Why did Japan's Kenji Goto go to Syria? Friend says unswerving character likely led to doom

People walk past a big screen reporting that Japanese hostage Kenji Goto was killed by the Islamic State in Tokyo on Feb 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 
People walk past a big screen reporting that Japanese hostage Kenji Goto was killed by the Islamic State in Tokyo on Feb 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP 

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A group believed to be the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has posted a new image of what is believed to be the scene of the killing of Japanese national Kenji Goto, who has been taken hostage by the militant group, on early Sunday morning.

Mr Goto, 47, a freelance journalist, is believed to have entered Syria last October.

A journalist with substantial experience in conflict zones, Mr Goto was known for his composure on the job. To those who knew him well, Mr Goto's venture into Syria last October seemed hasty, as if he had been willing to enter the ISIS-controlled area regardless of the risk.

Was there something behind this dangerous move?

'He seemed resolved'

"He used to talk about the line between danger [AND SAFETY]," Mr Kazunori Kurimoto, a video director who is friends with Mr Goto, told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Mr Kurimoto, 53, has known Mr Goto personally and professionally since 2004. They last spoke on Oct 24, right before Mr Goto entered Syria.

During a video call over the Internet, they spent an hour discussing a project they were working on together. Mr Kurimoto said Mr Goto seemed normal and made no mention of Syria.

But the next day, he received an e-mail message from his friend, saying: "I actually just entered Syria. I couldn't bring myself to tell you yesterday. I'm sorry."

Mr Goto was captured soon after.

"It's like he was determined to do something," Mr Kurimoto said.

Worries about Yukawa

Mr Kurimoto said he heard that Mr Goto was concerned about the safety of Mr Haruna Yukawa, 42, who was also captured by the militant group.

Mr Goto had taught Mr Yukawa, who had little experience in conflict zones, how to avoid danger.

"He hasn't harmed anyone. He deserves to come home alive," Mr Goto was quoted as saying of Mr Yukawa.

Mr Goto is thought to have headed towards Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold, to rescue Mr Yukawa.

"If he believed there was any chance he could save [YUKAWA], he would never just let it be. His unswerving character may have ended up causing trouble for him," Mr Kurimoto said.

Tight schedule

Mr Goto's movements indicate he acted hurriedly.

On Oct 23, Mr Goto was in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, where he enlisted Syrian guide Alaaeddin Al-Zaeem to accompany him across the border. The next day, the pair crossed a border in the city of Kilis into Syria.

On Oct 25, Mr Zaeem shot a video of Mr Goto in the city of Marea.

In it, Mr Goto said, "Now I'm gonna go to [RAQQA]… Whatever happens to me… all responsibility is on me."

Mr Zaeem urged Mr Goto not to go to Raqqa, calling it "crazy". But Mr Goto was apparently determined to go, and set off after asking a different guide to accompany him.

Before leaving Japan, Mr Goto e-mailed a friend, saying he would return home on the morning of Oct 29.

If that was indeed his plan, he would have needed to board a plane back to Japan on the night of Oct 28, which would allow him only three or four days in Syria.

"If something happens, it can easily hold you up," Mr Junpei Yasuda, a journalist who knows Mr Goto well. "You'd expect him to give himself more time to report in a danger zone."

"Maybe he received some highly reliable information on Yukawa," Mr Yasuda said.

Another of Mr Goto's colleagues in the profession, Mr Toshitsugu Maeda, remembers Mr Goto returning from trips into Syria after about half a day on Oct 2 and Oct 3.

He said Mr Goto told him he returned because "things around the border are as tense as they've ever been. It's too dangerous".

Such clues make it all the more mysterious why Mr Goto apparently insisted on crossing the border later that month.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.