Appalled and saddened by news of journalist Kenji Goto's purported beheading by Islamic State extremists, Japan ordered heightened security precautions yesterday and said it would persist with its non-military support for fighting terrorism. The failure to save Goto raised fears for the life of a Jordanian fighter pilot also held by the militant group that controls about a third of both Syria and Iraq. Unlike some earlier messages delivered in the crisis, the video that circulated online late Saturday purporting to show a militant beheading Goto did not mention the pilot.
Jordan renewed an offer yesterday to swap an Al-Qaeda prisoner for the pilot, Lt Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, who was seized after his F-16 crashed near the Islamic State group's de facto capital, Raqqa, Syria, in December. Government spokesman Mohammed Al-Momani told AP that "we are still ready to hand over" Sajida Al-Rishawi, who faces death by hanging for her role in triple hotel bombings in Jordan in 2005. Momani also said his country spared no effort to free Goto.
The slaying of Goto, a freelance reporter whose work focused on refugees, children and other victims of war, shocked this country, which until now had not become directly embroiled in the fight against the militants. "I feel indignation over this immoral and heinous act of terrorism," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters after convening an emergency Cabinet meeting. "When I think of the grief of his family, I am left speechless," he said. "We are filled with deep regret."
Threats from the Islamic State group prompted an order for tighter security at airports and at Japanese facilities overseas, such as embassies and schools, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. He said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the status of the Jordanian pilot. With no updates for days, Kaseasbeh's family appealed to the government for information on his situation. But for Goto's family and friends, the beheading shattered any hopes for his rescue.
"Kenji has died, and my heart is broken. Facing such a tragic death, I'm just speechless," Goto's mother Junko Ishido told reporters. "I was hoping Kenji might be able to come home," said Goto's brother, Junichi Goto, in a separate interview. "I was hoping he would return and thank everyone for his rescue, but that's impossible, and I'm bitterly disappointed."
According to his friends and family, Goto traveled to Syria in late October to try to save Haruna Yukawa, 42, who was taken hostage in August and who was shown as purportedly killed in an earlier video. "He was kind and he was brave," said Yukawa's father Shoichi. "He tried to save my son. It's utterly heartbreaking," he said, crying and shaking. "People killing other people - it's so deplorable. How can this be happening?"
Abe vowed to continue providing humanitarian aid to countries fighting the Islamic State extremists. Bowing to terrorist intimidation would prevent Japan from providing medical assistance and other aid it views as necessary for helping to restore stability in the region, he and other officials say. But the government spokesman, Suga, said Abe would not link the hostage crisis to his efforts to expand Japan's military role in "collective self-defense" with the US and other allies.
The White House released a statement in which President Barack Obama also condemned "the heinous murder" and praised Goto's reporting, saying he "courageously sought to convey the plight of the Syrian people to the outside world". The White House said that while it isn't confirming the authenticity of the video itself, it has confirmed that Goto has been slain. Japan also has deemed the video highly likely to be authentic, said the defense minister, Gen Nakatani. Highlighted by militant sympathizers on social media sites, the video bore the symbol of the Islamic State group's Al-Furqan media arm.
Many Japanese expressed dismay over the news. "I feel so sad and angry. Why didn't the government rescue Kenji?" said Mayuko Tamura, 31, a pediatrician who along with her husband and their 8-month-old baby joined a few dozen people gathered in front of Abe's official residence Sunday afternoon to show their sympathy for the hostages. In Jordan late Saturday night, relatives and supporters of the pilot held a candlelit vigil inside a family home in Karak, Kaseasbeh's hometown in southern Jordan.
We "decided to hold this protest to remind the Jordanian government of the issue of the imprisoned pilot Muath Kaseasbeh," said the pilot's brother Jawdat Al-Kaseasbeh, holding picture of Muath with a caption: "We are all Muath." Kaseasbeh's uncle, Yassin Rawashda, said the family just wants to be kept informed. "We want to know how the negotiations are going ... in a positive direction or not. And we want the family to be (involved) in the course of negotiations," he said.
Jordan and Japan reportedly conducted indirect negotiations with the militants through Iraqi tribal leaders, but late on Friday the Japanese envoy sent to Amman to work on the hostage crisis reported a deadlock in those efforts. The hostage drama began more than a week ago when the militants threatened to kill Goto and Yukawa in 72 hours unless Japan paid $200 million. Later, the militants' demand shifted to seeking the release of Rishawi, who survived the 2005 attack that killed 60 people when her explosive belt failed to detonate in the worst terror attack in Jordan's history.
The deadline for that exchange passed without word, leaving the families of the pilot and journalist waiting in agony. Rishawi has close family ties to the Iraq branch of Al-Qaeda, a precursor of the Islamic State group. The UN Security Council issued a statement yesterday demanding "the immediate, safe and unconditional release of all those who are kept hostage" by the Islamic State group. Council members underlined the need to bring those responsible for Goto's "heinous and cowardly murder" to justice and stressed that the Islamic State group "must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence and hatred it espouses must be stamped out."