Tokyo Report

Jordan Holds Key to Fate of Japanese Hostage

Islamic State’s new demands put Jordan front-and-center in the ongoing hostage drama.

Jordan Holds Key to Fate of Japanese Hostage
Credit: Islamic State image via Shutterstock

As The Diplomat reported previously, Islamic State appears to have murdered one of two Japanese hostages after initially demanding $200 million in ransom for the men’s lives. IS then changed its demands, and said it would spare the remaining hostage, Kenji Goto, in exchange for Sajida al-Rishawi, a female prisoner being held on death row in Jordan for her involvement in deadly terrorist attacks in 2005.

The new demand placed Japan in an awkward position. Japanese citizens (including Goto’s mother and wife) are urging Tokyo to do more to ensure Goto is returned home safely, particularly after another hostage, Haruna Yukawa, was apparently murdered by IS. “I beg the Jordanian and Japanese government(s) to understand that the fates of both men are in their hands,” Goto’s wife, Rinko, said in a statement. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government must ultimately defer to Jordan for its decision on how to proceed.

Complicating matters, IS has also threatened the life of a Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was involved in anti-IS coalition military operations when his plane crashed over Syria. Jordan has indicated it is willing to exchange al-Rishawi for al-Kasasbeh, but demands proof that the pilot is still alive. Statements from Jordan have made no mention of Goto, however.

According to a new audio recording, said to feature Goto’s voice, IS threatened to kill al-Kasasbeh if al-Rishawi was not released by sundown on Thursday. The recording did not explicitly say if either or both men would be released in exchange for al-Rishawi; the Jordanian government accused IS of harboring “bad intentions” and “using the pilot in sideline negotiations.” The New York Times reported that negotiations between Jordan and IS “appeared to have collapsed.” With the Thursday deadline past, the fate of both hostages was still unclear as of this writing.

Both Jordan and Japan say they are working together to secure Goto’s release. A government spokesman in Amman told media that Jordan was “coordinating with Japanese authorities,” Asahi Shimbun paraphrased. A statement released by Abe’s office said that “the Government of Japan is requesting cooperation from the Government of Jordan and other relevant countries to bring about the release of Mr. Goto at the earliest possible time.”

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Both Jordan and Japan are U.S. allies, and both were participating in the U.S.-led coalition against IS, although to wildly different extents – Jordan is actively participating in airstrikes against IS while Japan is merely providing humanitarian aid. In general, Washington opposes negotiations with terrorists, including prisoner swaps, but State Department spokesperson Marie Harf declined to comment specifically on reports that Jordan is willing to release al-Rishawi.

The hostage situation has already caused many in Japan to question the wisdom of becoming involved militarily in the Middle East, even as Abe tries to get legislative approval for new security laws that expand Japan’s ability to participate in overseas operations. Perceptions that Jordan is not overly concerned about the Japanese hostage could further diminish the Japanese people’s appetite for participating in the campaign against IS.