Blind Nation – How the Japanese Bungled the Hostage Negotiation with ISIS

In early 2015, two Japanese nationals were brutally murdered IS (aka ISIL and ISIS) in Syria. The two: adventurer Mr. Haruna Yukawa and acclaimed independent journalist Mr. Kenji Goto had both been kidnapped months earlier. This is an account of how the negotiations were in effect mismanaged to the point of ensuring failure and how the Japanese government displayed both utter incompetence and an indirect willingness to benefit of the misfortune of two citizens. It should be noted that I was personally not, nor was my company, retained by either of the victims families, nor the Japanese government to advise, assist or in any way work on this issue. I have however worked for the Japanese government in the past, as well as for Japanese corporations with operations in un-permissive or hostile environments. I have talked to multiple people in the Japanese government, including in the cabinet office, as well as people from law-enforcement and the ministry of foreign affairs. I further received extensive briefings from sources in Jordan on what transpired there. In addition to that, I have helped several journalists dig into the story and verify fact. What follows below, I am highly confident, is an accurate account of what transpired and the mistakes that were made. Mr. Yukawa was kidnapped in August (2014), whilst in Syria, apparently either fighting with, or at least accompanying another group of rebel fighters. He got separated from this group during a firefight and was captured by IS. His family and the Japanese foreign ministry were rather quickly made aware of his capture and a video appeared of him talking and trying to explain whom he was. The Japanese Foreign Ministry (henceforth MoFA) did little however, to implement negotiations for his release. In fact they did seemingly nothing. Unfortunately for Mr. Yukawa he did not seem to have motivated and vocal family members pushing for his release and he did not – from what it appears – have any kidnap and ransom insurance, hence seemingly no one was negotiating for him. One could wonder what the Japanese government was thinking or doing? Mr. Goto was kidnapped at the very end of October (2014). Virtually immediately his wife received an e-mailed demand from IS. Stating that they had him and that they wanted a ransom for his release. Mr. Goto, an experienced traveler and journalist, had received some training in the past from a UK company named TYR Solutions (he even praised their work on his blog/website) on how to operate in hostile environments. He further had taken the prudent precaution of obtaining proper insurance. As I have understood it, IS made two demands to Goto’s wife (using e-mail) just after he was kidnapped. Initially they requested 1billion Yen, or about 8-9 million US Dollars - this was later raised to 2 billion Yen, or about 16-18 million US Dollars. As previously noted, Goto had received training from a British firm named TYR Solutions in how to survive and operate in hostile environments. They are a small firm, but have a good reputation, and do a fair amount of realistic training for journalists going into un-permissive environments. TYR Solutions or the designated K&R insurance firm, was contacted in late October, immediately after Goto was kidnapped, by Goto’s wife, whom asked them to help advise and to get started negotiations with the hostages takers. TYR is not a specialized K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) firm, so presumably they had to bring in an outside expert, but that is not necessarily bad or negative. Upon being commissioned the negotiator would have gone out and accessed the prerequisite expertise and initiated contact with IS.  Once a message is received - it often includes some type of proof that it is real or that they actually have the person in question, or proof is sent shortly thereafter. As the recipient the first thing you’d want to do is contact your K&R insurer or Security provider to inform them, then they, will help you put in place a negotiator. You typically try to start negotiations as quickly as possible after that. (This process can take a few days.) Typically you would want to  ensure reply is sent (even if your not 100% sure its not a hoax) since talking is always better than not talking. You really agree to nothing at this stage but request his release, start humanizing him and ask for proof of life. You'd also want to have the message verified by a trusted intermediary - this can take time but in many cases it only takes a few days (its in the kidnappers interest to verify authenticity, etc.). Once everything is verified a detailed negotiation plan would have been/would need, to be developed. Once that is done the negotiations would start in ernest. So from the information I have, and based on experience, the negotiations for Goto’s ransom or release started in early November. As has been reported, Mrs. Goto started consulting with a K&R negotiator – whom might have been acquainted with Goto’s work and travel since before. Both the negotiator and Mrs. Goto (under his instructions) communicated with IS (Mrs. Goto via e-mail only, of course). The negotiator might not have worked directly as a contractor for TYR, in fact he technically would likely have been contracted by the insurance company or Mrs. Goto, but there seems little doubt that he effectively represented his ultimate client, Goto. From what I understood, he made contact with IS via Turkey. As Goto had K&R insurance (up to what amount and what