did not pay a $200 million ransom.
Abe dispatched his deputy foreign minister Yasuhide Nakayama to lead Japan’s emergency response team from the Jordanian capital, in the hope of leveraging their friendship and opening communication channels to the militants.
But when the militants executed one hostage and moved the goalposts with a new demand, it added an unwelcome complication for Amman.
The move by the Islamic State group compromises Jordan’s position, because it now leaves “Japan applying pressure in the form of the calls to release the death row inmate,” Japanese domestic media has reported.
While Jordan’s priority is the return of one of their own, it may balk at disappointing deep-pocketed Tokyo, wary of the possible future impact on relations.
Oraib Rentawi, the director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, said it would be unreasonable for Tokyo to expect the Jordanians to release al-Rishawi to free Goto while their airman remains captive.
But they may seek to be bold and expand their demands to both captives, he said.
“Now it is an opportunity for Jordan to expand negotiations with the Islamic State to reach a package deal to release both the Japanese hostage and the Jordanian pilot,” he said in Amman.
Japanese media has also reported that a two-for-two swap, which could see Jordan offering another Islamic State-linked prisoner alongside al-Rishawi in exchange for both Goto and al-Kaseasbeh, was another possibility.
The danger, reports said, is that such a push could encourage the militants to up their demands.
The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, said Tuesday that her family was told that the Islamic State group also was seeking his release as part of a swap. It was unclear whether it was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage.
Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen.
Tokyo on Tuesday seemed to be laying the groundwork for just such a double exchange.
“The release of the Jordanian pilot is an issue for Japan,” Nakayama told reporters in Amman, stressing Tokyo’s stake in his well-being.
“Both countries are closely cooperating toward the return of each of them to their countries.”
But within hours of Nakayama speaking, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had telephoned his Japanese counterpart.
Robert Dujarric, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said it was important to remember that Tokyo does not have a completely free hand in cajoling Jordan.
“It also depends on the U.S. position,” he said.