Turkey detains would-be ISIS recruit from Japan

The young man had attempted to cross into Syria along the southern border. He told officials he had made contact with the terrorist group online. 

Murad Sezer/Reuters/File
A warning sign in Turkish stands at the closed border gate near Karkamis, Turkey, along the Syrian border, in this August 2015 file photo. A Japanese national was detained as he tried to cross near Karkamis, on March 23, 2016, Turkish officials said.

A young Japanese man attempting to join the Islamic State group was detained near the border town of Jarablus, Syria, on Tuesday, according to Turkish officials. The would-be fighter is an outlier among the terror group's recruits, most of whom come from countries with significant Muslim populations.

A 26-year-old man with a Japanese passport, referred to by his initials "M.M.," was taken into custody during a routine check by Turkish gendarmes as he was being driven toward Karkarmis, Turkey, on the southern border. According to Turkish investigators, he admitted to wanting to join IS after speaking with supporters online and over the phone. 

The recruit was photographed wearing khakis, a light jacket, and glasses, guarded by a Turkish soldier, in images released by Turkey's Dogan News Agency. "M.M." will be deported back to Japan after an investigation, according to the agency. 

Five other foreigners were detained in a separate incident at the border. 

In some ways, "M.M." is hardly a typical IS recruit. Most of its foreign fighters come from nearby Muslim countries, such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The Japanese Muslim community has been estimated at no more than 10,000 people, with an additional 100,000 foreign workers from majority-Muslim countries. 

The nation's isolationist policies, as much as its religious orientation, has mostly kept Japan and its citizens out of the conflict in Syria. 

But that separation was challenged last winter when IS beheaded two Japanese civilians after the government refused to pay $200 million in ransom, the same amount Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had recently pledged to support Middle Eastern countries fighting terrorism. Freelance video journalist Kenji Goto and adventurer Haruna Yukawa, whom Mr. Goto may have returned to Syria to try to release, were beheaded in January 2015.

In mid-March, a video appeared of Junpei Yasuda, a Japanese journalist not seen since his presumed capture in Syria in 2015. The Japanese government has said it is not aware of any ransom demands, according to The New York Times. Mr. Yasuda is believed to be held by the Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. 

The kidnappings and killings have raised some Japanese citizens' fears about taking on a more active military role abroad, as Mr. Abe pushes his plan to strengthen the country's Self Defense Force, which has been limited to domestic or peacekeeping missions since World War II. In 2003, troops were deployed to Iraq to support American operations, but followed strict limits on their use of weapons to comply with the Japanese constitution. 

As Goto's capture made international headlines last year, many people were drawn to the story of his career, in which he often travelled to conflict zones to record the effect of war on civilians and children. Yet Japanese officials also pointed out that they had repeatedly warned him not to return to Syria, an echo of the country's frosty reception for five civilians freed from militants in Iraq a decade before, including Mr. Yasuda. 

Three of those captives, including a woman running a children's organization, a photographer, and a writer, had been threatened on video with knives held to their throats. After their rescue, the government charged each one $6,000 for the flight back to Japan, where they were greeted with a barrage of politicians and protestors who felt they had no business in Iraq and had risked putting rescuers in dangers. 

"When it comes to a matter of safety and life, I would like them to be aware of the basic principle of personal responsibility," one Foreign Ministry official said before their rescue, according to the New York Times

As the Times reported in 2004:

Asked to name their three most stressful moments, the former hostages told [a psychiatrist], in ascending order: the moment when they were kidnapped on their way to Baghdad, the knife-wielding incident, and the moment they watched a television show the morning after their return here and realized Japan's anger with them.

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