restrictions where in place on the policy, I do not know) they started negotiating for a monetary settlement to get him released this is a tedious but proven method. Goto’s wife was crucial in driving the effort to get him freed using these negotiations. However, after Abe surprised MoFA and went off script during his speech in Egypt and offered USD 200 million to help with the fight against IS, the circumstances changed. Not only did it effectively enrage the fundamentalists (IS) but it also caught MoFA off guard, at least from what I have been told. IS subsequently changed their demand and stated, on January 20 that they now wanted 200 million US Dollars. This not only impeded the private negotiations going on, via Turkey, but it also changed the entire dynamic of the situation. Changing it from an obscure K&R situation to a publically and politically sensitive issue that now required political “management” and public relations and political control of the issue at large. In effect IS was expecting some type of coordination between the private negotiators and the Japanese government. A unified approach or at least a coordination of information, but this was not the case. So in effect Abe’s offer of 200 million and his strong statements against terrorism, sent the message that the negotiations were over. MoFA, which for months had been doing effectively nothing to help resolve this situation, now (after the 20 January video was released) in a panicked frenzy, akin to a political covering maneuver, stepped up their efforts to do something, or at least be seen to do something. Their team working on this, which was very small originally, was increased overnight. However, it did so with little plan or coordination as to how they should actually try to make an effort. In addition to this the Prime Ministers office placed the police (TRT-2) in charge of the emergency team handling this issue. This was odd to say the least, as the police have virtually no experience with K&R issues. The police moreover have virtually no international experience (short of the Metropolitans Police cooperation on organized crime, which is not relevant in this case.)  It however, goes to show that the police is very influential in the current administration and it further shows the disapproval that Abe’s administration, or staff, have for MoFA (to some extent this is justified as MoFA tends to behave as if they are not to be subjected to, or bothered by, elected officials). In this case however, it was unwise, as whatever institutional expertise there was and whatever leadership experience that existed in dealing with this type of issue was effectively negated and leadership was placed in less experienced hands. Thus a political consideration was permitted to trump the most rational or effective solution. Shortly thereafter MoFA and the Police went to see Goto’s wife (whom works for JICA) and essentially intimidated her, into revoking the authority of the private negotiator to negotiate with IS. They forced her to stop this firm and thus effectively relinquish control of the negotiations back to the government. I conjecture that she felt threatened or frightened enough (if nothing else at the prospect of raising 3 children on her own, only the 3rd of which is hers with Goto) to comply with the demand. A Ms. Mari Miyoshi, Consul General Secretary at MoFA, was seen parking her car near, some distance from, Goto’s house and proceeding to “go talk to Mrs. Goto”. This thus permanently terminated the private negotiations and the only option was now the Japanese government - utilizing Jordan. It is possible that were divergent opinions within MoFA on continuing to use a private negotiator – conceivably a group of people sought to possibly continue the exiting negotiations and paying a ransom. This group, if it exists, however was in such a case overruled by the people and factors that precluded doing so and ending that avenue of negotiation. It has further been stated that Prime Minister Abe met privately with Ms. Goto, though I have not been able to confirm a time and date. This however would perfectly fit the pattern of political maneuvering to cover up mistakes or lay preemptive groundwork to blame others for them. The political equivalent of covering one own rear end. A team, spearheaded by a MoFA bureaucrat by the name of Mr. Nakayama, was sent to Jordan, working out of the Japanese Embassy in Amman. However, their efforts proved ineffective and their behavior was apparently aloof. I have had substantial contact with multiple sources inside the Jordanian government, including integral members of the Jordanian crisis team. In addition to that I have talked to a few sources in the US government and defense department, whom echoed with what the Jordanian’s had told me. Jordan might be a logical choice for the Japanese in many ways, but it is not necessarily a logical choice for opening a new dialogue with IS. But nonetheless I understand it being chosen, in light of Japanese past connections to Amman and Japanese political relationships there. Politically expedient as well, as it required less political maneuvering than reaching out to Turkey. E.g. it was the governments easy choice. Essentially the Japanese government, more specifically the police having operational control of this situation, put their faith in the Jordanian’s and their GID (General Intelligence Directorate). For several reasons this was unwise as it effectively made their team; TRT-2, with the support of MoFA but apparently not the Cabinet Research Office, or Naicho (Naikaku Chosa Shitsu)(headed by Mr. Shigeru Kitamura), which proved incapable of contributing any intelligence. Thus Japan was entirely dependent on the willingness of a foreign nation to cooperate. This will be outlined in some more detail below. My sources in Jordan have told me, in no uncertain terms, that the Japanese efforts were rather poorly considered (there seemed to be no real plan) and presumptuous. In fact they did seemingly not even bother taking into account what had been learned from the private negotiations and thus simply relied on the Jordanian channels of communication and their negotiations regarding the downed pilot. The Jordanians’ further referred to the Japanese negotiating team, headed by Mr. Nakayama as “light weight” - both intellectually and politically. (It can further be noted that he is more of a policy and trade specialist than a hostage negotiator, as can be seen for example in his quick change of direction and planned participation in the IISS Cartagena Dialogue on transpacific partnerships and business. So there are reasons to believe that a different person would have done a better job?) It was as if no one in serious positions wanted this solved. It could not get worse than that. Mr. Nakyama and Japan effectively tried to “jump the queue” in the negotiations. Jordan had already commenced negotiations on exchanging the female suicide bomber for the downed pilot. The Japanese demanded that the Jordanian’s now also demand the release of Goto in return. In effect the Japanese demanded that the Jordanian’s also negotiate for them and changed the entire parameters of the negotiation. This was, I am told, perceived as exceedingly arrogant, as if Japan simply expected the Jordanian’s to accept and do as told. The Japanese failed to understand that the Jordanian’s had their own imperatives and were trying to get a deal in place for their captive. The Japanese effectively thus made assumptions and stated those publicly without much consultation and thus in effect coerced or strong armed the Jordanians into helping negotiate for them as well. Moreover, the public announcements that “Japan would not give into terrorism”, etc. were counter productive. IS was reasonably expecting some coordination between the government and the negotiation team, making such announcements thus removes negotiating leverage and options for no apparent reason. Abe’s administration, for political reasons wanted to look strong on terrorism and “please” the Americans by making strong statements to that effect, but again it seems that it simply made the negotiations more difficult. It is further worth asking why the Japanese desired to make themselves reliant on another nation? Sure Japan lacks intelligence capability (it is very reliant on external parties for information and it lacks proper analysis capability) and in this case did not know what to do, but why make yourself reliant on another nation, no matter how friendly, whose interests will not be identical to yours? E.g. Jordan has Jordanian interests in mind, more than Japanese. At least when using a private entity, you know they are working for your particular interests and that they are, with a higher degree of certainty, feeding you unfiltered information. For Abe the death of Goto and Hurakawa were in the end politically expedient. It will in fact strengthen his hand and increase his political influence over not just MoFA but security policy in general. Moreover, it will help further increase the influence of the government and police security apparatus. Further, it will help him in passing his legislative reforms concerning the constitution and national security. In this sense the death of the two was politically convenient. As concerns the negotiation themselves, many will say that the outcome was predicable and that there was never a chance in saving them. I disagree with this statement. I acknowledge however, that the chance of a successful negotiation was small, say 20-30%, but this is better than none. Moreover, we should remember that with over 20,000 kidnappings per year (probably the real number is about double) most do end with a safe release of the hostage (the ransom/kidnap business is worth over 1.5billion US Dollars per year worldwide). Sure IS is a different beast altogether, but nonetheless there have been many successful negotiations that have successfully gotten hostages released from both IS and al-Qaeda.  In fact, countries such as France have paid about 58 million US Dollars to al Qaeda , with other nations also paying substantial amounts: Qatar 20.5 million; Switzerland 12.5 million; Spain 11 million; Austria 3.2 million, other nations paid an additional 21.5 million. That does not include private payments from insurance or family funds (figures are 2008-2013 estimates)(the US Treasury put the estimate at US Dollars 165 million for that period.). IS has also received substantial funds (in the tens of millions US Dollars in the last year or two alone) from its ransom demands – for example the Turks have successfully negotiated the release of many dozens of hostages, including diplomats, lorry drivers, intelligence agents and others. Moreover several European hostages, including French and Danish photojournalist (Mr. Ottosen) were released after ransoms were paid (in the Danish case 2.3 million US Dollars). He was released on the Syrian/Turkish border. Further, a German aid worker, was released by IS after a substantial ransom was paid, so there is clearly a precedent here to negotiate. Turkey by far has the best connections