The Islamic State's (IS) January 20 release of "A Message to the Government and People of Japan," a video demanding a ransom from the Japanese government for the lives of two Japanese citizens, has raised many questions—perhaps the most prevalent of which being, Why Japan?
A look at the group's past methods of hostage-taking, as well as their current financial situation, may reveal this move to be much less of a surprise than initially taken.
In the video, a man appearing to be the IS executor commonly referred to as "Jihadi John" stands behind two men, identified as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa, and claims that Japan had "willingly have volunteered to take part in this Crusade." He follows up with an address to the Japanese people:
Just as how your government has made the foolish decision to pay $200 million to fight the Islamic State, you now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision, by paying the $200 million to save the lives of your citizens. Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare.
This demand by IS marks a significant step outside of the group's previous hostage videos this past year, in which it has primarily beheaded citizens of countries of the U.S.-led coalition against the group. Though Japan has pledged nonmilitary aid to countries fighting IS, it is not a member of the coalition.
So, why Japan?
First of all, this would not be the first time the group took in Japanese hostages. In 2004, the group, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as "al-Qaeda in Iraq," captured and beheaded a Japanese citizen named Shosei Koda. The demands at that time, however, were not for money, but instead that Japan withdraw its presence from Iraq.
It is important to note that to a jihadist group like IS, hostages are walking dollar signs as much as they are propaganda devices—commodities which can be used excitedly amid growing media attention (as the group did over the summer), or salvaged for future 'rainy days.' To that point, it appears that IS may have sought both of these objectives in releasing "A Message to the Government and People of Japan." A video released by jihadists on August 17, 2014 showed a man identified as Yukawa bleeding on ground while being interrogated by unidentified men. Since that time, however, IS has continued executing hostages of countries involved in the coalition.
That considered, jihadists continuing to cheer IS's video demanding money from Japan via hostages would probably be a lot less excited to know that this move may indicate financial troubles as much as it does boldness. Along with recent analyses placing IS as a "loser" amid falling oil prices, the group has also suffered relentless attacks by coalition forces on their oil and gas operations—a titanic source of income for the group. These attacks on the group's hijacked oil and gas facilities, along with the stock of what they produce, has apparently even hindered the group's retention of skilled technicians able to operate these sites. The group may have then been forced to ask itself, What hostages do we have, and which have the best chance at yielding money?
Also notable is that there were no further hostages revealed at the end of the video, as has been the case in past hostage videos by IS.
This is not to say that IS has been financially bled dry by any means, nor that this video wasn't meant to hold the same elements of intimidation and recruitment appeal as their previous hostage videos.
This is not to say that IS has been financially bled dry by any means, nor that this video wasn't meant to hold the same elements of intimidation and recruitment appeal as their previous hostage videos. "A Message to the Government and People of Japan" adds yet another country to the list of those that IS has beat its chest at, thus perpetuating its reputation among the international community as being fearless while directly intimidating an entirely new audience.
All of these things considered, IS's ransom demands to Japan reveal a group that is willing to do anything and everything to provoke whoever it perceives to be in its way.