One is a famous freelance journalist who thought his Japanese nationality would protect him when he traveled to Syria two months after the video execution of American freelancer James Foley.
The other is often described in Japanese news stories as a mentally ill military wannabe who was well-known among moderate Syrian rebels as a war tourist who enjoyed traveling to the front lines but appeared to lack any particular reason for being there.
Tuesday, they became the latest hostages to be threatened with death by the Islamic State in an online video that felt familiar in its brutality and setting – men in orange jumpsuits menaced by a black-garbed, knife-wielding, English-speaking terrorist – but with an important difference: a demand for a $200 million ransom that was both staggering in its size and the first time the Islamic State has openly offered to trade lives for money.
The amount was apparently selected to match a recent pledge by Japan to provide $200 million in aid to countries affected by the Islamic State crisis.
“To the Japanese public, just as how your government has made the foolish decision to pay $200 million to fight the Islamic State, you now have 72 hours to pressure your government into making a wise decision by paying the $200 million to save the lives of your citizens,” said the masked militant, who appeared to be the same English-speaking jihadi implicated in the beheadings of four other hostages: Foley, American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines. An American aid worker, Peter Kassig, also was executed and his head displayed in another video, but the manner of his death is uncertain.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short a state trip to Israel to return home to confront the crisis. Before he left Jerusalem, he said Japan would work hard to secure the release of the two hostages but cryptically added that Japan would “never give in to terrorism.”
The $200 million represents one of the largest ransom demands in modern history, and the 72-hour deadline led a private security contractor who’s familiar with Islamic State kidnappings to conclude that the demand wasn’t made in good faith.
“That’s not enough time to put together the money and deliver it,” said the contractor, who spoke only anonymously because of his involvement in other hostage cases. “I can only conclude that this is another shock tactic by the group, as they’re killed most of their Western hostages and want to return to reminding the world of their brutality.”
The emergence of the new video surprised followers of the Islamic State. The group is known to hold two other hostages, a female American aid worker who’s never appeared in a video or been publicly identified by her family or the U.S. government, and British journalist John Cantlie, who’s appeared in an increasingly bizarre series of propaganda videos extolling the virtues of life under the Islamic State.
European intelligence services have been accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in ransom for a series of kidnapped Danish, French, Spanish and Italian aid workers and journalists, while the United States and United Kingdom have publicly refused to negotiate ransoms for their hostages. In one of his videos, Cantlie excoriated his country for refusing to negotiate for his freedom. After Foley’s death, it was revealed that the Islamic State at one point had sought $120 million for his release.
But the idea that two Japanese would be targeted for execution was something of a surprise. Japan hasn’t joined the U.S.-led military coalition that’s battling the Islamic State and the aid it had pledged was expected to go to assisting refugees.
Japan is thought to have paid ransoms before, but it’s not certain whether it would be willing to do so this time.
Private security specialists in kidnapping – who refused to be identified, as they often work along the border between Syria and Turkey – confirmed a Japanese news report that the journalist, Kenji Goto, had entered Islamic State territory in October despite heavy news coverage of the executions of Foley, Sotloff and the two British aid workers.
“He thought being Japanese would protect him, and he was trying to get an exclusive interview with members of the group,” said one security contractor familiar with the efforts to win Goto’s release.
The other, Haruna Yukawa, offers a bizarre story, that of a war tourist who had no other reason to be in Syria.
“He would just show up with a camera and sometimes a gun and say he was a journalist or a consultant, but it was obvious there was something wrong with the man,” said Abu Anas, a onetime fighter with a moderate rebel group that’s since disbanded. “A lot of people ended up not wanting him around because he was crazy.”
In a video released in August after Yukawa was captured by the Islamic State, he told his interrogators that he was a doctor and a photojournalist but was mocked by off camera Islamic State members, speaking English, for being armed. A website he established for his private security company – which failed to mention that he’d never received any military training – showed several photographs of Yukawa traveling with Syrian rebels armed.