Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The ISIL/IS Ultimatum regarding the Two Japanese Hostages

I was not going to write about this, but I got a phone call from a journalist in which it was one of the issues that was raised so I responded; I’m pledged to cooperate with students, academics, and journalists (and no, they don’t have to cite me, though they usually do). No thoughts were very preliminary, so I’ve written the following memo for clarification after some googling and contemplation.

First, it is my understanding that Al-Qaeda has relied largely on donors, while ISIS/Islam State is essentially a self-financing organization that includes kidnaping for ransom as part of its modus operandi. That is why Al-Qaeda quickly executed the Japanese man during the post-war insurgency, for show and intimidation.

It is also my understanding is that many European nations do quietly ransom hostages, while America and Israel do not. This difference is the main reason for the different fates of Western hostages of ISIL/IS. The Japanese government has negotiated with terrorists and paid ransom to have hostages released in the past. I am now certain that will do so in the case of Mssrs. Goto and Yukawa, the two Japanese men threatened with execution in 72 hours unless the Japanese government pays ransom. I had some doubts in the beginning, but the chief cabinet secretary stated that the Japanese government would “cooperate with countries concerned to act with the top priority on human life,” which is essentially code for “we will negotiate as required.”

However, I have cause to fear that the attempt will not be successful this time. I do not believe that ISIL/IS expects the Japanese government to pay ransom, much less full the 200 million dollars. Instead, I believe that it is trying to send a political message to the Japanese government in the light of Prime Minister Abe’s high profile visit and the 20 billion yen pledge for humanitarian aid. If it were serious, it would have conducted everything sub rosa, as it appears to have done with the Europeans. Conducted openly, it will be difficult for ISIL/IS to settle for anything less than the outlandish asking price, presumably well beyond its typical asking price.

The Abe administration will also have difficulty meeting the asking price. First, unlike the previous known cases where negotiations have succeeded, the two men did put their lives at significant risk voluntarily, although one of them, a freelance journalist, apparently deserves unqualified sympathy and praise for doing so. Public opinion in Japan has not been kindly to such people, although I hope that they share my sentiments towards the journalist. Second, the ransom would finance the activities of ISIL/IS, which would symbolically and effectively cancel out the 20 billion yen humanitarian aid. But the public nature of the ISIL/IS demand makes it difficult to bargain down the ransom.

Thus, I fear the worst. Never have I hoped as I do now, that I am wrong. Yet I cannot stand the thought that Japanese money will be used to sustain ISIL/IS activities. My only personal consolation is that it is Prime Minster Abe task, not mine, to grasp the horns of this dilemma.


Robert Dujarric said...

Actually, the US and Israel pay. They used different currencies. Israel frees large number of detainees (some of them charged with rather severe acts) in exchange for just one live Israeli or a few dead ones. The US also does this, though generally with better exchange ratio (partly because it's a lot of easier for Israel than the US to capture high or medium value targets). Also the US paid North Korea in prestige (visits by American dignitaries) in to get Americans releases.
And of course, there's no proof that no money changed hands .

Matt D said...

Money is entirely fungible. If Abe gives money to, for example, Iraq for hospitals, then that is money that can be saved and thus other funds can be freed to buy weapons.

That is, a government collects money and spends money. If they collect *extra* money, they can spend more money on weapons. So saying that money is humanitarian aid or something isn't really genuine. It's just a means of political cover.

So in this case, clearly Abe is providing aid to a country at war. Given the enemy, it's easy to be sympathetic to this. ISIL is a force of evil. However, to what extent has Abe created a consensus in Japan for providing aid to another country at war? That is, is there a consensus in Japan that people want Abe to go into the middle east, take sides in a deadly conflict, and then boast about it?

This is a typical way politicians drive the public toward aggression. The political leadership engages in what on the surface appear to be unobtrusive acts (humanitarian aid), but are actually provocative acts (aiding and abetting one side in a violent conflict), then when these provocations result in reprisal, everyone acts surprised and innocent. They say, why are they attacking us? We didn't do anything.

I hope this doesn't have the effect of creating a general atmosphere where revising the constitution appears to be more viable. I hope people rightly understand that Abe was overseas engaging in provocative actions, and this hostage situation was a consequence.

Of course, ISIL is quite evil. But as to whether quashing this evil or not is Japan's responsibility or in Japan's self-interest is another matter altogether.

Jun Okumura said...

Robert, Matt, thank you for your comments and for your constant aversion to anonymity.

Robert, your point about “prisoner” exchanges is well taken regarding military personnel and public officials. And your point about the lack of evidence regarding monetary payments by the U.S. government is also valid. That said, given the highly favorable “exchange” rates that the U.S. government offers, I would be very surprised if cash sweeteners were require to seal the deal.

Matt, your point about seemingly innocuous initiatives mushrooming into more sinister operations is a useful one, something that we must always be on the watch for. But this is not the first time that the Japanese government has provided humanitarian and related assistance in the Middle East, and it will not be the last. But if you are strongly suspicious of Mr. Abe’s intentions, as I suspect you are, rest assured, Komeito will never allow him to do what you fear.

My take on Mr. Abe’s most recent efforts to raise Japan’s profile in the Middle East is related, but somewhat different. I believe that they are one with his efforts to reinforce security relationships with likeminded countries broadly speaking. Here, I am referring to the regular security 2-by-2s not just with the U.S. but also Australia, France, and the U.K. (pending? And, yikes, Russia? Okay, established in balmier times), testing the waters on joint weapon systems development (not just the U.S. but also Australia, France, U.K.), and what else. Not exactly “containment”—China is too big and too interconnected to contain—but I see a common realist thread running through these efforts. One may disagree with all or parts of it, but it does seem to be consistent and, so far, effective.

Matt D said...

"Mr. Abe’s government on Monday convened a session of parliament in which it plans to introduce legislation that will allow Japan to engage in “collective self-defense,” including aiding allies such as the U.S. in regional conflicts threatening Japan’s security, and to come to the rescue of Japanese citizens abroad."


Well, that didn't take long. Interestingly, in the article Ichiro Ozawa makes the same point that I made, only in even stronger language:

"The prime minister says it’s humanitarian aid and that he’s not sending ammunition, weapons or troops, but wars aren’t just about firing guns. Soldiers cannot fight without food. Mr. Abe basically went all the way over there and gave a speech which could be interpreted by the Islamic State as a declaration of war."

Again, I don't see anything whatsoever conspiratorial here. All the actors actions are open to the public and well intended. It's just how these things happen to play out historically. Intervention provokes reaction which provokes even more intervention.