‘Islamic State’ gives Jordan 24 hours before execution of hostages
BEIRUT - The Islamic State jihadist group threatened Tuesday to kill a Japanese journalist and a Jordanian pilot within 24 hours unless Amman frees a jailed female militant.
A video released on jihadist websites shows a picture of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto holding a photograph of captured Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh.
A voiceover, purportedly by Goto, warns that Jordan is blocking the Japanese journalist's release by failing to free Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber on death row since 2006.
The statement says Goto and Kassasbeh will be killed within 24 hours if Rishawi is not freed, and urges the Japanese government to put pressure on Jordan.
It follows a video released last week in which the group claimed to have beheaded another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, and said Goto would be killed next if Rishawi was not freed.
Rishawi was sentenced to death by a Jordanian court in September 2006 in connection with triple hotel bomb attacks in Amman the previous year that killed 60 people.
The Islamic State group's demand that the jihadi be exchanged for a Japanese hostage is an attempt to chip away at the US-led coalition against extremism in the Middle East, analysts say.
For Tokyo, scarred by the apparent beheading last week of Goto's fellow captive, Haruna Yukawa, it appears to be an attractive offer.
But it leaves Amman trying to balance the demands of a big donor while not losing its best bargaining chip in efforts to secure the release of Maaz al-Kassasbeh, a pilot captured by Islamic State fighters after they shot his plane down over Syria.
"The Jordanian public would become extremely angry if (Rishawi) were to be released," said Masanori Naito, professor of Islamic studies at Japan's Doshisha University.
That anger would be amplified if Amman played its best hand -- releasing Rishawi -- only for Tokyo's benefit. "That would deal a serious blow to the Jordanian government. It is a very difficult situation," he added.
It would also risk angering the United States, Japan's bedrock ally and the foundation of its foreign policy, which made clear on Monday that it considered a prisoner swap as "in the same category" as paying a ransom.
"We don't make concessions to terrorists. That remains the case," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Jordan, as a moderate Muslim nation, is one of Japan's best diplomatic friends in the Middle East.
On his recent regional tour, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met King Abdullah II, praising the country's efforts "on the front line of the fight against" Islamic State militants, including its effort to help refugees fleeing war in Syria.
The Japanese premier also announced a fresh $100 million loan to Jordan, on top of $28 million of assistance to be given via international organisations.
Tokyo turned to Amman when a video emerged last week showing two Japanese men apparently kneeling in the desert as a masked man threatened they would be killed if Japan did not pay a $200 million ransom.
Abe dispatched his deputy foreign minister Yasuhide Nakayama to lead Japan's emergency response team from the Jordanian capital, in the hope of leveraging their friendship and opening communication channels to the militants.
But when the jihadists executed one hostage and moved the goalposts with a new demand, it added an unwelcome complication for Amman.
The IS move compromises Jordan's position, because it now leaves "Japan applying pressure in the form of the calls to release the death row inmate," according to Japan's biggest-selling paper, the Yomiuri Shimbun.
While Jordan's priority is the return of one of their own, it may quail at disappointing deep-pocketed Tokyo, wary of the possible future impact on relations.
Oraib Rentawi, the director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, said it would be unreasonable for Tokyo to expect the Jordanians to release Rishawi to free Goto while their airman remains captive.
But they may seek to be bold and expand their demands to both captives, he said.
"Now it is an opportunity for Jordan to expand negotiations with IS to reach a package deal to release both the Japanese hostage and the Jordanian pilot," he said in Amman.
The Yomiuri Shimbun said a two-for-two swap, which could see Jordan offering another IS-related prisoner alongside Rishawi in exchange for both Goto and Kassasbeh, was another possibility.
The danger, said the newspaper, is that might encourage IS to up its demands.
Tokyo on Tuesday seemed to be laying the groundwork for just such a double exchange.
"The release of the Jordanian pilot is an issue for Japan," Nakayama told reporters in Amman, stressing Tokyo's stake in his well-being.
"Both countries are closely cooperating towards the return of each of them to their countries."
But within hours of Nakayama speaking, US Secretary of State John Kerry had telephoned his Japanese counterpart.
Robert Dujarric, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus, said it was important to remember that Tokyo does not have a completely free hand in cajoling Jordan.
"It also depends on the US position," he said.