Japan’s prime minister expressed outrage on Sunday at an image released Saturday that appeared to show the decapitated body of one of two Japanese hostages captured by Islamic State militants, and President Obama condemned what he called a “brutal murder.”
The kidnappers had threatened to kill the men if a Friday deadline passed for a $200 million ransom from Japan. On Saturday, a video appeared in which one of the hostages, Kenji Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, was shown holding a photo of what appeared to be the decapitated body of the other hostage, Haruna Yukawa, 42, an adventurer.
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said that while experts were still analyzing the photo, it had “a high chance of being real.” Speaking on a television debate show, Mr. Abe condemned the apparent killing of Mr. Yukawa as an “outrageous and unforgivable act of violence,” and demanded the immediate release of Mr. Goto.
The United States and Japanese governments have been scrambling to authenticate the video containing the image, and an accompanying audio of what purports to be Mr. Goto’s voice conveying a new demand by his captors. SITE Intelligence, an organization that tracks jihadist propaganda, said that it believed the image of Mr. Yukawa’s dead body was authentic. But Al Furqan, a media arm of the Islamic State that has in the past posted videos of the group’s beheadings, had not released anything confirming the apparent killing. A statement by SITE said the video was posted on Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The audio message accompanying the video said the Islamic State no longer demanded ransom for the second Japanese hostage, but instead offered to free him in exchange for the release of a woman facing the death penalty in Jordan for her role in a deadly 2005 bombing there. Mr. Obama, who was traveling to India, issued a statement saying that the “United States strongly condemns the brutal murder of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa by the terrorist group ISIL.”
American officials also appear close to concluding the video was real. Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in an email Saturday night that “the U.S. intelligence community has no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video.”
If the video is authentic, then the other hostage, Mr. Goto, remains alive, and is still being used by the Islamic State as a bargaining chip. Mr. Yukawa, a self-described military contractor who was captured in Syria in August, would be the first Japanese person to be killed by the Islamic State, which has established a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq financed partly by ransom payments for kidnapped foreigners.
The SITE statement said a still image of Mr. Goto in shackles shows him holding a photo of a beheaded man, which it said was Mr. Yukawa. The video that included the still image was removed from YouTube early Saturday. The Islamic State has beheaded three Americans and two Britons in recent months, and showcased the killings via Internet video postings.
The Japanese men’s fate has become a fixation in Japan in recent days and a challenge for Mr. Abe. Political analysts have said the killing might turn Japan’s still pacifist public against Mr. Abe’s efforts to give the nation a more active role in global affairs. The size of the ransom demand for the two hostages matched the amount of aid that Mr. Abe recently pledged to help with refugee relief and other nonlethal efforts by Middle East nations to deal with the Islamic State.
As he let the ransom deadline pass, apparently without paying the money, Mr. Abe had vowed that Japan would not be intimidated. After the image of the corpse appeared, a grim-faced Mr. Abe rushed to the prime minister’s office to oversee this latest twist to the hostage crisis that began Tuesday, when a video posted online showed the hostages kneeling as a knife-wielding militant threatened to kill them.
Mr. Abe held an emergency meeting of his ministers overnight during which he said he directed them to use every possible avenue to free Mr. Goto.
“I feel strong outrage,” Mr. Abe told reporters after the meeting. “The Japanese government will not give in to terrorism and will continue to contribute to the peace and stability of the international community and the world.”
In the three-minute audio recording released Saturday, the voice of a man who claimed to be Mr. Goto said Mr. Yukawa had been “slaughtered” and blamed Mr. Abe’s failure to pay the ransom. (In the audio, the voice says he is Kenji Goto Jogo; it remained unclear late Saturday why that was different from the name given by the Japanese government and his own website.)
The audio is addressed to Mr. Goto’s wife, telling her that the Islamic State was now demanding the release of the woman imprisoned in Jordan, Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi.
“They no longer want money,” the voice says in accented English. “You bring them their sister from the Jordanian regime, and I will be released immediately. Me for her. Don’t let these be my last words you ever hear. Don’t let Abe also kill me.”
The devastating attack in Jordan in November 2005 — a triple bombing of hotels in Jordan’s capital, Amman — killed dozens of people and is referred to there as Jordan’s 9/11. Ms. Rishawi’s husband blew himself up in a wedding hall, but her suicide belt failed to detonate.
Ms. Rishawi is Iraqi, and her family comes from a tribe in Anbar Province, where in 2005 Al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched and where the Islamic State now holds sway. Still, as a low-level operator and a failure at her mission, Ms. Rishawi seemed an odd choice for the Islamists’ focus, since Jordan is holding far more important extremist prisoners.
The release of the video came after Mr. Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, issued a plea at a Tokyo news conference Friday to the kidnappers, beseeching them to spare his life and asserting that he was not an enemy of Islam.
On Saturday, Japanese officials said they still had not reached the kidnappers or confirmed their location despite days of what they described as frantic efforts to do so. Japanese officials never specified whether they were willing to pay any ransom to the Islamic State. Japan paid to free kidnapped citizens in at least one previous case, in 1999, spending $3 million to secure the release of four mining experts held in Kyrgyzstan.
“This action is an unforgivable act of violence that leaves us at a loss for words, and we condemn it,” said the top Japanese government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga. “We strongly urge that the remaining hostage, Mr. Goto, not be harmed and be immediately released.”
As hope that the hostages would be freed alive has dwindled, Mr. Abe has faced criticism for embroiling Japan in a conflict of little direct import to his nation. On the whole, however, the debate has been relatively muted, as the nation anxiously awaited the fate of the hostages.
Amateur videos have appeared online calling for the release of the hostages. Some show people holding up signs saying, “I am Kenji,” echoing the “I am Charlie” rallying cry that spread in France after the recent terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Goto is a freelance journalist with experience covering wars and humanitarian crises whose photos have appeared on the front pages of many Japanese newspapers. He vanished in late October, after reportedly going into Syria to seek the release of Mr. Yukawa.
Source: NY Times