The Islamic State reportedly executed one of its two Japanese hostages Saturday, shortly after the deadline for the Japanese government to handover a ransom expired Friday.
Twitter accounts associated with the militant group released a video that purportedly features the voice of hostage Kenji Goto, a freelance journalist, saying that his friend Haruna Yukawa was executed. An image of Goto appears with him gripping two photographs of Yukawa — a before and after what appears to be a beheading. The authenticity of the video could not immediately be confirmed Saturday.
The voice in the clip speaks in English and blames Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Yukawa's death. The voice says the militants — who previously sought a $200 million ransom from the Japanese government — now demand the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a woman who is in jail in Jordan having been convicted of involvement in a series of bombings in Amman in 2005.
At one point, the voice in the video addresses Goto's wife. "You along with our family, friends, and my colleagues in the independent press must continue to pressure our government," the recording says. "Their demand is easier. They are being fair. They no longer want money. So you don't need to worry about funding terrorists."
Charlie Winter, a researcher on jihadism in Syria and Iraq, immediately questioned the authenticity of the new video, noting that it lacks the logo of the Islamic State's media wing and that the image of Goto appears to be Photoshopped. Winter also initially cited a "prominent IS supporter" as saying the video is fake before quoting the source as saying his "brothers confirmed its content is true."
Several Japanese media outlets confirmed that video was sent directly to Goto's wife and the Japanese government. The fact that it was not disseminated publicly as usual may account for the disparity between this and previous Islamic State execution videos.
The Japanese government is reportedly working to verify the video. Addressing the media Saturday afternoon, Abe said he was "speechless" thinking of the pain the video is causing the family members of the hostages, and called the Islamic State's acts of terrorism "outrageous."
US officials also acknowledged the release of the video but did not confirm its authenticity.
"We have seen the video purporting to show that Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa has been murdered by the terrorist group ISIL," National Security Council deputy spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said in a statement. "The intelligence community is working to confirm its authenticity. The United States strongly condemns ISIL's actions and we call for the immediate release of all the remaining hostages. The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter. We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely."
In an earlier video released Tuesday titled "A message to the government and people of Japan," a masked jihadist said he was giving the Japanese 72 hours to provide the ransom money "to save the lives of your citizens." This time was believed to run out at 5:00am GMT.
A later posting to an online forum used by Islamic State fighters and supporters warned Friday that the "countdown has begun."
A man called Abdul Ali — who claims to be an Islamic State supporter — tweeted at 5:01am GMT that a "media statement" would be released soon announcing the murder of the two Japanese citizens. He later added that the "executions" were as a result of "Japan's choices." Ali's Twitter page has since been taken down.
Goto's mother — Junko Ishido, 76 — previously made a tearful appeal for the life of her son. She said that she had been plagued by "tremendous grief and confusion," since the video was released.
Ishido also said Goto was simply motivated by "kindness," and a humanitarian desire to report.
"My son is not an enemy of Islamic State," she said. "I can only pray as a mother for his release. If I could offer my life I would plead that my son be released. It would be a small sacrifice on my part."
It is believed that Goto, 47, traveled to Syria in October with the aim of negotiating the release of his friend and fellow captive, 42-year old Yukawa. The two men had met earlier in 2014, and traveled to Iraq together in the summer. It has been suggested that Goto had successfully negotiated Yukawa's release once before, after the independent security contractor was taken hostage by a local Syrian militia.
When Goto went he left behind his two-week-old child. "I wondered how Kenji could leave his family behind like that, but he was determined to save his friend," his mother said. "But that's the kind of person he is."
"Ever since before he learned to walk, my son has been kind to all of the children he knew," Ishido said. "My son felt he had to do everything in his power to try to rescue a friend and acquaintance. He went to Syria to rescue a colleague. He thought that if he could speak directly to Islamic State he could make them understand. Our son has devoted his life to helping children … I am asking Islamic State from the bottom of my heart to let him go. He is not in any way an enemy of IS."
It is unclear how many hostages remain in Islamic State captivity. In November the group claimed to kill US hostage Peter Kassig in a video, which followed the videotaped beheadings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning spaced out over several months.
The militants have also released a series of increasingly elaborate propaganda films featuring British photojournalist John Cantlie who was captured in Syria in 2012.