Four Years in Captivity: ISIS Hostage John Cantlie Reportedly Left Behind

It appears the UK government has decided not to rescue British war photographer and correspondent John Cantlie, who was abducted in November 2012, in Syria, by ISIS. Beginning in late June, information on Cantlie’s location, including transport vehicle was provided to U.S. agencies by an operative who is now with BLACKOPS Cyber, a private intelligence agency.

Everything was in place for the rescue of Cantlie, in Mosul, Iraq, but, according to BLACKOPS Cyber Chief Intelligence Officer Ed Alexander, it was canceled before it could begin. “A British agency involved in the exfiltration of the hostages said they weren’t really interested in getting him out,” Alexander said, indicating that he was paraphrasing the response that had been passed down to him.

Alexander elaborated, saying that U.K. intelligence services believe Cantlie has turned sides, and is now loyal to ISIS. Cantlie’s location, near a church in the Al Shurta neighborhood, was in Mosul within the area of regional operations under the watch of U.K. forces. Further, Cantlie is a U.K. citizen,  “so we didn’t have a dog in this fight,” Alexander said. “We as Americans couldn’t go in there, step on their toes, and say we as Americans are going to do this for you,” he explained.

“The Brits aren’t going to get him out, and ISIS is going to keep using this guy for their own propaganda,” Alexander said. “He’s never coming home.”

The intelligence obtained by BLACKOPS Cyber ran counter to other speculation at the time, when many thought that Cantlie was still in Syria. The information was recently validated, however, by two separate videos released this month, featuring Cantlie and both shot in Mosul.

Image: Alleged photo of John Cantlie with ISIS captors (far right)

Image: Alleged vehicle used to transport John Cantlie

Latest video featuring John Cantlie

A few facts about John Cantlie:

  • Cantlie was a British photojournalist covering Syrian War in 2012
  • He was kidnapped by ISIS in 2012 along with American James Foley. But, while Cantlie has been held hostage for four years, Foley was beheaded.
  • Cantlie has actually been kidnapped twice, by two different jihadist groups. The first time occurred on July 19, 2012 in Syria. A group of British Islamic militants who are affiliated with a small jihadist faction seized him as he crossed into Syria from Turkey. Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans was also taken hostage at that time. Cantlie sustained a shot to the arm, but was rescued by another, more moderate, rebel group after he had been held for a week. A few months later, he returned to the area where he had been kidnapped, along with Foley, and both men were kidnapped by ISIS in Idlib, Syria.
  • Cantlie hails from a distinguished family and has a background in health, science and engineering.

The first Islamic State video released this month, featuring Cantlie, demonstrates a departure from the older propaganda videos, as the group has lost a lot of territory.

The LA Times reports:

“At the start of the video released this week Cantlie stands in front of what he describes as a damaged bridge across the Tigris River linking the east and west sides of Mosul, the Sunni Muslim militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq. Three other bridges were destroyed by airstrikes and one remained, he said.

People try to cross the bridge’s wreckage and black smoke billows in the background.

‘You can see the absolute pandemonium it’s creating,’ Cantlie says. ‘You have to ask yourself: If this is the coalition’s war against the mujahedin then why are they waging it against the Muslims of Mosul?’”

There is a shift in tone from previous videos featuring Cantlie, from that of ISIS invincibility to a portrayal of the region, including the terror group itself, as having fallen victim to U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. “The message has morphed from the ‘ISIS can’t be stopped’ theme to a ‘you’re destroying our infrastructure and hurting innocent civilians’ theme,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

In this video, Cantlie is wearing a beard for the first time, but speaks about Muslims in the third person, indicating he has not converted to Islam. In the video, he talks frequently about Muslims without claiming to be one. And, according to Rita Katz, director of Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, that makes his message more potent–a Westerner delivering the Islamic State’s message. “In some ways, it’s more valuable coming from him than from anyone in ISIS. He is speaking on ISIS’ behalf as a Westerner experiencing coalition attacks on its territory,” she said. “The group wants to make him look like an objective observer, though his commentary is obviously approved, if not at times scripted.”

