Standoff

ISIS’s New Hostage Threat

Mixing ruthlessness with political acumen, the terror group is now threatening a Jordanian pilot with immediate execution unless a female terrorist is freed by sunset Thursday.

TOKYO—A new audio clip attributed to a Japanese hostage held by the self-proclaimed Islamic State said a Jordanian would be executed “immediately” unless Jordan released a woman terrorist by Thursday at sunset. “I’m Kenji Goto Jogo,” the voice in the clip says. “This is a voice message I’ve been told to send to you. If Sajida al Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh will be killed immediately.”

The ultimatum came hours after Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, appeared to have reached a deal that could spare the life of the pilot and, possibly, lead to the liberation of Goto, a Japanese journalist. But Jordan’s foreign minister said that there was no proof the pilot is still alive, and Jordanian officials have made no reference to Goto. With the new audio clip the situation seemed to have reached a standoff: ISIS is using Goto to demand the release of the woman in exchange for the pilot's life, but Jordan will not release the woman, Sajida al Rishawi, unless it gets what hostage negotiators call "proof of life" for al Kasasbeh.

Earlier, the Jordanian government announced that al Rishawi would be released as long as the pilot is freed safe and sound. Whether money has been paid or promised to ISIS in the meantime remains an open question. It had originally demanded $200 million from Tokyo in order to free the two Japanese hostages it held, then beheaded one of them to underscore its serious intent.

What is clear from its demands as they were presented and evolved over the last few days is that ISIS is calling this cruel tune. It may be led by a group of religious fanatics who carry out gruesome campaigns of conquest and terror, but it is also a skilled political player, showing flexibility and shrewd judgment about its opponents whether they are right next to the war zone in the deserts of the Middle East, half way around the world on the Pacific Rim, or, for that matter, on the banks of the Potomac.

Although much of the international publicity surrounding the latest hostage drama focused at first on the two Japanese captives, journalist Kenji Goto and his eccentric former assistant Haruna Yukawa, who was killed, the most important prisoner held by ISIS from the organization’s own point of view probably is the captured Jordanian fighter pilot.

When Muadh al Kasasbeh’s F-16 crashed near the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria on Dec. 24, he was injured but taken alive and ISIS posted pictures of him, half-naked, being carried from the scene.  From that point on, he became a useful tool for ISIS propagandists, but the question was, to what end? As we have learned from the treatment of other hostages, from the beheading of American journalist James Foley to the use of Briton John Cantlie as a kind of YouTube correspondent, ISIS exploits its captives in the ways it thinks will win it maximum impact.

The first major objective of ISIS is to consolidate control over swaths of territory on the ground in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, and Jordan presents a significant obstacle to those ambitions. Jordanian King Abdullah joined the U.S.-led coalition created to fight ISIS last summer, hence al Kasasbeh’s F-16 mission over Raqqa. And U.S.-supported military units made up of Syrian exiles are widely reported to be training in Jordan for combat against the jihadis on the ground in their home country.

The Jordanian intelligence services are known for their long experience combating al Qaeda, ISIS, and the organization that spawned it. In 2006, they played a key role hunting down and killing Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was a Jordanian jihadi in Iraq who founded the al Qaeda branch there, exploited the global shock created by beheading Western hostages on video, incited civil war against Shiites, and generally wrote the playbook that ISIS, an offshoot of his organization, follows to this day. Sajida al Rishawi, the woman terrorist who was jailed in Jordan in 2005 after her suicide vest failed to detonate, was part of a Zarqawi operation that killed scores of people in simultaneous attacks on upscale hotels in Amman.

Although Jordan under King Abdullah has undergone a rapid process of modernization, much of the country—and the core constituency of his Hashemite dynasty—remains strongly tribal. Al Kasasbeh is from one of the most influential of those tribes in the ancient hilltop city of Kerak, and his father, since the day of his capture, has tried to put pressure on both ISIS and on the king to try to get his son released. He addressed the terrorists as he would Arabs of the desert bound by their own codes of honor. He encouraged the king to make any arrangement he could that would win the young al Kasasbeh’s freedom.

Those negotiations might have gone on for months, and al Kasasbeh still might have paid with his life. Indeed, there are widespread suspicions in Amman that he was tortured and killed soon after his capture. But when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a tour through the region this month decided to announce that his government would contribute $200 million to assistance for those refugees displaced by the war with ISIS, the terror-state’s leaders accused Abe of backing the war against them. They already had Goto and Yukawa in captivity and decided to make a political point by demanding $200 million in ransom. It is doubtful that ISIS ever expected to get anything like that much money, and not clear that it believed it would get any money at all. But it quickly developed a strategy.

ISIS killed Yukawa, apparently to underscore its determination to get some sort of payment, then published on the Web last weekend a photograph of Goto holding a photograph of the decapitated Yukawa with what probably was Goto’s recorded voice explaining that the price of his freedom was no longer money but would be the liberation of al Rishawi.

