National / Politics

Hostage talks deadlocked

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The hostage swap negotiations between Jordan and the Islamic State group remained frozen Saturday, leaving the fate of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto and Jordanian Air Force pilot Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh in the air.

Yasuhide Nakayama, state minister for foreign affairs who is heading up Japan’s emergency headquarters in Amman, told reporters Saturday morning the situation “is now deadlocked.”

“We will keep gathering, analyzing and sharing information to cope with” the hostage crisis, Nakayama said in a briefing aired on NHK Saturday morning.

Officials in Tokyo have lamented they have few clues about what is really going inside the Islamic extremist group, which has remained silent despite the passing of another deadline it set to kill Goto, a freelance journalist, and al-Kaseasbeh.

The latest deadline apparently expired at 11:30 p.m. Thursday Japan time.

Japan cannot do anything other than to humbly ask for “cooperation” from the Jordanian government, which is under strong public pressure to prioritize the pilot over Goto, the officials said.

“The Jordanian government won’t tell us what it will do next in detail in each stage” in its negotiations with the extremists, a senior government official said Friday evening.

“We just need to trust (Amman). We’re not in a position to say we want it to do this and that.”

Jordan has announced it is ready to swap Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber on death row in Jordan, for the pilot. But officials in Amman have also indicated they demanded that Goto be released with the pilot in any swap deal, while stressing the life of the pilot is their top priority.

The deal is apparently being held up by Jordan’s insistence on proof of life before handing over the bomber. The jihadis have been silent since then.

The mysterious silence has raised concerns the pilot may already be dead.

Some experts raised the possibility that factions in the Islamic State group are in conflict over the next step in the hostage crisis.

“It is all speculation. There are no means for us to learn what (the Islamic State group) is actually thinking,” the senior Japanese official said.

Other experts in Japan, meanwhile, said the militant group may be trying to prolong the crisis to keep pressure on the government of Jordan, a close ally of the United States and part of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the group, which has taken over much of Syria and Iraq.

According to media reports, many Jordanians were deeply frustrated with the decision last year by King Abdullah II to join the U.S.-led attacks.

Prolonging the crisis will fan the discontent, which might rock the Jordanian government and weaken its ties with the U.S., they said.

If Jordan’s politics are destabilized, “it would mean big trouble for the U.S.,” said lawmaker Motohiro Ono, a noted Middle East expert in the Democratic Party of Japan.

“(Some) neighboring countries have already become destabilized and Jordan is one of the last bridgeheads for the U.S.” in the Middle East, Ono said.

“Jordan now serves as a kind of buffer zone of terrorism between Israel and the Syria-Iraq area. The U.S. definitely needs Jordan as a buffer zone,” he said.

The crisis is also a serious diplomatic challenge to the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants Japan to play a more “proactive” role in global security.

The Islamic State group aired its first video of Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa, a private security contractor, on Jan. 20, while Abe was on a six-day tour of the Middle East to announce $200 million of nonlethal aid for countries contending with the Islamic State group.

The video thus demanded a ransom of $200 million for the pair, claiming Japan had joined “the crusade” against the Islamic State group. Abe has emphasized the aid is strictly for humanitarian purposes.

But Osamu Miyata, who heads the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, said the hostage crisis could reignite domestic debate on how closely Japan should support U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

Abe is trying to give the Self-Defense Forces a greater role overseas to provide logistic support for the U.S. military, possibly in the Mideast.

To that end, his Cabinet even changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of the pacifist Constitution last year to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under armed attack.

“(The crisis) could also affect (domestic) political debate over the right of collective self-defense,” Miyata said.


Full coverage of the Islamic State hostage crisis