The second propaganda video released this month, allegedly by ISIS, is 47 minutes long and features Cantlie discussing the situation on the ground in Mosul.

Cantlie, wearing a helmet, comments that he hasn’t, “seen war like this for a long time.” He goes on to say: “We’re absolutely on the frontline now of the fight here in Mosul.”

Much speculation has surrounded Cantlie’s seeming anti-Western sentiment in these videos and his appearing to side with the Islamic State. Some, such as the UK government, believe that Cantlie has become an ISIS supporter, while others argue that it’s not as simple as that and that there is more there than meets the eye.

Conversion or Survival Tactics?

Several people have questioned why Foley was killed but Cantlie’s life has been spared so far. Some suspect that Cantlie may have become an ISIS sympathizer.

However, Alexander is among many who believe Cantlie is suffering from Stockholm syndrome or is simply going along with ISIS’ demands in order to survive. Psychiatrists, psychologists and others caution that no one should underestimate the duress experienced by Cantlie, like others before him, as he speaks to the camera for the propaganda purposes of Islamic State terrorists.

That Cantlie has clearly become an asset to ISIS was apparently not enough to keep the U.K. government from opting out of the opportune rescue opportunity it had to bring Cantlie home.

In a September 2014 video from ISIS, Cantlie begins the first in the series of videos in which the apparent plan is to “dispel the manipulated truths” of the Western media. According to a 2014 article in International Business Times, “Cantlie’s collected delivery and anti-Western rhetoric have raised difficult questions regarding the journalist’s state of mind and phrases like ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ have been thrown around by the world’s press. Some commentators believe he could have been converted to the Isis message after two years in their captivity, while others say that, though he appears calm, he may be speaking under duress.”

Of the same opinion as Alexander, the BBC‘s security correspondent, Frank Gardner has said that although Cantlie is not making his speech with “a knife or gun being held to his head,” he is obviously reading from a script, which could suggest the statements were coerced. Additionally, Elizabeth McClelland, a forensic voice analyst, argues that certain vocal ticks in his speech indicate he was anxious. McClelland said: “He is clearly reading from a script, probably one that he has rehearsed. The speech and language-use of the hostage exhibited features that strongly indicated that he was acting, that he was using language that was not authentically his own.”

On the other hand, Neil Greenberg, president of the UK Psychological Trauma Society, has said that Cantlie, “is speaking clearly and eruditely and I hope he achieves his aim. He certainly does not in the video appear to be exhibiting signs of duress.” But, he notes that Cantlie could be siding with his captors in order to develop a two-way relationship that could ensure his survival. “It is very important to hostages to make themselves of value to their captor. When people go through hostile environment training, you are taught to do this,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg also asserts that if Cantlie does have Stockholm syndrome, it might have been exacerbated by the release of other European journalists from ISIS.

It can be assumed that a hostage’s noncompliance in following orders  would prove fatal or result in harsh punishment. The instinct for survival would lead most captives to acquiesce to their captors’ demands. This is not necessarily the same as succumbing to Stockholm syndrome, however. Hostages with Stockholm syndrome actually begin to support their captors’ goals and actions.

Greenberg explains that Stockholm syndrome arises from a combination of factors in which a hostage’s survival strategy is replaced by a willingness to identify with the captors. “If, for example, someone is held in conditions of austerity shared by their captors, rather than by people living in relative luxury up the road, there is a chance of some bonding,” Greenberg said.

The danger to Cantlie’s life is acute. In a video released in November 2014, Cantlie talked about his feelings of being “left for dead” by the UK government. “It’s the worst feeling in the world, being left behind like that. To be left behind so cynically by the country you thought you knew is some kind of ultimate betrayal.

You spend your whole life working, paying taxes, not getting into trouble with the police, paying your bills – and for what? The first time you need your country, they turn their back.”