Islamic State Demands Swap After Video of Hostage Death

Islamic State militants dropped their demand for a $200 million ransom and are now seeking a prisoner exchange after the release of a video that purported to show the corpse of one of two Japanese hostages held by the group.

The video had images of hostage Kenji Goto holding a blurred photo purported to be the headless corpse of Haruna Yukawa, a self-styled security contractor, who was captured in Syria by Islamic State last summer. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday that analysis showed the video was “highly likely” to be credible.

On the soundtrack, a man claiming to be Goto, a war correspondent, pleads in English for his life and asks for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi. The Iraqi woman is on death row in a Jordanian prison for her part in the 2005 attacks on three hotels in Amman, where her husband acted as a suicide bomber.

“For IS, Sajida al-Rishawi is a symbol of a model fighter,” Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in an e-mail response to questions. “Both her husband and brother sacrificed their lives and she too was willing to sacrifice her life.”

Jordan in Focus

Islamic State’s change in tactics shifts attention to Jordan, which is part of the U.S.-led military coalition against the terrorist group in Syria.

Last year, Jordan returned a Libyan jihadist in exchange for the Jordanian ambassador to Libya, who had been taken hostage. The kingdom now may be looking for ways to secure the return of one of its pilots captured by Islamic State after his plane crashed in Syria.

“Each activity, either prisoner swap or money, still causes significant costs for the governments involved,” Ahmed Salah Hashim, an associate professor and deputy coordinator of the Military Studies Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by e-mail. “Prisoners’ exchange might be a psychological victory of major significance to the terrorists; money gives them resources,” he said.

“However, Jordan might make its own demand in return: we want our pilot, and the woman prisoner is not particularly significant.”

Al-Rishawi also has significance for Islamic State because of her close ties with Abu Masub al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, the nucleus of Islamic State, said Fayez Dweiri, a retired major general in the Jordanian army and a military analyst. Al-Zarqawi, a close collaborator of Osama bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006.

Al-Zarqawi

“For Islamic State, al-Zarqawi is their spiritual leader and since Rishawi was very close to him and engaged in a serious suicide attempt, Islamic State wants to save the remaining symbols of Islamic State and boost the morale of its fighters,” Dweiri said.

Yukawa purportedly was killed after Japan failed to pay the $200 million ransom within a 72-hour deadline set by the group in a Jan. 20 video that showed the two hostages kneeling before a knife-wielding militant. Islamic State set the amount of the ransom to match the $200 million in non-military aid that Abe pledged on Jan. 17 to countries affected by IS.

“They no longer want money,” Goto said in the message. “So, you don’t need to worry about funding terrorists. They are just demanding the release of their imprisoned sister Sajida al-Rishawi. It is simple. You give them Sajida and I will be released.”

High Costs

Abe and a group of senior advisers spoke to King Abdullah of Jordan by phone on Saturday, the Foreign Ministry said. Abe said the government was still considering how to respond to Islamic State’s demand.

“We are consulting closely with Jordan from the viewpoint that human life is the top priority,” Abe told the public broadcaster NHK on Sunday. Any deal would involve a public concession to the militant group and strain relations with the U.S., a key economic and defense ally of Japan and Jordan, which has pressured its allies not to negotiate with terrorists.

“Governments are generally less inclined to support terrorist groups with prisoners versus money,” said Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, who studies terrorism.

“There are higher costs to governments to release terrorist prisoners,” he said in an interview.

The demand for al-Rishawi’s release also is unlikely to be met since some of the casualties of the attack, including women and children, were guests at a Muslim wedding, according to Abrahms.

Obama’s Response

U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the execution and calling for Goto’s release.

“The United States strongly condemns the brutal murder of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa by the terrorist group ISIL,” Obama said, using one version of Islamic State’s name. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Japan and applaud its commitment to peace and development in a region far from its shores.”

Abrahms said killing Japanese hostages may be a mistake for the terrorist group, since to draw recruits it helps to show the violence is in response to foreign occupation. Japan is bound by a pacifist constitution and has provided humanitarian assistance.

The lives of the two Japanese hostages became intertwined when they met in Syria after Yukawa traveled there for the first time last year. Goto, a war correspondent for two decades, had reported from conflict zones across the Middle East and Africa.

Suicide Attempt

Yukawa, 42, went to the region in April as he sought to reinvent himself as a soldier of fortune after a failed business career, a suicide attempt and the death of his wife, he wrote on his personal blog. He returned to Syria in July and was captured by Islamic State within weeks of his arrival. The group released a video in August showing a bloodied Yukawa being interrogated.

His capture prompted Goto, a devout Christian, to head to the region to seek his release, his mother told reporters last week. Goto, born in 1967, ended up a hostage facing the same death sentence, after leaving a video message in which he said his fate was his own responsibility.

Yukawa’s father told reporters he was overwhelmed with sadness and apologized for the trouble caused by his son, national broadcaster NHK reported. Goto’s mother told reporters Friday that her son’s wife recently gave birth to a child.

There was an overflow crowd at Denenchofu Church in Tokyo for services on Sunday, where some in the congregation quietly sobbed.

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