MIDDLE EAST

Iraq

31 January Islamic State militants kidnapped 78 people in northern Iraq when they attacked Kirkuk and briefly occupied a North Oil Company field about 10 miles southeast of the city. The attackers kidnapped 15 workers from the state oil company and 63 shepherds and farmers. “Peshmerga” forces from the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq drove the attackers out and retook the oilfield but could not find the kidnapping victims.

Lebanon

22 January Younes Hujeiri was kidnapped by ISIL militants belonging to the Takfiri group that operates in Iraq and Syria. Several gunmen kidnapped the victim at night from the area of Wadi Hmeid in Arsal. ISIL militants have captured more than two dozen Lebanese soldiers and members of the security forces from the area.

Syria

2 January According to reports from the anti-ISIL group, “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, two attempted rescue missions by coalition forces to free a number of hostages including First Lieutenant Muadh al Kasaesbeh, a Jordanian pilot who was captured by Islamic State (IS) militants when his warplane crashed over IS territory in December 2014. The first operation is said to have taken place 20kms east of Raqqa. Five coalition aircraft hovered at low altitude while more than 12 air raids were carried out on the outskirts of Raqqa. Two helicopter gunships attempted to deploy special forces on the ground to rescue the hostages. Both gunships came under heavy fire from IS militants located northeast of Raqqa and were forced to abort the attempted landing. A second attempt was made to land in the countryside of eastern Raqqa and fighting ensued.

2 January The Islamic State (IS) released a video in which the British journalist, John Cantlie (43), who has been a hostage since 2012, reports from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which has been under IS control since June 2014. He says: “The media likes to paint a picture of life in the Islamic State as depressed people walking around as subjugated citizens in chains, beaten down by strict, totalitarian rule. But really, apart from some rather chilly, but sunny December weather, life here in Mosul is business as usual”. As an airplane flies over he shouts mockingly: “Down here! Over here! Drop a bomb! Try to rescue me again! Do something! Useless! Absolutely useless!”. He also visits children at a hospital, takes a walk through a busy market and rides a motorcycle through the town.

15 January Two Italian female aid workers, Vanessa Marzullo (21) and Greta Ramelli (20), were released by their kidnappers, Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The two young women were kidnapped in July 2014 while working on humanitarian projects in the northern city of Aleppo. They had only been in the country a matter of a few days. In December 2014, a video appeared on YouTube with the two hostages dressed in black hijabs appealing for help and saying they were “in great danger” and could be killed. The video was widely considered as a signal of the jihadists’ willingness to release the two ladies for a large ransom. Syrian rebels later tweeted that 12 million euros (USD14 million) had been paid for the release of the two aid workers. The Italian authorities would neither confirm nor deny that a ransom was paid. The possibility of a ransom payment was widely condemned by opposition parties in Italy. The Foreign Minister said the country was opposed to the payment of ransoms for hostages but did not explicitly deny that money had changed hands in this case and added the claims were based on unfounded rumours.

18 January The ISIS militant group is reportedly launching its own online TV channel featuring a series from the British hostage John Cantlie and a weekly programme called “Time to Recruit”. Social media accounts linked to the group have begun sharing a so-called “teaser” video that claimed the channel would broadcast 24 hours a day and be named “The Islamic Caliphate Broadcast”. A possible website has since gone down and experts suggested it is suspicious that website registration records show the site was set up in December yet it has received no recognition from official ISIS outlets. An online extremism analyst said: “My best guess is this is a fanboy effort”.

20 January In a video posted on jihadist websites, a black clad Islamic State (IS) militant brandishing a knife, said to be the British fighter known as “Jihadi John”, addresses the camera in English standing between two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto (47) and Haruna Yukawa (42), who are wearing orange jumpsuits. The figure says: “You now have 72 hours to pressure your government into making a wise decision by paying USD200 million to save the lives of your citizens”. He adds that the ransom is to compensate for non-military aid the Japanese prime minister pledged at the start of his Middle East tour as support to countries affected by IS violence. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would not bow to extremism, pledged to honour his promise of aid and demanded the jihadists immediately free the two hostages unharmed. On 23 January as the 72 hour deadline expired, Junko Ishido, the mother of Kenji Goto, made a tearful appeal at a press conference for the release of her son saying that his newborn child needed a father.

On 24 January, Islamic State released a video of Kenji Goto in which he appears to be holding a photograph of the decapitated body of Haruna Yukawa. An audio tape released at the same time said that Islamic State were no longer demanding a ransom for the release of Kenji Goto, but instead offered to free him in exchange for the release of Sajida Mubarak al Rishawi, a female suicide bomber imprisoned in Jordan. She was arrested during the deadly attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005 when her suicide belt failed to detonate. She was sentenced to death for her part in the attacks.

On 27 January, Japan vowed to work with Jordan to secure the release of Kenji Goto and Jordanian Air Force pilot, First Lieutenant Muath al Kasaesbeh (26), who was captured by ISIL terrorists when his fighter aircraft crashed near Raqqa on 24 December 2013. On 29 January, intelligence sources said the proposed swap of prisoners appeared doomed as ISIL refused to provide Proof of Life for the Jordanian pilot.

Yemen

8 January Militants from the Shi’ite Houthi movement kidnapped seven teachers and two students from a religious school in Sana’a’s northern Arhab district. A leading member of the movement, Ali al Qahoun, said the group had raided several homes in Arhab searching for explosives and members of al Qaeda.

17 January Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak (46), chief of staff to the country’s President, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, and his two security guards were kidnapped in Sana’a by gunmen. The three men were reportedly kidnapped from their car in a central part of the city when the kidnappers set up a checkpoint in Hada. In a communiqué, Shi’ite Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. A source said that Bin Mubarak had been kidnapped to prevent him presenting a draft of the new constitution to a presidential meeting. On 19 January, Ahmed Ali Bahaj, Governor of Shabwa province, ordered all oil companies to halt production in protest at bin Mubarak’s kidnapping and added that production would not be resumed until he is released. Shabwa province has three oilfields and produces about 50,000 barrels per day.

21 January Shi’ite Houthi militants kidnapped three members of the Arhab tribe from Al-Bakol village in the Arhab district. The militants stormed many homes in the village before kidnapping the three men. For several weeks the Houthis have staged an aggressive campaign in the Arhab district on the pretext of fighting al Qaeda militants.

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