A British freelance photographer whose kidnapping in Syria has been subject to a media blackout at the request of his family and the British government for nearly two years has appeared in an Islamic State video that was posted Thursday on the Internet.
John Cantlie, who people close to the case have long known was with American journalist James Foley in northern Syria when both were seized by radical Islamist extremists, confirmed that he had been kidnapped in November 2012. Foley, whose beheading was shown in a video posted on the Internet Aug. 19, disappeared on Thanksgiving Day that year.
It was the second time Cantlie had been kidnapped in Syria. The first time had come four months earlier, when he and a Dutch photographer were seized by jihadists in a case that for the first time proved the presence of a substantial number radical foreign fighters inside Syria.
Cantlie and the Dutch photographer, Jeroen Oerlemans, who were held for a week before they were freed July 27, 2012, said their kidnappers included many native English speakers, who Oerlemans described as having accents from Birmingham, a city in England. Both men were wounded in an escape attempt but eventually were rescued by members of the Free Syrian Army, which at the time maintained some ability to protect foreign journalists.
British authorities filed criminal charges against one man, a British physician, Dr. Shajul Islam, whom Cantlie identified as having been among his abductors and who had spoken with both hostages at length as he treated their wounds. But the case was dismissed in November last year, with British prosecutors explaining only that Cantlie was “unavailable” to testify.
That was because Cantlie had been seized again, this time with Foley, as the two were leaving an Internet cafe near the Turkish border close to where Cantlie and Oerlemans had been kidnapped before.
Islam, whose brother Razul is widely reported to have remained in Syria as a fighter for the Islamic State, has always protested his innocence, arguing that he went to Syria only to donate his medical training to help the Syrian people and that he returned to Britain without having been anything more than a medic.
Islam remains free but is the subject of much scrutiny by British authorities for his links to the group. There has never been an explanation for why Oerlemans did not testify at the same hearing where Cantlie failed to appear, and efforts to reach him for comment have been unsuccessful.
In the 3-minute, 21-second video released Thursday, Cantlie, who is the only figure visible, appears seated at a desk, dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by Foley, American journalist Steve Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines when they were beheaded by an English-speaking executioner, whose identity some British officials have speculated could be known by Islam.
Cantlie said nothing about the Foley kidnapping or why he had gone back into Syria so soon after having been released from his previous abduction; fellow journalists have speculated he was trying to track down his original kidnappers.
Cantlie did not say explicitly that he had been threatened. He acknowledged, however, that he is a prisoner, felt abandoned by his government, had nothing to lose by making the video and that his eventual fate has yet to be decided.
“Maybe I will live and maybe I will die, but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify,” he says. “Facts that if you contemplate might help preserving lives.”
He promised other videos _ he called them “the next few programs” _ in which he said he would “show you the truth as the Western media tries to drag you back into another war with the Islamic State.”
“I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivations of the Islamic State and how the Western media, the very organization I used to work for, can twist and manipulate that truth to the public back home,” he says. “There are two sides to every story.”
He promised also to explain how the British and U.S. governments had to refused to negotiate with the Islamic State for the release of their citizens, while other European government paid ransoms and saw their captives go free.
“I think you may be surprised by what you learn,” he concluded. He didn’t say when the next video might be posted.
Aymenn al Tamimi, who studies jihadi groups in Iraq for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, called the video a radical escalation of the group’s information war with the West. Unlike previous Islamic State videos, he said, this one was directed at Western viewers instead of potential recruits or local enemies.
The use of Cantlie to defend the Islamic State in a series of videos reminiscent of a British or American talk show appeared intended to undercut the rationale for Western actions.
“There’s a dual strategy here,” Tamimi said in an email. “On the one hand, the Islamic State has an interest in presenting itself as the power that confronts the West, but also it realizes that creating disunity on the home front . . . about what precise action to take is beneficial.”
He equated it to the recent beheading videos. “The Islamic State hoped Western publics would hold their governments responsible for the deaths,” he said. “At the same time, they hope the confrontation with Western governments continues so it can bolster this image of standing up to the West and hoping Muslims will rally to their cause.”
Peter Bouckaert, emergency services director for Human Rights Watch, said the video plainly lacks legitimacy as an expression of Cantlie’s actual opinions because of the clear duress under which it was created.
“This is not a video of Cantlie lecturing and denouncing the West, but of a prisoner of a terrorist organization being forced to read a predictable script. He has the threat of beheading hanging over him as he speaks, and that’s quite obvious in the video,” he said.
Cantlie’s whereabouts were a mystery until Foley’s family was contacted by the Islamic State by email last year, and it remains unknown if Cantlie’s family was contacted in a similar manner. After the video of Foley’s execution was posted last month, many people familiar with the case wondered why Cantlie wasn’t one of the British hostages threatened with death.
The Islamic State has said British aid worker Alan Henning will be the next hostage executed.