Isis draws Japan into its war with threat to behead two of its nationals unless $200m ransom paid

The jihadists' demands may force Prime Minister Abe to toughen his stance against terrorism - despite the country having a pacifist constitution

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The Independent Online

Japan has been dragged into the turmoil of the Middle East after Isis militants threatened to behead two of its nationals. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been told he has 72 hours to pay $200m (£132m) for their release, or see them murdered.

Footage from the Isis video released today showed the now-familiar sight of a black-clad jihadist waving a knife as he talked to camera. His kneeling captives, identified as Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, flanked him with their hands tied behind their backs, dressed in orange jumpsuits. The threat, issued to Japan’s government as Mr Abe toured the Middle East, has stunned a country that has largely avoided the chaos in the region. Japan’s pacifist constitution has meant largely token military support for the “war on terror”.

Mr Abe reacted angrily, but said he would not bow to terrorism. “Using human lives as shields for a threat is an unforgivable act of terrorism,” he said in Jerusalem. “I am furious about this. These [two Japanese citizens] should be released immediately.”

Speaking English with a British accent, the masked terrorist said Japan had “willingly taken part in a holy war” and provided millions of dollars to “kill Muslim women and children and destroy Muslim homes”, an apparent reference to a pledge by Mr Abe of $200m in “non-military aid” to countries in the region fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or Isis. Mr Abe made the pledge in Cairo on Saturday as part of a $2.5bn aid package, perhaps dating the video to this week.

Japanese commentators speculate that the militant is the same man suspected of being involved in the murder of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, and US citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig.

Mr Goto is a well-known freelance journalist who has made documentaries in the Middle East for Japan’s state broadcaster NHK and other TV outlets. Friends said the 47-year-old left for his latest trip to cover the conflict in Syria last year. “Last time we saw him, all his friends said ‘You’d better not go back there,’ but he said he ‘had to’”, recalled Yuki Hidaka, a colleague of Mr Goto’s at NHK. “He wanted to convey what was happening in that part of the world.”

Mr Yukawa, 42, appears to have been a self-styled soldier of fortune when he was captured last August by Islamic militants. Colleagues say his life had unravelled before he left Tokyo last year and that he saw the Middle East conflict as a chance to make a fresh start as a security contractor to Japanese companies operating there. “He felt his life had reached its limit,” his father, Shoichi, told Reuters.

Haruna Yukawa after his capture by Isis

Their plight has triggered Japan’s first major hostage situation since January 2013, when Islamic militants took over a refinery in the Algerian desert. Ten Japanese workers died after Algerian soldiers stormed the plant four days later. Tokyo responded by pledging $120m in aid to fund an African-led campaign against radical Islamists in Mali, saying the money reflected its “unshaken resolve to fight terrorism”.

In the video, the jihadist said Japan would have to pay for its economic support against Isis. The size of the ransom suggests that Isis does not intend to release the men – France and Spain are known to have paid smaller amounts to free its citizens in 2014.

Japan relies on the Middle East for most of the crude oil it needs to run the world’s third-largest economy. Japan has been stepping up its efforts to build wider economic ties and has increased exports as Mr Abe has crisscrossed the region promoting Japanese technology and investment. His entourage includes more than 100 government officials and company bosses.


NHK said that Japan’s Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama, who is with Mr Abe, will travel to Jordan’s capital Amman to direct his government’s response. Analysts believe the hostages are being held in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital.

Mr Abe is known to support a wider military role for Japan in “peace-keeping missions” around the world. The hostage drama may weaken the country’s aversion to becoming embroiled in foreign conflicts. Mr Abe said Japan would “do its utmost” to free the two men. He said whatever happened, his country would continue to make contributions to peace and stability in the Middle East. “There will be no change to this policy.”