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Threat of Islamic State hits home in Asia

AMMAN, Jordan -- The hostage crisis involving two Japanese citizens came to the worst end imaginable, underscoring the grim reality that Asia is coming under increasing threat from the Islamic State terrorist group.

     On Jan. 31, days after the militant organization released an online video purportedly showing the slain body of Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa, Islamic State distributed a similar video, this one claiming it had killed Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. Japan's frantic effort to secure Goto's release through a hostage swap came to a sudden end.

     Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately condemned Goto's killing. "I am speechless when I think of the pain of his family," Abe told members of his cabinet at a meeting to discuss the situation early on the morning of Feb. 1, Japan time. "The government has tried everything, and I am truly disappointed that it ended like this."

Japanese "nightmare"

The video shows a masked Islamic militant holding a knife and reading a message to the Japanese government and Abe. Goto, wearing an orange jumpsuit, is kneeling at his side.

     The militant says he is going to kill Goto because of Japan's "reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war" and that Islamic State will "carry on and cause carnage" wherever Japanese people are found. He added the chilling phrase, "Let the nightmare for Japan begin."

     The Japanese government said the video appeared authentic.

Over the roughly two weeks from when Islamic State first threatened to kill the Japanese hostages, Japan scrambled to negotiate with an evasive militant group with which it had no communication channels.

     Islamic State issued five statements, using images, audio recordings and video over the Internet. The first was released on Jan. 20, although the government had known since last year that two Japanese nationals were being held by the group and was making behind-the-scenes efforts to gather information. The capture of Yukawa in northern Syria last August led to the creation of a command center in Jordan, which also took up Goto's case after he vanished in Syria in November.

     "We requested cooperation from anyone and everyone, including religious leaders and tribal chiefs," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. Little progress had been made by the time Abe departed for the Middle East on Jan. 16. It was during this tour that the situation changed dramatically.

     On Jan. 20, while Abe was in Israel, Islamic State released a video threatening to kill the two hostages unless a ransom of $200 million was paid within 72 hours.

     Following the release of a second video, purportedly showing the slain body of Yukawa, Abe told the Diet on Jan. 27 that Japan would not pay the ransom, sticking to his pledge of not cooperating with terrorists. That evening, Islamic State released its third message, an image and audio recording believed to be of Goto, in which it threatened to kill him unless a female prisoner on death row in Jordan was released within 24 hours.

Glimmer of hope

The Japanese government held out hope that Goto would be released in a two-for-one swap involving the female prisoner and a Jordanian pilot also being held by Islamic State. However, the fourth statement, released on the morning of Jan. 29, said the pilot would be executed unless the female prisoner was brought to the Turkish border by sundown. Over the next few days, there was no movement on either the Islamic State or Jordanian side.

     "Japan doesn't know the status of negotiations between Jordan and Islamic State," said a Foreign Ministry official. "Jordan won't tell us how they are holding talks."

     It was later learned, via images posted online on Feb. 3 by Islamic State, that the pilot was likely burned to death by his captors. The Jordanian government said the man was probably killed as long ago as Jan. 3.

     In a final blow, Tokyo learned about Goto's apparent death through a statement released by Islamic State on Feb. 1, Japan time. In the nearly two weeks leading up to that tragic message, the Japanese government found itself at the mercy of an extremist group. Officials expressed helplessness, saying everything had been out of the government's control.

Nikkei staff writers Shinya Oshino in Cairo and Tsuyoshi Nagasawa in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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