TIME Middle East

ISIS Still Strong Despite Major Defeat in Kobani

Kurdish people hold a picture of a fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border at Suruc, Turkey on Jan. 27, 2015. The fighter was killed in battle with Islamic state militants in Kobani.
Kurdish people hold a picture of a fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border in Suruc, Turkey on Jan. 27, 2015. The fighter was killed in battle with Islamic state militants in Kobani. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS boasted about their control of Kobani last year but despite being expelled from the town they still hold land and resources

Kurdish fighters may have declared victory in a 134-day battle for Kobani and described it as the beginning of the end for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but the group continues to hold large parts of both countries and the countryside that surrounds Kobani.

The loss of Kobani is certainly a setback for the jihadists, who first targeted the strategic crossing point between Syria and Turkey last year, long before the town took on symbolic status as a focus of resistance against the seemingly unstoppable insurgents.

With the support of air strikes by the U.S. and its allies, and the backing of Iraqi Kurdish armored troops who joined the fight in November, the Syrian Kurds gnawed away at ISIS positions to secure the last occupied pockets of a shattered town whose civilian population mostly fled months ago.

The victory, like the four-month battle that preceded it, is more symbolic than strategic. That was reflected in a statement from the local Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia. “The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh [ISIS],” they declared. “It was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.”

As much as it was a symbolic victory for the Kurds and their allies, it was a symbolic defeat for ISIS, which has depended on the “propaganda of the deed” — a combination of lightning military victories and brutal terrorism — to rally recruits and to cow both its enemies and the civilian populations that have fallen under its sway.

In October, ISIS posted a video report from Kobani featuring John Cantlie, the British journalist being held by hostage by ISIS. The video boasts of ISIS’ control over Kobani and the failure of any of their opponents to dislodge them. On Tuesday, after the fall of Kobani, rather than boast about controlling a town, ISIS was reduced to threatening to kill a Jordanian pilot and a Japanese journalist that it holds.

It is debatable, however, whether the loss of Kobani marks the beginning of the end for the jihadists, who still hold wide swathes of territory and major cities in both Syria and neighboring Iraq.

“ISIS is still well-entrenched in the areas it controls and still has access to human and other resources,” says Dlawer Ala’aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil. “It’s not the beginning of the end in any schematic way.”

The positive news from the frontlines in Iraq is that ISIS has been contained and is no longer making territorial gains. Indeed it has lost ground to Kurdish and other Iraqi forces in marginal areas. “But ISIS is by no means reduced enough to retake the big cities,” Ala’aldeen tells TIME in a telephone interview from the Iraqi Kurdistan capital.

In the case of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that was captured by ISIS last June, “I don’t believe there is an imminent plan to liberate it because the Iraqis in general are not ready to organize the support of the local population,” he says.

There was also little prospect of Kurdish forces going it alone against ISIS in Mosul without first winning over the local Sunni Arab population. “It would be extremely difficult to recapture Mosul and, above all, to retain it,” Ala’aldeen says.

Until ISIS thrust itself into the international consciousness with the capture of Mosul, the declaration of a caliphate, and the widely diffused photos and videos of its beheadings, the threat it posed was largely overlooked.

When shortly afterwards ISIS began an offensive in northern Syria, the autonomous Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria sought vainly for outside support to save Kobani, which was virtually unknown and marked on most maps under its Arabic name of Ain al-Arab.

Turkish and Western governments were suspicious of the nature of the local Kurdish regime, headed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department.

By October, the game was almost up for Kobani’s embattled defenders when an 11th-hour intervention by the U.S. and its allies saw the first of a campaign of air strikes that helped slowly turn the tide against ISIS. Washington and its partners decided that the risks of intervention outweighed the prospect of another ISIS propaganda coup.

The PYD and its militia, along with other Kurdish groups, launched a massive and effective propaganda campaign that mirrored and contrasted with that of ISIS. The Kurds promoted their struggle as one of freedom and democracy and specifically highlighted the role of unveiled women fighters as a symbol of egalitarian secularity in the face of the jihadists’ perceived misogyny. “Save Kobani” became an internationally popularized slogan in the anti-ISIS struggle and dozens of Western volunteers traveled to join the Kurds.

