Lives at Stake

Did Japan Botch ISIS Hostage Deal?

The country’s ISIS hostage crisis is a tragedy—one that its government helped to create. Is the Abe administration more concerned with saving face than saving lives?

TOKYO—ISIS says it will kill two Japanese hostages if the Japanese government fails to pay a $200 million ransom by 12:50 a.m. ET Friday.

But The Daily Beast has learned that the current crisis might have been averted last year if the Japanese government had not interfered in negotiations to save the first hostage captured by the terrorist group. Indeed, even now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration seems more interested in saving face than saving lives.

ISIS, which has already executed thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, as well as international aid workers and reporters, captured Haruna Yukawa, the founder of a private security company, in northern Syria in August 2014. The next month, the group asked Japanese journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka to mediate the trial it was planning to stage against Yukawa, 42, whom it suspected of being a spy. Tsuneoka, who was held hostage in 2010 in Afghanistan and is one of the few Japanese journalists with a pipeline to ISIS, told The Daily Beast last year that the group invited him and Japanese Muslim scholar Hassan Ko Nakata to follow the trial as an Arabic translator.

But Tsuneoka said he and Nakata were not allowed to travel to Syria to try to negotiate Yukawa’s release after the police raided their homes on October 6, a day before their planned departure, and seized their passports. Tsuneoka was detained for questioning for 24 hours but was not arrested.

Police sources said the raid stemmed from an ongoing police investigation into Tsuneoka’s involvement with a student who may have been attempting to join ISIS. Tsuneoka and the student are under suspicion of violating the rarely enforced Article 93 of Japan’s criminal code, which prohibits “preparing or plotting to wage war privately upon a foreign state”; if arrested, tried, and convicted, the two could face up to five years in prison. Tsuneoka has denied the allegations, though he acknowledges buying an airplane ticket for the student, who had no credit card.

The day after the raid, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that Japan would take measures to “curb extremists.” Japanese nationals would be barred from traveling to Syria, Iraq, or other countries in pursuit of terrorist acts and from offering financial resources to terrorists and extremist groups, in line with domestic law.

In late October, after negotiations for Yukawa’s release had collapsed due to Tsuneoka’s detention, the freelance journalist Kenji Goto arrived in Syria, seeking to establish contact with ISIS and free Yukawa, a friend he had met the previous spring. On October 25, he vanished. His family received an email in November demanding a $10 million ransom for his return. The Japanese government knew he had been kidnapped but did not make the news public.

Government officials have not contacted Tsuneoka or spoken with Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, since Goto, 47, and Yukawa appeared in the ISIS ransom video this week. On Friday morning, a tearful Ishido appeared at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and pleaded with ISIS to spare her son.

Tsuneoka, who took the Muslim first name Shamil when he converted to Islam in February 2000, began traveling to Muslim countries including Syria in 1992, where he sought to make contact with Islamist groups to report more accurately on the Middle East. He has since met with groups affiliated with al Qaeda and with Taliban and ISIS commanders, he says, and he showed The Daily Beast a picture of himself sitting beneath a black ISIS flag with a man he identified as an ISIS commander named Omar Ghrabah. The picture was taken in October 2013 in a village in Syria’s Idlib Province, he said.

“The first time I met Omar Ghrabah, I didn’t even know I was in his territory,” Tsuneoka said. “When I realized it, I thought I was in great danger, but I was relieved when he told me that I didn’t need to be worried because I was introduced to him by the commander of Jund al-Sham, another Islamic group.” He added, “I was well treated by Omar Ghrabah and I really felt welcomed.”

With the ISIS deadline looming for the two hostages, Tsuneoka and Nakata, the interpreter, are not in touch with the ISIS commander. Because of the police investigation, the two asked the group to delete their online communications and the Facebook account they used. Tsuneoka says he is not optimistic about the fate of the hostages.

“As the situation has suddenly taken a dramatic turn, I do not think that the hostages will be released,” Tsuneoka told a press conference Thursday. “However, I am fully open to helping the Foreign Ministry engage in discussions with ISIS if the Japanese authorities allow me to.”

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There has been some speculation in Japan that the government’s inaction leading up to the release of the hostage video was an attempt to deepen the country’s involvement in the fight against ISIS and justify its remilitarization. Since last year, Abe and his Cabinet have been pushing for a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution under the guise of “collective self-defense” that would allow Japan to go to war with its allies. They also have announced intentions to abolish Article 9, the Japanese constitutional clause that forsakes warfare. These moves have met with widespread opposition among the Japanese but have been downplayed in Japan’s increasingly compliant media.

Now a backlash against the government’s handling of the crisis is growing, with thousands of people tweeting, with some sarcasm, that the prime minister should give himself up to ISIS in exchange for Goto.

Abe told reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday that the hostage taking was “unforgivable” and vowed to rescue the two men. “We strongly urge the group not to harm the Japanese,” he said. “Either way, Japan will not buckle to terrorism.”

Still, the Japanese government has not answered some important questions: When did the authorities learn that Goto had been kidnapped and why did they hush it up? Why have they spurned offers of help from individuals who might be able to negotiate with ISIS—unless they don’t really want the hostages to be rescued?

An official English-language statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 20 is a masterpiece of obfuscation and bizarre prose that does not even acknowledge that Japanese nationals were kidnapped.

One thing is clear: Two Japanese nationals are now pawns in a proxy war between Japan and ISIS, and for both sides, the men appear to be expendable.