Terror Strikes During Abe’s Mideast Trip


Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visit to the Middle East, which this week took him to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, was dramatically interrupted on January 20 by a terrorist incident targeting Japanese nationals. The group Daesh, which calls itself Islamic State or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), released a video that afternoon (Japan time) claiming to have taken hostage the journalist Gotō Kenji and Yukawa Haruna.

Lamentable End to a Historic Visit

The image of the Daesh member known as “Jihadi John,” flanked by the two Japanese kneeling in orange jumpsuits, marked a deplorable close to what had been a successful official visit in all respects until then.

The four countries on Prime Minister Abe’s travel schedule had all hailed his visit as highly constructive, in light of the generous Japanese assistance he extended this week. But these warm words were replaced in an instant by sadness and concern as the hostage-takers demanded a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours for the safe return of Gotō and Yukawa.

There is an Arabic saying about happiness unrealized: “The raven has snatched it and flown away.” This terrorist incident has thus cast a pall over the warming relations between Japan and the nations of the region.

A Trip Worth Celebrating

Political scientists and other specialists who monitor Japan-Arab relations will tell you that Prime Minister Abe’s five-day visit to the region could not have been more successful. Japan pledged a total of $2.5 billion worth of aid to the visited countries, for use in nonmilitary fields including humanitarian assistance and infrastructural improvements. Needless to say, the recipients welcome this Japanese involvement with open arms.

In a speech delivered on January 17 in Cairo, the prime minister noted that Japan had fully implemented $2.2 billion in assistance for the Middle East that it had pledged two years earlier. He then promised an additional $200 million “for those countries contending with Daesh, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on.”

Touching further on the question of terrorism, he remarked: “It goes without saying that the stability of the Middle East is the foundation for peace and prosperity for the world, and of course for Japan. Should we leave terrorism or weapons of mass destruction to spread in this region, the loss imparted upon the international community would be immeasurable.”

At a joint press conference held after his summit meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Abe stressed the need to stem the rise of terrorism and extremist acts seen in recent years. Later, in his January 20 press conference in Israel, he reiterated Japan’s intent to “act hand-in-hand with the international community going forward” in the fight against terror, reserving his strongest language for the Daesh video threat, which he labeled “an abhorrent act of terrorism towards which I feel strong indignation. I strongly urge that no harm be inflicted upon the two Japanese and that they be released immediately.”

In response to the apparent connection between the $200 million demanded by the hostage-takers and the funds pledged to the region’s governments, the prime minister underlined their nonmilitary nature, along with Japan’s continued dedication to humanitarian assistance “intended to provide food, medical services, and other support to help those who have lost their homes and become displaced persons within the region.”

Japan Stands Firm

Back in Tokyo, at a January 20 press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide stressed the nation’s stance of not giving in to threats: “There is no change to the Government’s stance of standing firm against terrorism and contributing to the international community’s fight against terrorism.”

As an immediate response to the Daesh threat, the government announced it would dispatch Nakayama Yasuhide, state vice-minister for foreign affairs, to Jordan to coordinate efforts to rescue the Japanese nationals while also continuing to analyze the Daesh video. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would do everything possible to secure their quick release, issuing a “Message from Japan” expressing “strong indignation” at the “utterly impermissible” act of blackmail. Official announcements have not, however, touched on the kidnappers’ ransom demand.

In the video in question, the terrorist delivers a chilling message in English to the people of Japan: “You now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision by paying the 200 million to save the lives of your citizens. Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare.” To Prime Minister Abe in particular, he states: “Although you are more than 8,500 kilometers away from the Islamic State, you willingly have vowed to take part in this crusade. You have proudly donated 100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims. So the life of this Japanese citizen will cost you 100 million. And in an attempt to stop the expansion of the Islamic State you also donated another 100 million to train the Mortadeen [apostates] against the Mujahideen [holy warriors]. And so, the life of this Japanese citizen will cost you another 100 million.”

About the Hostages

Gotō Kenji is a freelance photojournalist with extensive experience in the Middle East. In 1996 he founded Independent Press, a Tokyo agency providing photos and video footage to news outlets. Assignments for Japanese TV broadcasters took him to many of the region’s countries, as well as other locations all around the world. He was scheduled to return from his last trip to Syria at the end of October 2014; when he did not arrive, his family contacted the Foreign Ministry and reported him missing.

Yukawa Haruna is perhaps best described as an “adventurer”—a man who was seeking to get his fledgling security firm off the ground through multiple visits to conflict areas in the Middle East. In August 2014 video footage appeared of Yukawa, claiming to be a journalist, as he was taken prisoner by armed men somewhere in Syria.

If the two men are in fact in Daesh hands, their fate appears bleak. The group has released several videos depicting brutal executions of foreign hostages. According to a Syrian human rights organization, the group has executed more than 1,500 prisoners in Syria alone since claiming control of swaths of the country and neighboring Iraq some five months ago. This is evidently the first time that Japanese citizens have been taken prisoner, though, and Japan is uneasily watching to see what happens once the deadline passes on Friday, January 23.

(Originally written in Arabic on January 21, 2015. Translated from Japanese. Banner photo via Youtube; courtesy Jiji.)

diplomacy Abe Shinzō Iraq Middle East Syria terrorism Islamic State ISIL Mideast humanitarian aid