It was not just about symbols. ISIS lost close on 1,000 fighters, having been forced to draft in reinforcements to try to avert defeat. The Kurds lost more than 300, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors events in Syria.

Kobani may not be the Kurdish Stalingrad, as some suggested at the height of the conflict. ISIS still hold the Kobani hinterland and the liberation of the town is not a strategic turning-point. But symbols are important in a war that will depend largely on undermining an image of ISIS invincibility which is popular among some of the local population and foreign sympathizers.

TIME

At Least 2 Rockets From Syria Strike Israeli-Controlled Golan Heights

Israel Golan Heights Syria
Israeli soldiers, take up positions on the Israeli-Syrian border, near Quneitra in the Golan Heights, Jan. 25, 2015. Atef Safadi—EPA

The fire comes after an airstrike last week in Syria attributed to Israel that killed six members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and an Iranian general

(JERUSALEM) — At least two rockets launched from Syria struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Tuesday and Israel responded with artillery fire, the Israeli military said.

The fire comes after an airstrike last week in Syria attributed to Israel that killed six members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and an Iranian general. Israel has braced for a response to that strike, beefing up its air defenses and increasing surveillance along its northern frontier.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the fire “appeared to be intentional.” He declined to comment on whether the fire may have been connected to the strike last week.

A message on Lerner’s Twitter account said Israel “responded with artillery towards the positions that launched the attack.”

The military said sirens sounded in communities in the Golan Heights earlier Tuesday. It said that it had evacuated and closed a popular ski resort following the strike. No injuries were reported.

Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it.

Fighting in neighboring Syria’s civil war has spilled over to Israel in the past. Mortar shells have exploded sporadically inside Israeli territory since the conflict began, sometimes causing minor damage.

Israel believes most fire is errant shots but has at times accused Syria of aiming at Israeli targets. Israeli troops have returned fire on several occasions.

TIME Syria

ISIS Nearly Pushed Out of Syrian Town

Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), on Jan. 16, 2015.
Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), on Jan. 16, 2015. Halil Fidan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

ISIS "is on the verge of defeat" in Kobani

(BEIRUT) — Kurdish fighters backed by intense U.S.-led airstrikes pushed the Islamic State group almost entirely out of the Syrian town of Kobani on Monday, marking a major loss for extremists whose hopes for easy victory dissolved into a bloody, costly siege that seems close to ending in defeat.

Fighters raised a Kurdish flag on a hill in the border town near Turkey that once flew the Islamic State group’s black banner. It represents a key conquest both for the embattled Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition, whose American coordinator had predicted that the Islamic State group would “impale itself” on Kobani.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and senior Kurdish official Idriss Nassan said the Islamic State group had been nearly expelled, with some sporadic fighting on the eastern edges of the town.

“The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat,” said Nassan, speaking from Turkey near the Syrian border. “Their defenses have collapsed and its fighters have fled.”

In September, Islamic State fighters began capturing some 300 Kurdish villages near Kobani and thrust into the town itself, occupying nearly half of it. Tens of thousands of refugees spilled across the border into Turkey.

By October, Islamic State control of Kobani was so widespread that it even made a propaganda video from the town featuring a captive British photojournalist, John Cantlie, to convey its message that Islamic State fighters had pushed deep inside despite U.S.-led airstrikes.

The town, whose capture would have given the jihadi group control of a border crossing with Turkey and open direct lines between its positions along the border, quickly became a centerpiece of the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it would be “morally very difficult” not to help Kobani.

The U.S.-led air assault began Sept. 23, with Kobani the target of about a half-dozen airstrikes on average each day, and often more. More than 80 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria have been in or around the town. At one point in October, the U.S. air dropped bundles of weapons and medical supplies for Kurdish fighters — a first in the Syrian conflict.

