It was a scene to which Americans and British have become lamentably accustomed.
In an image featured in a video released over the weekend by Islamic State militants, one of the two Japanese captives in ISIS custody was shown apparently decapitated. Though there remain some questions about the authenticity of this message, President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the killing on Saturday. In a separate accompanying audio message, the second Japanese hostage is featured apparently conveying new demands from his captors to his government.
But that’s where the familiarity ended. ISIS’s approach to negotiating with Japan over this remaining hostage took a unique turn when it became clear that the Islamist insurgent organization did not plan to ransom him but sought a prisoner exchange instead.
The voice of one of the hostages said in this latest message that ISIS will release him and forego their previously demanded $200 million ransom in exchange for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman in prison in Jordan after being linked to a series of bombings at hotels in that kingdom in 2005.
This shift in tactics is both dramatic and notable.
“I don’t think this is about a swap,” counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd told CNN on Monday. “This is about ISIS saying ‘It’s our opportunity to show our world, the Islamic world, that we represent traditional values.’”
He added that this tactic could suggest that recent strategic setbacks in battles with Kurdish forces in northern Syria and Iraq have been significant, and ISIS’s approach to this negotiation is an acknowledgement that they are losing the war for the hearts and minds of average Arabs. In seeking to protect the virtue of this woman, ISIS is demonstrating its respect for traditional Islamic interests.
Officials are skeptical, however, that Jordan will agree to a prisoner swap.
“I would be surprised if the Jordanian government or Japan really pushed forward and released this female suicide bomber as ISIS has requested,” said CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde, referring to al-Rishawi, whose explosives failed to go off in the hotel attack in which she participated.
CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes called the swap “a nonstarter,” noting that ISIS is already holding a Jordanian pilot whose plane crashed in Syria. Jordan is part of the U.S.-led coalition that’s conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets.
“If there is any bargain going to be struck between Jordan and ISIS, it’s going to include their pilot,” said Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director.
And ISIS will be reluctant to surrender the Jordanian pilot they captured in late December, as reporting has indicated that he has provided his captors with some crucial intelligence.
So, Mudd’s analysis seems the most logical at this stage. The prisoner swap gambit is a ploy in order for ISIS to increase its waning appeal to the Islamic world. This is a particularly pressing project ahead of major offensives by Iraqi and Kurdish forces that will reportedly be aimed at liberating some of the captured territory under ISIS control, most notably the city of Mosul. ISIS will need all the public good will it can muster ahead of house-to-house fighting in Iraq’s second largest city. There is little to no indication that anyone is prepared to agree to ISIS’s demands, so it makes more sense that this is a political maneuver.
That is, if you believe that ISIS’s thinking can be understood at all.