The following is a Q&A that I wrote out just in time for a morning CCTV English interview on the two Japanese taken hostage by Islamic State. It went largely as scripted, with a few other points that came up in the course of the conversation.
1. How were Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa kidnapped in Syria? How is the Japanese government reacting to the IS threat?
Not sure about the first. Yukawa seems to have been with moderate rebel forces in Syria around the time of capture, but there’s too much speculative information out there to be sure of anything. Goto is a well-respected and seasoned freelance journalist devoted to humanitarian issues, so he had good reason to be in the neighborhood.
The Japanese government has issued a statement in which it demands the hostages’ immediate release and states that “Japan will not give in to terrorism, and our position of contributing to the counter-terrorism efforts by the international community remains unchanged.”
2. In its video, the Islamist State extremist group criticized Japan’s pledge to aid countries against it. But it also demanded a ransom. What’s the true purpose of the Islamic State?
-- It marks the first time the Islamic State has demanded cash for hostages.
Actually, holding hostages for ransom is part of the Islamic State’s modus operandi. But in this case, I do not believe that Islamic State expects the ransom to be paid. I believe that the very public and outlandish demand—all such demands are outrageous, but the amount, matching the most recent Japanese humanitarian pledge, dwarfs estimates of Islamic State’s take from previous hostage-taking operations—is largely symbolic and is intended to put the Japanese government on notice for its most recent high-profile diplomatic and humanitarian initiative.
3. Will Japan cave in and pay the ransom of 200 million dollars? What’s public response like in Japan? Do they pay ransom as the French does or follow a similar approach to the US in refusing to pay?
The public response is dismay, and anger, in equal parts. The media demands that we must stand resolute, and that the hostages must be released. My guess is that the Japanese government is willing to discreetly pay a suitable sum to rescue the hostages. But the very public nature of the Islamic State’s demand makes it extremely difficult to negotiate a mutually agreeable outcome, even if Islamic State is willing.
4. From your observation, is Japan going to pay the ransom? Or will it attempt a risky rescue inside Syria？
I think that I already answered your first question. As for your second, no, not even the United States could rescue its citizens from Islamic State. The question is moot though. Japan does have a SWAT team of sorts, but it has never been tested in this kind of situation, and there is strong public aversion to using force overseas.
5. Will this affect Japan’s policy on the issue of fighting terrorism? Japan hasn’t really been active in dealing with terrorism, as it is basically isolated from terror threat. Will Japan be prompted to do more or be more actively supporting the fight against IS?
I believe that the Japanese government’s policy will remain unchanged. I trust that the Japanese government will continue to support counterterrorism efforts, including against Islamic State, but not as combatants. Never. I expect it to continue to provide humanitarian aid and other assistance for what could be called passive, nonmilitary means to enhance security.