The Islamic State on Saturday claimed it had murdered Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa after Japan failed to pay a $200 million ransom for two men it kidnapped last year in Syria.
In a departure from its previous practice of posting a video of the murder, the Islamic State posted a two-minute audio recording of the other hostage, journalist Kenji Goto, saying that Yukawa had been beheaded by the group. A still photo of Goto holding yet another still photo of what appeared to be Yukawa’s body accompanied the audio.
Deputy National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said U.S. officials were “working to confirm” the recording’s authenticity.
In the statement, Goto said the Islamic State had changed its demands for his release. Instead of the $200 million ransom, the group now wanted the release of an Iraqi woman, Sajida al Rishawi, whose suicide belt failed as she attempted to bomb a wedding reception at the Raddison Hotel in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 and who is now in a Jordanian prison.
Rishawi’s husband succeeded in detonating his belt, however, killing 38 of the 900 guests at the reception. Simultaneously, bombers struck two others hotels in the largest operation ever mounted outside Iraq by the Islamic State’s precursor, al Qaida in Iraq. Scores were killed, most of whom were Jordanians.
Rishawi was described at the time as the sister of a top aide to al Qaida in Iraq’s founder, Mousab al Zarqawi, but it’s unknown what role, if any, her brother now plays in the Islamic State.
Negotiations for Goto’s life are likely to be complicated by the Islamic State’s capture in December of a Jordanian Air Force pilot whose plane went down over Syria on a bombing mission. The Jordanians are reported to be negotiating independently for the pilot’s life and any deal to release Rishawi would almost certainly have to involve a deal for the pilot’s freedom.
“I am Kenji Goto Jogo,” the unconfirmed voice said in English on the recording posted Saturday. “You have seen the photo of my cellmate Haruna slaughtered in the land of the Islamic Caliphate. You were warned. You were given a deadline and so my captives acted upon their words.”
Then he addressed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “Abe, you killed Haruna. You did not take the threats of my captors seriously and you did not act within the 72 hours.”
The statement made it clear that the Islamic State was appealing directly to the Japanese public to pressure the government into what it claims was a rational demand and a fairer one than the $200 million ransom – an amount many hostage-negotiation experts felt was never a good-faith proposal, since the 72-hour period was too short to arrange for delivery of such an enormous amount.
“Please don't let Abe do the same for my case,” he said, addressing his family. “Don't give up. You along with our family, friends, and my colleagues in the independent press must continue to pressure our government. Their demand is easier. They are being fair. They no longer want money.”
After blaming Abe for not acting quickly enough to save Yukawa’s life, Goto then explained how Japanese government representatives could save him by arranging a swap for the Iraqi woman currently in Jordanian custody.
“It is simple. You give them Sajida and I will be released,” he said in English. “At the moment, it actually looks possible and our government are indeed a stone throw away. How? Our government representatives are ironically in Jordan, where their sister Sajida is held prisoner by the Jordanian regime.”
Goto, a well known freelance journalist, was abducted attempting to enter the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa in October, after the Islamic State had murdered two American journalists and two British aid workers it had kidnapped. Some news outlets have claimed he was undertaking a mission to win the release of his friend, Yukawa, who’d been taken in August after the Islamic State found him carrying a weapons while traveling with a group of moderate rebels.
Yakuma had been widely described by both acquaintances and the Japanese media as mentally ill and had been in Syria attempting to form a private security company despite having no practical military experience. He alternated between telling Syrian rebels that he was a doctor or a photojournalist and was often described in Syrian rebel circles as a “war tourist.”
The Islamic State is believed to have raised tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from France, Italy, Spain, Denmark and other European countries paid to win the freedom of journalists and aidworkers the Islamic State had kidnapped in Syria. The Islamic State blamed the United States and Great Britain’s policy of not negotiating or paying ransom for the deaths of three Americans, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, and two Britons, Alan Henning and David Haines.