Analysts, as well as Syrian and Kurdish activists, credit the air campaign and the arrival in October of heavily armed Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq, who neutralized the Islamic State group’s artillery advantage, for bringing key areas of Kobani under Kurdish control.

Nassan said U.S.-led coalition strikes became more intense in the past few days, helping Kurdish fighters in their final push toward Islamic State group positions on the southern and eastern edges of the town.

The U.S. Central Command said Monday that it had carried out 17 airstrikes near Kobani over the last 24 hours that struck Islamic State group infrastructure and fighting positions.

Nassan said he was preparing to head into Kobani on Tuesday and expected the town to be fully free by then.

Gharib Hassou, a representative of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, based in Southern Kurdistan, said fighting was still going in “two or three streets,” adding that most of the militants withdrew to the town of Tal Abyad to the east.

“There are a lot of dead bodies … and they left some of the weapons,” he said. Kurdish fighters also suffered high casualties, he said, adding that more reinforcements will be sent to reinforce control over the town.

Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said the Kurdish force was led by Mohammed Barkhadan, theKobani commander of the main Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Barkhadan is a well-known militia leader among Kurds and in 2013 he led an offensive that ousted Islamic militants out of the northern Syrian town of Ras Ayn, Aburrahman said.

Since mid-September, the battle for Kobani has killed some 1,600 people, including 1,075 Islamic State group members, 459 Kurdish fighters and 32 civilians, the Observatory reported earlier this month. The Islamic State group, increasingly under pressure, has carried out more than 35 suicide attacks in Kobani in recent weeks, activists say.

Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group militants, in November predicted Kobani would be a defeat for the extremists.

The Islamic State group “has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani,” he said in an interview in Ankara with the Turkish daily Milliyet.

TIME Iraq

Angelina Jolie: The World Must Do More for Syrian and Iraqi Refugees

She says "the international community is failing" millions displaced by regional conflict

Speaking from a displaced-persons camp in northern Iraq on Sunday, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie asked the worldwide community to pledge more financial support for refugees in Syria and Iraq to prevent a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, is facing a a severe budgetary shortfall. Last year, it only received a little over half of the $337 million needed to fund a program for internally displaced Iraqi and Syrians, it reported in a press release.

“It is shocking to see how the humanitarian situation in Iraq has deteriorated since my last visit,” Jolie told media on her fifth trip to Iraq as a special UNHCR ambassador.

According to the UNHCR, over 7 million Syrians and almost 2 million Iraqis remain internally displaced from the ongoing Syrian civil war and attacks by the extremist group ISIS. Almost 4 million Syrian refugees are scrambling to survive in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

“We are being tested here as an international community and so far, for all the immense efforts and good intentions, the international community is failing,” Jolie said.

TIME Military

The U.S. Needs a New Yardstick for a New Kind of War

IRAQ-CONFLICT
Buildings burn Saturday during a military operation launched by the Iraqi army to retake positions held by Islamic State outside the village Sharween, north of Baghdad. YOUNIS AL-BAYATI / AFP / Getty Images

America keeps measuring progress on a battlefield that no longer exists

Body counts are never a good a yardstick for measuring progress in a war of ideas. That’s why the Pentagon freaked out Thursday when Stuart Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Al Arabiya News Channel that America and its allies “have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

The first counter-fire came, within hours, from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “I was in a war where there was a lot of body counts every day,” the outgoing defense chief, who served as an Army sergeant in the Vietnam War, said in one of his most pungent observations in his two years on the job. “And we lost that war.”

Hagel’s spokesman piled on Friday. “It’s not a metric that we’re going to hang our hat on when it comes to talking to the success of this strategy,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said of the Pentagon’s internal body-count estimate. “This is not a uniformed army with identification cards and recruiting posters.”

While Ambassador Jones added that the 6,000 number was “not so important” in the overall scheme of things, the catnip was out of the bag. That’s because Americans, impatient over wars that drag on (like Hagel’s Vietnam and George W. Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq), crave measurements that suggest progress.

Unfortunately, that metric mindset has little utility in wars against ideology. “I don’t know whether 6,000 [ISIS] people have been killed or not,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “But that is not going to do it.”

