A man identified only as “M.M.” was arrested earlier this week attempting to enter Syria; he has been charged with trying to join the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS). The 24-year-old is the first Japanese national caught on the Turkish-Syrian border with evidence suggesting ties to the terrorist group.
Turkish police detained M.M. on the Turkish side of the border during a routine check on the border. They later found several communications between the suspect and known Islamic State jihadists. The Turkish Dogan News Agency reported that the suspect admitted to having been convinced to attempt the trip into ISIS territory by a Syrian ISIS member.
Subsequent Japanese reports claim the suspect has backtracked, however, and is now claiming he had no intention of joining the Islamic State. M.M. was deported after being interrogated by Turkish police, the case handed over to Japanese authorities. The Japanese Kyodo news agency reported that the suspect spoke to reporters upon landing in Osaka, denying that he had attempted to join the Islamic State.
Japanese police say he has only admitted that he “got fed up with living in Japan” and had attempted to relocate to the Middle East. Japanese authorities are expected to have access to his declarations to Turkish law enforcement.
Kyodo spoke to the suspect’s mother without identifying her, who said she had no indication her son was interested in radical Islam or joining the jihad in the Middle East. “My son said on the 14th of this month that he was going to travel to Europe. … He has never talked about Syria, IS, nor any extremist organizations, and did not seem interested in them,” she said. Law enforcement have yet to divulge any evidence that may exist regarding M.M.’s ties to Islam generally or when his involvement with the group may have begun–whether before or after his travel to Turkey.
M.M. is the first Japanese national arrested in the Middle East for attempting to join the Islamic State. The Japan Times notes that the only similar case involved a Japanese college student who was questioned in 2014 after evidence surfaced that he had intended to find a way to travel to Syria, but that suspect never left Japan. He was also never arrested.
Japan has a small Muslim population; between 70,000 and 120,000 Muslims reportedly live among the the general population of nearly 130 million. It has, nonetheless, become a target for the Islamic State in the past two years. A report by the East Asia Strategic Review by the National Institute for Defense Studies Japan warned this month that the Islamic State is a growing threat to Asia in general, particular in Muslims regions like Xinjiang, China, and Muslim minority areas in the Philippines, but specifically named Japan as a target.
A year ago, the Islamic State abducted and executed two Japanese nationals in Syria: journalist Kenji Goto Jogo and self-proclaimed military consultant Haruna Yukawa. ISIS demanded $200 million from the Japanese government, funds that were denied. A video of the two hostages’ beheadings surfaces shortly thereafter.
While the Islamic State has not made major attempts to intimidate Japan since the beheading videos were released, another Japanese national, Jumpei Yasuda, is currently being held hostage by al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Yasuda appeared in a video that surfaced last week, in apparent poor health but stable condition.
Despite the involvement of Japanese nationals in the ongoing war against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently reiterated that Japan would not involve itself militarily in the region, instead offering humanitarian aid as necessary. “This decision will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future,” Abe said in January.