Amid claim and counterclaim about who is to blame for the execution of journalist Kenji Goto, indications are emerging of factionalism within the Islamic State group that may have made it hard to reach the individuals holding him.
One source said Goto’s captors took him to the Turkish border for a widely anticipated prisoner swap. But other sources said internal divisions in the militant group made it difficult for the Japanese government to reach the decision-makers in whose hands Goto, and the other Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, were being held.
Shortly before the sunset Thursday deadline set by Islamic State for the swap for an Iraqi woman jailed in Jordan, Goto was moved from a militant-controlled area of Syria to the town of Tal Abyad near the Turkish border, an expert on the Middle East told Kyodo News.
This expert said Jordanian security authorities also moved Sajida al-Rishawi, jailed for her involvement in a deadly terrorist attack in the Jordanian capital, from a jail in Amman to Ruweished, the last town on the road to the Iraqi border.
The expert did not disclose the sources of this information and the Jordanian government did not confirm details.
The swap deal failed, however, as the Jordanian government, which had offered to release al-Rishawi in exchange for a Jordanian pilot held by the Islamic State group, could not confirm the pilot was still alive. His fate remained unknown as of Tuesday.
When it became apparent that the swap was not going ahead by the Thursday sunset deadline, Goto was taken back to somewhere near the Syrian city of Raqqa and was killed there Friday morning Syria time, the expert said.
Meanwhile, other sources said two internal factions of the Islamic State group had been vying to control the Japanese hostages to further their own aims, sending out conflicting messages. This made it difficult for the Japanese government to determine the best way to reach their captors.
Hostage Yukawa, a self-styled security consultant, was apparently killed a week earlier.
As the crisis continued, Tokyo obtained foreign intelligence on a leadership struggle within the militant group, the sources said.
A Syrian faction was responsible for seizing the two men and posting a video online Jan. 20 demanding a ransom of $200 million, the sources said.
But after the Japanese government ruled out payment, another faction led by Iraqis apparently took control. This was seen in the abrupt replacement of the ransom with a demand for a prisoner swap, in an audio recording posted Jan. 24, the sources said.
A still image accompanying the voice recording showed Goto holding a picture of what appeared to be Yukawa’s beheaded body.
The message can also be taken as one sent out by the Iraqi group because the quality of the image is poorer than that in the first posting, the sources said, adding that the quality of images attached to subsequent voice messages setting conditions for the exchange of the death-row inmate, Sajida al-Rishawi, for Goto was similarly bad.
After the Iraqi team failed to bring off the prisoner swap, the Syrian faction regained control of Goto and in an online posting Sunday showed his execution, a move that was apparently designed to send a message of menace to the wider world, the sources said.
As for Arab media reports last week that the Islamic State group might release Goto as part of a larger prisoner swap involving as many as four people, the sources said that information might have come only from the Iraqi faction, whose ambition remained to free imprisoned fighters, the sources said.
“We had received various kinds of information, but there was nothing we could confirm,” a Japanese official said.
In a related move, the Mainichi Shimbun reported Tuesday that Japanese police plan to question individuals who have gone on the record as saying they helped Goto as he entered Syria from Turkey, the last known individuals to have had contact with him before he disappeared in late October.
A team of investigators comprised of the Metropolitan Police Department and Chiba Prefectural Police will ask the governments of Syria and Turkey to cooperate on questioning the individuals, who although they said they acted as guides may have played a role in Goto’s disappearance, the Mainichi reported, citing Japanese government sources.
Goto telephoned a Syrian acquaintance on Nov. 1, saying he “had been deceived by a guide,” according to the Mainichi report.
Goto is believed to have entered Syria through Turkey on Oct. 24. He is thought to have been captured by the Islamic State group the following day.