The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatened on Tuesday to kill two Japanese hostages unless it receives $200 million in 72 hours, demanding the ransom from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to the Middle East. He vowed to save the men, saying, "Their lives are the top priority."
However, he and other Japanese officials declined to say whether they would make the payment to save the men, identified in a video as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa. Their kidnapping has reminded many in Japan of the 2004 beheading of a Japanese backpacker in Iraq over Japan's involvement in the U.S.-led war there.
The video, identified as being made by ISIL’s Al-Furqan media arm and posted on websites associated with the armed group, mirrored other hostage threats ISIL has made. Japanese officials said they would analyze it to verify its authenticity, though Abe, speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, did not hesitate in pledging to free the men.
"It is unforgivable," said Abe, on a six-day visit to the Middle East with more than 100 government officials and presidents of Japanese companies. He added, "Extremism and Islam are completely different things."
In the video, the two men appear in orange jumpsuits with a rocky hill in the background, a masked man dressed in black standing between them. The scene resembles those in earlier videos of five hostages beheaded by ISIL, which controls a third of Iraq and Syria.
"To the prime minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,500 kilometers [about 5,280 miles] from ISIL, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," says the knife-brandishing fighter, who resembles and sounds like a British man involved in other recorded beheadings. "You have proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims ... and in an attempt to stop the expansion of ISIL, you have also donated another $100 million to train the [apostates]."
The comments likely refer to money Abe pledged while in Egypt to help Iraq's government and aid Syrian refugees.
Abe said he would send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister, to Jordan to seek the country's support and to resolve the hostage crisis. Abe also said the Israeli government, with which Japan promised Sunday to cooperate on counterterrorism, is sharing information to aid in the hostage crisis. The Israeli prime minister's office declined to comment.
Speaking in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to say whether Japan would pay the ransom. "If true, the act of threat in exchange of people's lives is unforgivable, and we feel strong indignation," he told journalists. "We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible."
Yukawa, a private military company operator in his early 40s, was kidnapped in Syria in August after going there to train with fighters, according to a post on a blog he kept. Pictures on his Facebook page show him in Iraq and Syria in July. One video on his page showed him holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle with the caption "Syria war in Aleppo 2014."
"I cannot identify the destination," Yukawa wrote in his last blog post. "But the next one could be the most dangerous." He added, "I hope to film my fighting scenes during an upcoming visit."
Nobuo Kimoto, an adviser to Yukawa's company, told Japanese public television station NHK that he worried "something like this could happen sooner or later … I was afraid that they could use Yukawa as a card."
Goto is an established Japanese freelance journalist who went to report on Syria's civil war last year and knew of Yukawa. "I'm in Syria for reporting," Goto wrote in an email to an Associated Press journalist in October. "I hope I can convey the atmosphere from where I am and share it."
ISIL has beheaded and shot dead hundreds of captives — mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers — during its sweep across the two countries and has celebrated its mass killings in extremely graphic videos. The group beheaded American hostages James Foley and Peter Kassig, Israeli-American Steven Sotloff and British captives David Haines and Alan Henning.
ISIL also holds British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has appeared in other propaganda videos, and a 26-year-old American woman captured last year in Syria while working for aid groups. U.S. officials have asked that the woman not be identified out of fears for her safety.
ISIL has suffered recent losses in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition, and with global oil prices down, its revenue from selling stolen oil has likely dropped as well. The fighters have also made money from extortion, illicit businesses and other criminal activities.
Fighters from the group recently released some 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq, fueling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group did not have the money to care for them.
In 2004 followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq beheaded Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda and wrapped his body in a U.S. flag over Japan's having troops in Iraq doing humanitarian work. A video by Zarqawi's group — which later became ISIL — showed Koda begging Japan's then–prime minister to save him.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press