The deadline of sunset Thursday (local time) set by the Islamic State for a ‘prisoner exchange’ with Jordan came and went with an anguishing silence, leaving the fate of two hostages held by the extremist group shrouded in mystery. Frustrated and angry Jordanian and Japanese government officials were left to ponder a diminishing number of options that range from bad to worse.
Jordan continues to hold on death row Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman convicted of participating in a suicide bombing in Amman in 2005 that killed 60 people. The Jordanian government has made clear its willingness to release al-Rishawi, in exchange for the return of Jordanian air force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was captured last December after his jet crashed during an air assault on IS forces in Syria. But IS has refused to provide proof that the pilot is still alive, vaguely offering instead to release Japanese journalist Kenji Goto – held by IS since last Fall. Jordan has rejected a Goto-for-al-Rishawi exchange, making clear that pilot al-Kasaesbeh must be part of any deal.
An unsteady stalemate has set in, with huge personal implications for the hostages and their families. The crisis could also have far-reaching repercussions in Jordan and the broader Middle East, and could influence ongoing foreign policy and security debates in Japan, though perhaps not to the extent that some analysts envision.
The hostages: It is hard to find an American specialist in terrorism not sorrowfully pessimistic the two hostages will ever be released. The failure of IS to provide evidence that pilot al-Kasaesbeh is still alive has naturally fueled quiet speculation that the extremists have already killed him. Jordanian authorities have made clear they will not exchange al-Rishawi for Goto alone. Even if al-Kasaesbeh is still alive, and an exchange could be arranged, IS would have little incentive to make Goto part of the deal. Even if they were so inclined, Japanese authorities would have a hard time paying ransom to win Goto’s release under the bright glare of global spotlights.
Pressure on Jordan: Jordanian authorities insist they have not forgotten Goto, but the safe return of al-Kasaesbeh is understandably their priority. King Abdullah’s decision to ally Jordan with US and European efforts to militarily battle IS has proven controversial in the country, and al-Kasaesbeh hails from an important tribe whose support the King cannot afford to lose. At the same time, Jordan engaging in negotiations with IS can only help but strengthen the extremist organization, which could ultimately have negative effects inside Jordan. The US is split over how to deal with Jordan’s dilemma. Some members of Congress have publicly argued for patience with Amman, and toleration in the event King Abdullah deems it necessary to make a deal. Others argue that the US should try to strengthen the regime’s resolve to help battle IS militarily. More than Japan, the hostage crisis could be a “tipping point” for Jordan.
Japan and ransom: Some European countries have apparently paid ransom to Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but the exchanges were all done very quietly, outside of the public eye. By contrast, the whole world is watching the Goto hostage drama, making a discreet arrangement between IS and Japan virtually impossible (even if Japan could connect with reliable intermediaries). Moreover, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted that Japan is a firm ally of anti-IS forces, and will not make deals with terrorists. The latest polls in Japan show that a large majority of Japanese oppose payment of ransom. In crude political terms, Abe’s reputation as a no-nonsense proponent of Japan reclaiming its ‘rightful’ role in global security affairs would be undercut by a ransom payment.
The politics of the hostage crisis: There is little evidence that Prime Minister Abe will be hurt politically by the hostage crisis, and specifically would not be personally blamed if Goto were not to return safely to Japan. The argument that Japan somehow brought this crisis on itself by excessively aligning with anti-IS efforts has gained little traction, though it is somewhat in the air. The major opposition parties have expressed support for government efforts to win Goto’s release, and – at least for now – have muted criticism that Abe moved too quickly to expand Japan’s engagement in the Middle East.
New security legislation: On the other hand, the hostage crisis is likely to reinforce the sense in Japan, evident in the debate last summer over collective self defense, that the country should be careful to not overreach. Polls continue to show that the Japanese public remains skeptical of the kind of broad reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution that could result in the country’s Self-Defense Forces becoming involved in military missions far from Japan. There seems to be a loose consensus in Japan that the country has to update its security posture by allowing for a modest exercising of the right of collective self-defense, including expanded operational integration with US forces in areas around Japan. This was reflected in the willingness of the liberal Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner, to accept a Cabinet decision last July for Japan to move in this direction. But when debate starts up again in a few months over legislation to codify the Cabinet decision, the hostage crisis will likely have strengthened the commitment of Komeito, and the center-left grouping now in charge of the opposition Democratic Party (DPJ), to reject Abe’s desire for a more robust, far-flung exercising of collective self-defense, and to ensure that Japan not get sucked into foreign conflicts that do not pose an imminent threat to the country’s national security. Even though many in Japan feel the current hostage crisis in personal terms, as Kenji Goto has earned widespread respect, there is no evidence the crisis will provoke a major shift in defense policy any more than the hostage crisis in Algeria did two years ago.
Expansion of the ‘national security state’: The crisis is likely to spur continued growth of Japan’s ‘national security infrastructure’ – expanded intelligence gathering and related intelligence sharing with appropriate counterparts abroad; expanded ties with hostage rescue and other commando forces in the US, Australia, Britain, and France – not for operations any time soon, but in anticipation of having an operational capability some time down the line; cultivation of connections to shadow networks that liaison with groups like IS; and further beefing up of the intelligence and security coordination capabilities in the prime minister’s office.
The hostage crisis will most likely reinforce the incremental steps Japan has already embarked upon toward a more realistic security posture. But a sweeping unmooring from traditional postwar restraints is not on the horizon.