into IS, utilizing its own and IS’s supply, logistical, financial and intelligence networks operating in Turkey. The IS networks and contacts in Turkey exist to allow it to operate, just like any other organization it needs to conduct: financial transactions, barter, sell black-market goods, buy supplies, conduct logistical tasks, recruit, communicate, rest, get medical treatment, funnel people in and out of the conflict zone, etc. Turkish criminal networks and the Turkish intelligence services have pretty robust lines of communication with IS and the private and criminal contacts are extensive as well. Thus it goes to reason that the private negotiations should have been permitted to proceed in pace and that a clear message should have been sent that Abe’s speeches and hard words did not mean Japan in fact did not want to continue negotiating. This would have been the best chance for success. Once the government took over this negotiation, I believe the chances for a successful release went to pretty much 0 %. The issue became politically infected and the relationship, and the choices made by Japan including the behavior and incompetence of Mr. Nakayama, while negotiating in Jordan, made it difficult at best. But the basic premise is that under the private negotiating efforts that were taking place, there was always a small chance of success. I do not think there was a high probability of success, but there was some, and it was not negligible, especially utilizing the Turkish access route(s). With a probability of a successful negotiation and release of perhaps 20-30%, why take a chance and reduce it to zero. I do not see the wisdom, in making such a choice. To compound matters from a political standpoint further we should keep in mind that US National Security Advisor Susan Rice is said to have telephoned both Cabinet Secretary Suga and Japanese National Security Council (NSC) Chairman, Yachi, Shotoro. He [Shotoro] is known to be highly intelligent and a very competent diplomat and politician and is a close friend of PM Abe. (This was all verified by a source in the PM’s office.) Abe listened to Yachi’s advise and also that of Suga, and simply complied with their opinion. Their opinion was based on Susan Rice’s (and thus presumably Obama’s?) pressure and view that Japan should stop negotiating and seize contact with IS. In other words US pressure dictated to the Japanese sovereign government what it should do. Suga and Yachi complied and then directly instructed the negotiator (and Ms. Goto) to stop negotiating. Not only is this debatable morally, from a policy perspective, and from an national sovereignty perspective, but it is also very disappointing as it shows the low level of crisis management ability in the Japanese government. It shows an inability to think and act independently. Moreover, it shows a complete lack of regard for the life of the two hostages. And it could make one wonder if the political personalities involved are not responsible and liable, or at the very least grossly negligent for scuttling the negotiations and thus possibly causing loss of life . What’s needed going forward? Japan urgently needs to build proper and true intelligence collection capability – it needs a diverse set of information inputs, that includes decent worldwide HUMINT networks. It further needs to build fusion capability in order to integrate disparate information types (such as GEOINT, SIGINT and HUMINT) into a coherent picture. In this quest it not only needs to build internal capability but also utilize, more readily, private companies and think tanks to assist in the information pursuit. Japan needs to be able to take in, process and evaluate information and then act upon that information. Further institutionalizing its relationships with the intelligence agencies of other nations, would also be a benefit. The bonds between the respective organizations in Japan and overseas, need to be permanent and deep and there needs to be a dialogue and regular sharing of information. Japan does not do this, it works, instead, on an ad-hoc basis and that does not build enough deep relationships to effectively cooperate. Finally Japan needs to improve it s intercept and surveillance capabilities. It’s satellite capabilities are not great, even if improving a lot, but more worryingly Japans inability to conduct proper signals and data surveillance (akin to GCHQ or the NSA) impedes its ability to obtain information or track people, funds or issues. Further, innovative ideas such as the use of Crowd Sourcing have not even made it onto the radar yet. Essentially Japan is flying blind and as long as it does so its world stature, ability to control its domain, capability to gauge its adversaries and its ability to protect its citizens will suffer. As always: Understand your enemy, his objectives, goals, tactics and proclivities In closing, I fear the Japanese government will not conduct any independent inquiry, but one should be conducted. The entire set of events should be reviewed and an impartial report on the government’s conduct and efforts should be made public. Such public disclosure is the only way to avoid a political and public whitewash of this debacle and ensure greater transparency, coordination and more effective action in the future. This is what a democracy deserves and lets not forget it is what Mr. Yukawa and Mr. Goto deserve at the very least. Lest Japan shall wash away the memory of them along with its memory of bureaucratic and political failure, as it has so persistently done so many times in the past.