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Why is the Islamic State targeting Japan for ransom?

The Islamic State released a video ransom vote that threatened to kill two Japanese hostages unless Tokyo pays $200 million. Jeffrey Brown speaks with former CIA officer Bob Baer about why the militant group is targeting that country.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The president will be talking about foreign policy tonight as well, even as events continue to unfold abroad.

    The Islamic State group released another hostage video today, threatening to kill two Japanese nationals if hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom isn't paid later this week.

    Jeffrey Brown reports.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The threat came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met separately with Palestinian and Israeli leaders in the Middle East. A new video message warned that Islamic State militants will behead two Japanese hostages in Syria unless Tokyo pays a ransom.

  • MAN:

    To the Japanese public, 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.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The captives were identified as Kenji Goto, a freelance journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, who founded a private security firm. The ransom matched Japan's pledge of $200 million in non-military aid to help Iraq battle Islamic State forces and to aid Syrian refugees.

    In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Abe wouldn't say if his government will pay, but he did say that saving the hostages is — quote — "the top priority."

  • SHINZO ABE, Prime Minister, Japan (through interpreter):

    It is an unacceptable act to threaten us in exchange for human lives, and I feel angry about it. I strongly urge them to immediately release the hostages without harming them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This appears to be the first time the Islamic State has made a ransom demand public. U.S. officials say the family of James Foley rejected a private demand for $130 million. Foley, along with fellow Americans Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff were later beheaded.

    And joining me now is author and 21-year CIA veteran Bob Baer. His latest book is called "The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins."

    And let's start with the demand for money. If this is, in fact, the first time it's been made so publicly, what do you make of that?

  • ROBERT BAER, Former CIA Officer:

    Well, I think the Islamic State is suffering economically. I think they need the money. Its so-called oil sales have run out, especially with the price of oil down. They're embattled.

    And, you know, it's sort of well-known in these circles that the French first started paying to get hostages out. The French set a price. And, in fact, the hostages were released. Subsequently, various NGOs, nonprofit organizations, also paid ransoms.

    So, there's been a precedent, and the Islamic State needs the money.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In this case, though, clearly no coincidence between the demand for the same amount as the Japanese are giving for non-military aid?

  • ROBERT BAER:

    Oh, exactly. I think it's wild that the Japanese have offered this aid to Iraq, most of what they have offered to Iraq, simply because Iraq is in the middle of a civil war between Sunni and Shia.

    And the Japanese are so loathe to get involved in Middle East conflicts, yet they are taking the side of what is essentially the Shia government in Baghdad. So, Abe, I think, made a clear mistake on this, getting involved, at least in regards to the hostages.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How unusual is it though to see I.S. targeting a country like Japan? Have we seen anything like that?

  • ROBERT BAER:

    I have never seen the Islamic State target noncombative states. There may be some NGOs that they picked up that they traded for money, but, generally, they're after Americans, British citizens, French, anybody who's bombing them. Those are their preferred hostages.

    So going after the Japanese — well, there's another side to this, of course, and they have probably run out of hostages as well to trade, so they have moved down the list to the Japanese.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What do we know about the experience of dealing with or negotiating with I.S. based on these other experience — other examples?

  • ROBERT BAER:

    I'm in touch with people who have negotiated with the Islamic State, and they have said, frankly — these people have dealt with Hamas, al-Qaida, right down — they have been in Somalia for years and they have never seen a group that is more paranoid.

    They use the word psychotic, unpredictable. But they did follow through and released hostages when they were paid money. And they were also — what is interesting is that the Islamic State is using encrypted e-mail to negotiate, so they're very conscious of not leaving a trail behind.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We heard that voice of the I.S kidnapper, a familiar voice, I think, with a British accent.

  • ROBERT BAER:

    Yes, it's Jihadi John. I realize the FBI director has said that they know who it is. On the other hand, I have heard law enforcement people in Washington tell me they still haven't identified him, they are not quite sure.

    So I'm not quite sure what his true name is, but that's certainly the same accent. And all these hostage-takers, by the way, are foreigners. They're mostly Western Europeans. And, of course, they would be able to speak English to the Japanese hostages.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what do your sources tell you about how organized these kidnappings are in these kind of ransom offers, individuals, factions or well-organized by a group?

  • ROBERT BAER:

    They think that they just belong to their wing of the Islamic State. There's no evidence that these people are freelancing it.

    You know, it's a policy decision made by the supreme leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So they know what they're doing. And for a while, I thought that the Islamic State was on a charm offensive, but that's clearly not true. And I think it's very possible that if these demands are not met within the next 72 hours, that they will execute them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And just briefly, finally, you said that you think they need more money. That would suggest more kidnappings, more ransom.

  • ROBERT BAER:

    I think there's probably a lot more kidnappings going on, more than we know of, for instance, Iraqis or even Syrians, and these are private negotiations. They're getting money for it.

    All the oil income coming out of Iraq is going to the government of Baghdad or the Kurds, and they're up to four million barrels. So the Sunni, whether the Islamic State or tribes in the al-Anbar province, are really feeling an economic pinch, in addition of course to the bombings.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Robert Baer, thank you so much.

  • ROBERT BAER:

    Thank you.

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