Then, in another video released this week, Goto’s voice over a photograph claimed that if al Rishawi were not released from prison, both he and al Kasasbeh would be killed in a matter of hours. He held a photo of al Kasasbeh, bearded, in his hand. He said al Kasasbeh would die first.

The immediate effect in Jordan was to create dissension. Would King Abdullah release a convicted terrorist on death row to save a Japanese journalist and still leave a Jordanian pilot in the cruel hands of ISIS?

Al Kasasbeh’s family and supporters staged a protest in Amman on Tuesday night, arguing that al Rishawi had served almost 10 years in prison already and if her release was all that ISIS required, it was worth exchanging her for Muadh, but not for the Japanese journalist alone.

King Abdullah was put in a position where failure to reach an arrangement would make him look as if he were putting the priorities of his alliance with the Americans, who refuse all hostage negotiations, and possibly his relationship with the Japanese, who are major aid donors, above the interests of Jordan and one of its most powerful tribes.

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Al Kasasbeh’s father, Safi al Kasasbeh, spoke bluntly to the Associated Press: “The safety of Muadh means the stability of Jordan, and the death of Muadh means chaos in Jordan.” That is, of course, exactly what ISIS wants.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Abe also found himself in what amounted to a no-win situation after what he called the “despicable” hostage videos.

ISIS has kept alive the most well-known and in many respects the most sympathetic of its two Japanese captives. Kenji Goto, the 47-year-old freelance TV reporter, is known for covering the human side of war in dangerous conflict zones. Since he founded his news agency, Independent Press, in 1996, Goto has reported on conflicts in Chechnya, Albania, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, among other places. In an interview last year, Goto said he converted to Christianity, because he was afraid of dying alone in a war zone far from his home.

The documentaries Goto produced have aired frequently on NHK, Japan’s government broadcasting network, and they often tell the stories of women and children. Although he has been called a “war reporter,” he has been in fact an anti-war reporter, never shrinking from showing the human cost for every act of wartime aggression.

Henry Tricks, the former bureau chief for The Economist in Tokyo who met Goto in 2010, described Goto recently on the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists as a gentle, soft-spoken man and loving father of three children.

“He is not a typical reporter, nor is he typically Japanese,” wrote Tricks. “But his courage and commitment to broadcasting humane stories from some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones would put him at the pinnacle of his profession anywhere in the world. It was such courage that took him to Syria last year, where he was taken hostage.”

Critics of the Japanese prime minister have taken issue with what they see as his posturing on this Mideast tour and his handling of the negotiations since ISIS announced its threat to behead the Japanese hostages.

Osamu Miyata, president of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, said at a press conference Wednesday that Abe’s announcement in Cairo on Jan. 17 of the $200 million in aid to those “contending with ISIS” was poorly timed. He said Abe did this knowing that two Japanese nationals were held hostage, and he should have known he’d probably anger the people living inside ISIS-controlled territories. Miyata also said that using the word “terrorists” while addressing different Syrian-based groups could have been received as a provocation by the ISIS members. “It is my personal hope that the Japanese government and people will start understanding the Islamic world better,” said Miyata.

A journalist friend of Goto wrote to The Daily Beast that “if the worst happens, Abe will bear part of the responsibility, I reckon. Shoddy diplomatic maneuvering.”

According to friends and associates, Kenji Goto met with Haruna Yukawa in April 2014, when Yukawa was captured by members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, but that’s a group that gets substantial Western support and Yukawa was released at once with Goto’s assistance. Three months later, just before his second capture, Yukawa spent a week working as Goto’s assistant in Iraq, where the veteran journalist gave him survival tips. But Yukawa, who seems to have been mentally unstable and fancied himself a security consultant or soldier of fortune, returned to the war zone and was captured a second time around July 2014.

Hours before Goto’s fateful flight to Syria in October, he told fellow journalist Toshi Maeda that he wanted to go to Raqqa to film U.S. airstrikes in the area. Maeda said, “Goto seemed very tired and rushed as he was packing. He told me he had a fixer this time who could get him deeper into Syrian territory.”

On Oct. 25, Goto recorded a video insisting he would take full responsibility for his decision. He said he was determined to tell the stories of the Syrian people who “have been suffering three years and a half. It’s enough...I want to get the story of what ISIS wants to do.”

The reason for his travel is still unclear, but sources close to Goto believe he tried to rescue Yukawa.

Last weekend on a television talk show, Prime Minister Abe suggested that the Japanese constitution be reinterpreted to not only allow Japan to fight in wars alongside its allies, under certain conditions, but also to possibly send in the Self-Defense Forces to rescue Japanese nationals abroad.

If there is one thing that would horrify Goto, a correspondent known for denouncing war, it would be to know that Abe used his capture to plunge Japan into more wars.

—With reporting from Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky