ISIS videos often signal hostages’ fate may be sealed

After days of negotiations over a prisoner exchange apparently broke down, the Islamic State on Saturday executed a Japanese journalist it had been holding in Syria. Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington with the latest.

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    After days of negotiations for a prisoner exchange apparently broke down, ISIS today reportedly executed a Japanese journalist it had been holding hostage in Syria. Just last weekend, ISIS also beheaded another Japanese citizen it had captured. There was no immediate word about the fate of the Jordanian pilot ISIS is also holding.

    The Islamic extremist group had been demanding that Jordan set free a woman implicated in a 2005 bombing attack in Amman that killed 60 people in exchange for the hostages.

    For more about this, we are joined now from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He is a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

    So, Douglas, what does this tell you? There was almost a moment of– a window of opportunity there where there was a conversation going on with ISIS. There was some potential and some possibility. That seems over.


    It does — it is, obviously, over, lamentably, for both of these Japanese hostages. And, of course, our sympathies are with these families, but this does seem to be increasingly common place. Once the negotiations become public, once someone appears in one of these videos, that seems to mean the negotiations have broken down. We know there have been other hostages who have paid ransom and have been evacuated from the country, but it seems like once you come to this level of being in a video, we've not seen very many happy endings.


    So, Doug, what happens next after this beheading or other beheadings like this?


    Well, lamentably, for the near future, there's not very much we can do about the Islamic State and the territory it holds. The Iraqi army is not yet ready to retake even the portion of terrain they hold on the Iraqi side of the border, and it's very well-known that the plan for Syria would have to be subsequent to that, and we still don't know exactly what that looks like. So, in the interim, if you're a hostage held by the Islamic State or ISIS, there's just not very much a Western government can do for you right now.


    OK, let's talk a little bit bigger picture about this war on ISIS that's continuing. There were another 27 airstrikes today against different ISIS positions. Are they having an impact?


    They are having an impact. We've had some good news in the past few weeks. The Kurds seem to have decisively recaptured the town of Kobani, although if we now look at the pictures that are coming out there, this town is devastated. It looks like a Stalingrad or Hiroshima, or a Dresden. It's decimated. It's just a ruin. But we have taken it back.

    And then in Iraq, we have seen a push from the south by the Iraqi army in Samarra, in Diyala, and Anbar, even, and certainly from the north with the Kurds.

    We are seeing some movement towards Mosul and the area surrounding Mosul, and not the city itself yet.


    Right. This at the same time there were also attacks by Islamic State fighters on Kirkuk, which was a little bit of a surprise.


    That's right. We saw push-back in Kirkuk. It appears no one has ever said these guys aren't smart. It appears they used some bad weather when they knew that there wouldn't be surveillance and when the U.S. Air Force couldn't strike them, to attack into Kirkuk, had some initial success, and then it appears once the weather cleared, that air strikes and the push back from the Kurdish forces pushed them out of this town.

    I think we're going to see more of this. We should expect, you know, ebbs and flows in this fight in northern Iraq and elsewhere.


    You know, there were also reports in the last couple of days about ISIS fighters in Mosul ransacking libraries, and really trying to decimate any history that existed in that area. I mean, we're talking everything from Ottoman Empire maps to burning books and bonfires.


    That's right. This seems to have a dual purpose. In one sense, they are looting whole scale and selling artifacts on the black market to raise money. But where they seem to not have any value, we're seeing destruction. We saw the destruction earlier of the tomb of Jonah. We've seen tales of these books being burned. There is a very historic wall that is evidently being torn down, blown up, destroyed.

    There's this iconoclastic movement inside the Islamic State that wants to destroy all history of not only pre-Islamic but even Islamic history in the area. They're just absolutely opposed to any type of monument or cultural thing that isn't just reading the Koran straight and living in a very primitive manner.


    So, there was also news this week about an Iraqi that was killed and his connection to making chemical weapons. How significant or how real is that threat?


    Well, it's difficult to know. Certainly, Abu Malik is an interesting character. He's both a former Baathist who worked for Saddam Hussein and moved over to work for, first, al Qaeda and then ISIS, which really does show this unit they we're starting to see between the former regime and ISIS. But he's also a chemical weapons engineer. He had worked inside Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program and was evidently trying to put together some equipment.

    Now, I think most experts think the Islamic state can't put together a comprehensive chemical weapons program as in, you know, launching shells or anything, but they could certainly put precursor chemicals or industrial chemicals inside their explosive devices, their IEDs and make life much more complicated for forces that run into them in battle.


    All right. Doug Ollivant of Mantid International, joining us from Washington — thanks so much.


    Thank you, Hari.

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