That’s because conflicts like the one now underway against the Islamist fundamentalism represented by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are not constrained by national boundaries, or the national pressure points that have traditionally been the trigger of wars (and the foundation of ending them) among states.

Without the trappings of formal government—a capital, commerce, standing armies—non-state actors like ISIS or al-Qaeda deny military powers like the U.S. the kinds of targets they prefer. Their allegiance to ideology—be it theology or something else—takes away the fulcrum that victors used to leverage to bring wars to an end.

Industrial powers created industrial militaries, where rear-echelon bean-counters could tote up tanks, ball-bearing factories and troops destroyed—and thereby chart progress, or the lack thereof. But ideological war isn’t industrial in scope. Instead, it’s more like information warfare, where ideas, shared online, create alliances that ripple across borders and oceans.

It took a Detroit to build an industrial arsenal of democracy, with each weapon requiring dollars and sweat to assemble. Today, it merely takes a keyboard to build an ideological alliance, each member a low-cost addition requiring little more than fervor and an Internet connection.

The Administration of George W. Bush concluded the way to prevail after the 9/11 attacks was to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. Following wars that eventually will cost $3 trillion or more, and at least 6,845 American lives, his successor has decided not to tag along. Instead, President Barack Obama has told the nations involved—those with the most at risk—to step up to the plate to do the fighting, with the U.S. filling the role of best supporting actor.

Some see such a policy as too timid. “The U.S. efforts have always been halfhearted, half-resourced and focused on exit strategies rather than on success,” says David Sedney, who ran the Pentagon office responsible for Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia from 2009 to 2013. “We always want to have an exit, and the problem with real life is there’s no exit.” He argues that the U.S. needs to launch nation-building strategies in failed states that currently serve as incubators for ISIS and other groups.

Politicians aren’t calling for such radical action. But some believe the U.S. needs to step up the fight. “We need more boots on the ground,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn’t mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means special forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.”

The U.S., McCain said, can’t simply direct wars against ISIS and similar foes from relative safety behind the front lines. “For [the Administration] to say, ‘we expect [Iraq and Yemen] to do it on their own,’ they’re not doing it on their own,” he said. “And they are losing.”

The last clear victory scored by the U.S. military was against Iraq in 1991, led by President George H.W. Bush, a Cold War commander-in-chief. It was a bespoke war tailor-made for the Pentagon: Iraq’s massive army stormed into Kuwait, occupied it, and waited for the U.S. and its allies to drive it out.

The world watched that conflict and decided, given Washington’s overwhelming advantages in that kind of war, not to fight it again. Unfortunately, too many Americans seem unaware that the rules have changed. So they continue to want to measure progress in today’s conflicts with yesterday’s yardsticks.

But such yearnings are doomed. Persistence and will, not body bags, are the keys to winning these kinds of wars.

TIME Japan

Japan Attempts to Verify ISIS Hostage Message

Japan Islamic State
A passer-by watches a TV news program reporting two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto, left, and Haruna Yukawa, held by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

The purported message claims one hostage has been killed and demands a prisoner exchange for the other

(TOKYO) — A visibly shaken Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said early Sunday that Japan was working to free two hostages held by the extremist Islamic State group, calling a new online video purporting to show that one had been killed “outrageous and unforgivable.”

The message claimed one of the Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa, had been killed and demanded a prisoner exchange for the other, Kenji Goto. But the post was deleted quickly Saturday, and militants on a website affiliated with the Islamic State group questioned its authenticity.

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State group had threatened on Tuesday to behead the men within 72 hours unless it received a $200 million ransom. Kyodo News agency reported that Saturday’s video was emailed to Goto’s wife.

Citing the release of the photo claiming to show hostage Yukawa had been killed, Abe said after a late-night Cabinet meeting: “Such an act of terrorism is outrageous and unforgivable. We feel strong indignation, and vehemently condemn the act.”

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said officials were trying to verify the video and the photo shown in it.

Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said U.S. intelligence officials were also working to confirm whether it was authentic. “We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely,” he said, and called for the immediate release of people held by the Islamic State group.

