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The Japanese government is facing a ransom demand of $200 million for the lives of two Japanese men held hostage by the self-described Islamic State. The demand was made in a video posted online in which a hooded fighter gave Japan 72 hours to come up with the money. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The video, which is being examined for authenticity, has some echoes of previous ISIS hostage videos. Two Japanese men kneel in orange jumpsuits in front of a black-clad, hooded militant with a British accent, brandishing a knife. He criticizes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for contributing $200 million in nonmilitary assistance to the anti-ISIS coalition and says Japan now has three days to send the same amount of money to ISIS to spare the lives of its citizens. Although the two hostages share Japanese nationality, their paths to this point were very different. Accounts of 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa's recent past by the Associated Press and the Reuters news agencies paint a picture of devastating family and economic losses back in Japan, leading him to contemplate suicide before reinventing himself as a private security consultant who headed to Syria. 47-year-old Kenji Goto, on the other hand, is a freelance journalist who has worked in a number of conflict zone and whose reports have focused on refugees, children and the impact of war. Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the dramatic and very public circumstances of this unusually high ransom demand suggest that it's unlikely to be paid.
ANDREW TABLER: I think it makes it much less like. ISIS is drawing a direct correlation between Japan state policy and the safety of its two citizens. In a way, it's putting the government of Japan into a dilemma and trying to exact a public cost.
KENYON: The sheer size of the demand also suggests, to Riad Kawhaji with the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, that ISIS, widely considered the best-financed militant force in the region, is having revenue problems thanks to falling oil prices and the aerial onslaught of the anti-ISIS coalition.
RIAD KAWHAJI: Alliance air raids have hurt a lot of their oil refineries and fields. And, therefore, they will be now quite hungry for any funds.
KENYON: The possibility that ISIS is looking for money shouldn't necessarily be interpreted to mean the tide is turning in favor of the coalition, however. Analyst Andrew Taber says, despite the airstrikes, ISIS now controls as much territory in Iraq and Syria as ever, and Washington's decision to stick with an Iraq-first policy in combating ISIS does not bode well for Syria in 2015.
TABLER: Essentially, the corollary to that is let Syria burn because the war there is raging. There's no sign of a victor on one side or the other, only in parts of the country. So Syria is going to be the black hole around which this storm rotates for the coming period. And a lot of dangers can come out of that part of the world.
KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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