The disappearance in Syria of four freelance journalists – three Spanish and one Japanese – over the last month is raising new fears that the Islamic State or other radical groups have resumed kidnapping foreigners months after the last high-profile murder of journalist hostages.
The three missing Spanish journalists, identified by the Spanish Press Association as Antoniu Pampliega, José Manuel López and Angel Sastre, appear to have been detained at a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria, by unknown gunmen whose style of dress is commonly associated with the Islamic State, which at one stage held as many as 20 to 30 foreigners who were either ransomed or gruesomely executed.
The missing Japanese, identified as freelance reporter Jumpei Yasuda, has not been heard from since sending a tweet on June 20.
A private security contractor based in southern Turkey who often consults for international media organizations said that a Spanish government effort to locate the three men was already underway and that Japanese diplomats were also involved in an effort to determine the location of their citizen.
The Islamic State executed American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff last year.
The disappearance of the journalists, however, raised the delicate questions of why, after last year’s executions of American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff, news reporters had traveled to Syria and which news outlets, if any, were sponsoring their trips.
Two of the missing Spaniards had contributed to France’s Agence France-Presse news agency previously but were not on assignment for the organization.
“After the few years of abductions, huge ransom payments and deaths, it’s very disappointing to see journalists continuing to take these sorts of risks in a place where even well meaning rebel contacts can rarely guarantee the safety of journalists,” the security adviser said, asking that he not to be identified because of the nature of his work in a hostile environment.
The Islamic State also murdered British aid workers David Haines and Alan Hennings and American aid worker Peter Kassig. Another American captive, Kara Mueller, died in January.
“There always seems to be a sense from the European journalists that they will be safer than the American and British reporters because of an open checkbook policy on paying ransoms that’s bound to eventually backfire,” he said.
In a posting on its website, the Spanish branch of the international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said that the men were last seen in an area of Aleppo that is controlled by both the Islamic State and its rivals in the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
“We urge the Spanish government to use all possible means to find these journalists and we appeal to all parties to the conflict to respect the work of the media and to stop taking hostages for political ends,” the group said.
Most American news organizations stopped accepting material from unsupported freelancers after the deaths of Foley and Sotloff, both of whom were taken hostage in northern Syria while they were working, and several, including McClatchy, have agreed in writing not to send freelancers into danger without extensive support and training. Most, including McClatchy, have stopped sending either staffers or freelancers into Syria because of the risk.
Two Japanese citizens, journalist Kenji Goto and mentally ill traveler Haruna Yukawa, were executed in January.
Only one foreign journalist is known to still be in Islamic State custody, freelance photographer John Cantlie, a Briton who was kidnapped with Foley on Nov. 22, 2012. The group executed Foley in August 2014. Cantlie has since appeared in a series of propaganda videos and his name has appeared as the author of several articles in the Islamic State’s English-language publication, Dabiq.
But the last Cantlie video was distributed Feb. 9, and the most recent Dabiq did not carry his byline, leaving his whereabouts and health unknown.
An American freelancer, Austin Tice, whose work was published primarily by McClatchy and The Washington Post, also remains missing, but he is not believed to be in Islamic State custody.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero