Focus in the hostage crisis is now on Jordan’s response to a statement made by a group believed to be the Islamic State that freelance journalist Kenji Goto would be freed in exchange for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber on death row in Jordan.
The Japanese government is doing its utmost to obtain cooperation from Amman. However, prospects for Goto’s safe return remain unclear, as observers believe the Islamic State is trying to drive a wedge between Japan and Jordan.
Japanese government officials said the “hurdle is very high” for an exchange of Rishawi and Goto, 47.
According to sources close to the Jordanian royal family, the Jordanian government is currently negotiating with the Islamic State for the release of a Jordanian Air Force pilot, who was captured by the militant group after his plane was brought down while carrying out an airstrike in December. The Islamic State is reportedly demanding that Jordan free Rishawi and other members of the group detained in the country.
In 2005, Rishawi took part in the deadliest terrorist attacks in Jordan in recent years, in which more than 50 people were killed. Many people in Jordan strongly oppose the release of Rishawi, who survived because her explosive belt failed to detonate.
However, the pilot became a hero to the Jordanian people after the Islamic State released a video showing him in captivity. Some Jordanians are therefore calling for him to be rescued through a trade for Rishawi.
The Islamic State stirred up the Jordanians to give them hope that an exchange between the pilot and Rishawi is possible. The militant group’s demand this time — the release of Rishawi in exchange for Goto — may be part of its attempt to have the Jordanian people accept her release.
Japan Women’s University Prof. Akira Usuki, a specialist in Middle East politics who served as a researcher at the Japanese Embassy in Jordan, said Goto’s release in exchange for Rishawi will not be easy.
“For the Jordanian government, the rescue of its pilot is the top priority and therefore it is unlikely it will release the inmate from death row to save a Japanese national,” Usuki said. He suggested that the Islamic State, which is aware of the situation in Jordan, is probably trying to pressure Amman.
Experts said there is another plan to solve the hostage crisis: exchange Rishawi for both the pilot and Goto.
“If Japan increases its official development assistance to Jordan, Jordan may consider releasing Rishawi,” said a specialist in Middle East issues from whom the Japanese government asked for advice.
The Japanese government did not confirm or deny such a hostage exchange plan, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying only, “No comment.”
The United States and Britain strongly oppose giving in to the Islamic State’s ransom demand, saying the money would be used to build up the group’s armaments. The Islamic State initially demanded a $200 million ransom for the release of Goto and another hostage.
Last year, however, the United States released five senior Taliban members detained at a U.S. base in exchange for a U.S. soldier who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is easier to gain international cooperation for a hostage-prisoner swap than for paying a ransom.
At a press conference Sunday morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was asked if a hostage-prisoner exchange meant the government was giving in to terrorists. Suga said the government will balance respect for human life and international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
“Our first concern is respect for life, so we are now striving to obtain cooperation from relevant countries, including Jordan,” Suga said. “Our country’s position, at the same time, is to contribute to the international community’s efforts to tackle terrorism while never giving in to terrorism.”