Japanese journalist missing in Syria likely man in IS-style video: government

by Jesse Johnson and Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writers

The government said Wednesday that a man in a video released by apparent militants a day earlier is likely Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who is believed to have been kidnapped by a jihadi group in Syria in 2015.

In the 20-second video clip released Tuesday, the man said to be Yasuda — who disappeared in strife-hit Syria just over three years ago while reporting on the country’s civil war — claims to be South Korean, but delivers a short statement in Japanese, asking for immediate help.

“I’m in a terrible situation. Please help me now,” the man says as his voice cracks.

Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan was working to employ all available means to secure Yasuda’s safety.

“It’s the biggest responsibility of the government to ensure the safety of Japanese citizens, and it is based on this recognition that we will utilize every network and do our utmost to deal with” the situation, the top government spokesman said. He declined to give any further details citing the sensitivity of the matter.

The latest video bears little in common with earlier recordings released by his captors. Instead it bears some resemblance to the slick productions employed by the Islamic State (IS) group, which executed Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa in 2015.

Wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in front of a wall, the man in the latest clip is seen with two black-clad militants wearing balaclava-like masks who stand behind him wielding machine-guns. The captive man then says his name is Umaru and tells the camera that the date is July 25. Public broadcaster NHK quoted unidentified sources as saying that it was not the first time the man had used the name Umaru. But it remains unclear why he described himself as a South Korean national.

Footage of a man believed to be Yasuda was also released on July 8. In that video, dated Oct. 17, 2017, Yasuda, 44, says in English that he is “fine” and adds that he hopes his family is doing well and wishes to see them soon.

That video was the first known footage of the journalist since a May 2016 image was released showing him sporting a long beard and wearing an orange outfit resembling that of other IS hostages.

That image, in which he is seen holding a sign in Japanese reading “Please help. This is the last chance,” was widely seen as a message to the Japanese government. The hostage-takers said at the time that Yasuda would be handed over to the Islamic State group unless the government began negotiations within a month.

Yasuda is reportedly being held by an arm of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an al-Qaida-linked militant group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front. The group is reportedly seeking a $10 million (¥1.1 billion) ransom.

Yasuda went missing after entering Syria from neighboring Turkey in June 2015. Video footage of him reading a message to his family was also posted on Facebook in March 2016.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the aid of Russia, has in recent years recaptured large swaths of the country that had been taken by rebels during a bloody seven-year-long civil war. The shifting ground and targeting of extremist groups by Syrian, Russian and U.S. airstrikes has also left Yasuda in a precarious situation, with some observers fearing the group holding him could be caught up in a bombing raid.