Abe said the government of Japan will not succumb to terrorism and will continue to cooperate with the international community in the fight against terrorism. He said Japan is still taking every possible step to win the release of both hostages and will continue the effort.

Japan has been struggling to find a way to secure the release of Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, compounding the difficulty of reaching the militants holding the hostages.

Abe spoke by phone with Jordanian King Abullah II on Saturday, the state-run Petra news agency reported, without elaborating on what they discussed. He also called the two hostages’ families.

Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK in a televised interview that in the purported message her son, “seemed to be taking seriously what may be happening to him as well.”

“This is no time to be optimistic,” said Ishido.

But Ishido also was skeptical about the voice claiming to be Goto. “Kenji’s English is very good. He should sound more fluent,” she said.

One militant on the Islamic State-affiliated website warned that Saturday’s new message was fake, while another said that the message was intended only to go to the Japanese journalist’s family.

A third militant on the website noted that the video was not issued by al-Furqan, which is one of the media arms of the Islamic State group and has issued past videos involving hostages and beheadings. Saturday’s message did not bear al-Furqan’s logo.

The militants on the website post comments using pseudonyms, so their identities could not be independently confirmed by the AP. However, their confusion over the video matched that of Japanese officials and outside observers.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he planned to issue a safety warning to all Japanese citizens traveling outside the country through its embassies around the world.

The nightmarish situation had left him, “at a loss for words,” Kishida said.

Nobuo Kimoto, a business adviser to Yukawa, told the Japanese broadcaster NHK: “I don’t believe this. The world is far from a peaceful place,” he said. “I wish this was some kind of a mistake.”

TIME Japan

Japan Vows to Not Give Up on Hostages Held by ISIS

A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015.
A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

The extremists gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 72 hours to pay a $200 million ransom

(TOKYO) — Japan promised Saturday not to give up “until the very end” on efforts to rescue two Japanese hostages threatened with beheading by Islamic militants demanding a $200 million ransom, after a deadline passed with no word from the captors.

Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group posted an online warning Friday afternoon that the “countdown has begun” for the extremists to kill 47-year-old Kenji Goto and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa. The extremists gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 72 hours to pay the ransom, and the deadline expired Friday.

The posting, which appeared on a forum popular among Islamic State militants and sympathizers, did not show any images of the hostages, who are believed to be held somewhere in Syria.

Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister sent to Amman, Jordan, said he was working around the clock to coordinate efforts to save the hostages.

“We will not rule out any possibility, and we are verifying all information thoroughly,” he said. “We will not give up until the very end to rescue the two so we can go home together.”

Yet, the fate of the two men remained unclear Saturday.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga was asked about Friday’s message and said Japan was analyzing it.

“The situation remains severe, but we are doing everything we can to win the release of the two Japanese hostages,” Suga said. He said Japan is using every channel it can find, including local tribal chiefs, to try to reach the captors.

He said there has been no direct contact with the captors.

Abe met Friday with his National Security Council on the crisis.

Japan has scrambled for a way to secure the release of Goto, a journalist, and Yukawa, an adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats had left Syria as the civil war there escalated, adding to the difficulty of contacting the militants holding the hostages.

Worshippers at Tokyo’s largest mosque on Friday offered prayers for the two hostages.

“All Muslims in Japan, we want the Japanese hostages to be saved as soon as possible,” said Sandar Basara, a worker from Turkey.

Goto’s mother made an appeal for his rescue.

“Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son’s life,” said Junko Ishido. “My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State.”

Ishido said she was astonished and angered to learn from her daughter-in-law that Goto had left for Syria less than two weeks after his child was born in October to try to rescue Yukawa.

Suga said earlier the government had confirmed the identities of the two hostages despite discrepancies in shadows and other details in the ransom video that suggested it might have been altered.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in the Group of Seven in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

___

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khalil in Cairo, and Kaori Hitomi and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

TIME Japan

Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

Junko Ishido, mother of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist being held captive by Islamic State militants speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo
Junko Ishido, mother of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist being held captive by Islamic State militants along with another Japanese citizen, speaks during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Jan. 23, 2015 Toru Hanai—Reuters

The ransom deadline approaches

The mother a Japanese journalist held captive by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appealed for his release on Friday.

The Islamic militants are threatening to kill Kenji Koto and another Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa if Tokyo does not pay a ransom of $200 million, Reuters reports.

The Japanese government believes the deadline to be 12:50 a.m. E.T. on Friday.

“My son Kenji is not an enemy of the people of the Islamic faith. I can only pray as a mother for his release,” Junko Ishido told a news conference. “If I could offer my life I would plead that my son be released, it would be a small sacrifice on my part.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to do all he can to secure their safe release, saying that “we are negotiating through all available channels.”

The sum of the ransom is equal to the $200 million Abe has pledged to aid those fighting ISIS.

[Reuters]

TIME State of the Union 2015

Barack Obama Warns Against Terrorist Fear Factor in State of the Union

Obama says he wants Americans to fight terrorists but not fear them

President Obama had a mixed message for Congress on terrorism in his State of the Union address Tuesday: don’t fear terrorists, but do authorize me to use military force against them.

Obama’s not the only one advancing that national security paradox. Leaders around the world face the same problem. Terrorists are scary—that’s their point. So how do you get support to fight them without freaking people out and handing them a win?

“We lead best,” Obama said in his speech, “When we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.” And he implicitly attacked his predecessor, George W. Bush, for failing at the task. “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing?” Obama asked.

MORE How 7 ideas in the State of the Union would affect you

But Bush has been back in Texas for six years and Gallup reports that 40% of Americans are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism—a slightly higher percentage than when Obama became President in 2009. That’s particularly remarkable when you consider that an American is more likely to be struck by lightening than get hit by a terrorist.

Obama and Bush may not be entirely to blame. The public’s fear of terrorists and its expectations that government will aggressively defend against them are not necessarily the fault of political leaders, says Daniel Byman, co-author of a recent Brookings Institution analysis of the threat posed by foreign fighters returning to the West, “Be Afraid. Be a Little Afraid.”

“It’s very difficult for people to think rationally about low probability events that are high publicity,” Byman says. Furthermore, Byman says, “There are certain things we expect our government to do and one of them is to keep us safe, especially from foreign terrorists—it’s a core government function.”

MORE: Obama made history by using this word during the State of the Union

Which doesn’t make it any less costly to over-react to terrorist threats. Western fear is very specifically what the terrorists are after, as a recruiting tool, as a means of inspiring the troops they have, and as a way of getting opponents to make costly mistakes, Byman says. Some U.S. intelligence officials look at the long-term strategic challenges posed by China, Russia and European economic weakness and think ISIS and the chaos Middle East amounts at best to a diversion and at worst to a trap.

Obama suggested Tuesday that he wants to avoid such a trap. “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.” Yet his administration has sought broad powers from Congress to go after ISIS, including the authority to put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, where the group is principally operating, and to pursue it in other countries as well.

Republicans have the terrorist threat on their mind, too, of course. In her response from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room, Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst said, “This is where we’ll debate strategies to confront terrorism and the threats posed by Al Qaeda, ISIL, and those radicalized by them,” Ernst said. “We know threats like these can’t just be wished away. We’ve been reminded of terrorism’s reach both at home and abroad; most recently in France and Nigeria, but also in places like Canada and Australia. Our hearts go out to all the innocent victims of terrorism and their loved ones. We can only imagine the depth of their grief.”

In the end, one of the most effective tools against terrorists is domestic resilience, especially an acceptance that some level of violence from terrorists, while extremely undesirable, is probably inevitable. “You have to accept that this is a part of modern life,” says Byman. “We need to resource security services, but you don’t want to make it the focus of foreign policy.”

TIME

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 9 – Jan. 16

From the 1.5 million strong unity march in Paris to fierce winter storms in Syria and the historic free-climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan to the Ohio State Buckeyes winning college football’s national championship, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

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