The Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese hostages Tuesday unless they receive $200-million in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Japan's Prime Minister during his visit to the Middle East. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to save the men, saying: "Their lives are the top priority."
- Who are Islamic State? Get caught up with The Globe’s primer
- Untangling the Middle East: A visual guide to the region's shifting relationships
However, Abe and other Japanese officials declined to say whether they'd make the payment to save the men, identified in an extremist video released Tuesday as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa.
The video, identified as being made by Islamic State's al-Furqan media arm and posted on militant websites associated with the extremist group, mirrored other hostage threats it has made. Japanese officials said they would analyze the tape to verify its authenticity, though Abe offered no hesitation as he pledged to free the men while speaking to journalists in Jerusalem.
"It is unforgivable," said Abe, now 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 like other hostages previously killed by the Islamic State group, which controls a third of Iraq and Syria.
"To the prime minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,000 and 500 kilometres from the Islamic State, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," says the knife-brandishing militant in the video, who resembles and sounds like a British militant involved in other filmed beheadings. "You have proudly donated $100-million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims."
Abe said he would send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister, to Amman, Jordan, to seek the country's support and to resolve the hostage crisis. The Prime Minister also said the Israeli government, which Japan promised Sunday to co-operate with on counterterrorism, are 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 also 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," Suga told journalists. "We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible."
In August, a Japanese citizen believed to be Yukawa, a private military company operator in his early 40s, was kidnapped in Syria after going there to train with militants, according to a post on a blog 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 and a former prefectural assemblyman in Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, told Japanese public television station NHK that he had worried "something like this could happen sooner or later."
"I was afraid that they could use Yukawa as a card," Kimoto said.
Goto is a respected Japanese freelance journalist who went to report on Syria's civil war last year and knew of Yukawa.
Islamic State 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. Tuesday's video marks the first time the Islamic State group specifically has demanded cash for hostages.
Though the militant in the video links it to the Japanese funding efforts to counter Islamic State, it comes amid recent losses for the extremists targeted in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition. Its militants also recently released some 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq, fueling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group couldn't support them.
Japan relies on the Middle East for most of the crude oil it needs to run the world's third-largest economy. It also has been working to build wider economic ties in the region, like with Abe's current Middle East tour.