On January 31, 2015, the militant group Islamic State released a video purporting to show the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, according to news reports. Japanese authorities said the footage appeared to be authentic, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to “make the terrorists pay,” according to reports.
A member of the militant group, who according to some news reports is the same man who murdered American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014, claimed in the video that Goto, also known as Kenji Jogo, was killed in retribution for Japan’s participation in a coalition set up to stop Islamic State, according to news reports. Japan was not involved in airstrikes carried out in Iraq and Syria since August, but it had offered humanitarian aid to countries fighting Islamic State.
Islamic State had previously released four messages about Goto. In a video released on January 20, the group threatened to kill Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, unless it received a US$200 million ransom–the same sum the Japanese government had pledged in humanitarian assistance, according to news reports. On January 24, the group released a video, with an audio message purportedly narrated by Goto, saying that Yukawa had been killed and changing the ransom demand to the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be Iraqi suicide bomber imprisoned in Jordan. On January 27, Islamic State released a third message, again purportedly narrated by Goto, warning that if al-Rishawi was not released within 24 hours, Goto and Muath al-Kaseasbeh, a Jordanian pilot also held captive by the group, would be killed. The following day the group distributed a final warning that if al-Rishawi was not brought to the Syrian-Turkish border by sunset on January 29, al-Kaseasbeh, would be killed immediately.
In response to the threats, Jordanian officials said they would be willing to release al-Rishawi in exchange for al-Kaseasbeh and Goto, according to news reports. In a video released on February 3, Islamic State militants killed al-Kaseasbeh by locking him in a cage and setting him alight. After the video’s release Jordanian officials said, without citing evidence, that al-Kaseasbeh had been killed on January 3, weeks before the public negotiations began, according to news reports. If true, the claim brings into doubt whether a deal to release Goto and al-Kaseasbeh had been on the table. None of the publicly released messages from Islamic State explicitly offered the pilot’s release.
In 1996, Goto founded Independent Press, a news website covering conflict, refugee populations, and poverty. Major Japanese outlets, including NHK World and Tokyo Broadcasting System, featured its reports. The 47-year-old journalist had covered the Syrian conflict with a focus on its humanitarian impact since the start of the civil war.
He disappeared in Syria on October 25 and on December 2 his wife, Rinko, received a message from Goto’s captors confirming his kidnapping, his wife explained in a statement given to the freelancer support charity Rory Peck Trust on January 29. Rinko said in the statement that Goto “went to Syria to show the plight of those who suffer,” adding that she believes he “may have also been trying to find out about Haruna Yukawa’s situation.”
In a video filmed in Aleppo and posted on YouTube on October 25, Goto said he planned to travel to Raqqa, the Islamic State stronghold, to “get the story of what ISIS [Islamic State] wants to do in Syria.” He said he understood he was entering dangerous territory and that he would take responsibility if anything happened to him. According to Japanese media reports, Goto had told friends he would be back in Japan on October 29 to speak at an event.
Several news reports, including one that cited Goto’s fixer in Syria who filmed the Aleppo video, said Goto went to Raqqa in search of Yukawa, who was abducted in August. According to Reuters, Yukawa and Goto first met in Syria in April 2014 and traveled to Iraq together in June. In August, Goto told Reuters that Yukawa needed someone with experience to help him survive combat zones.
At the request of the family, the Committee to Protect Journalists did not publicize Goto’s case until the release of the January 20 video.
As with Foley and Sotloff, it is not clear where and when Islamic State murdered Goto.