A Strange Captivity

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(This column originally appeared in the Weekly Standard)

By: Candice Malcolm

Their story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle were idealistic adventurers, a newlywed couple who loved to explore unusual destinations and travel off the beaten path. The North American pair married in 2011, and after spending a few months in Guatemala, they set off for Central Asia, trekking through Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Afghanistan was not part of their original plan, the couple’s friends and family say, but they met other travelers on their journey who raved about the country and its unique beauty, and, just like that, the carefree duo decided to explore the Wardak Province of central Afghanistan. Within weeks, Coleman and Boyle were abducted by the Haqqani network, a fierce and ruthless faction of the Taliban.

There’s plenty of suspense in this story—even after its ostensibly happy ending. Little is known about the couple’s life in captivity, aside from the occasional ransom video in which Coleman and Boyle appear increasingly frail and disoriented, pleading for the Obama administration to listen to their terrorist captors—or else. Unlike most kidnapping victims, the couple started a family and continued having children while in captivity. Caitlan Coleman, it turns out, was seven-months pregnant when the couple decided to backpack through the Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan.

Fast-forward to October 11, 2017, when the 31-year-old Coleman, the 34-year-old Boyle, and their three children were rescued in what was reportedly a daring raid by an elite unit of the Pakistani military. It was a tremendous achievement, and President Trump attributed it to the improved bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan. But alongside this good news come endless questions about the couple and the very bizarre circumstances of their adventure. Soon after he was freed, Boyle shaved his mustache and part of his beard—displaying the facial-hair-of-choice of radical Salafi Muslims. According to media reports, Boyle refused to board a U.S. military aircraft after the rescue and instead waited for the Canadian government to facilitate his travel back to Canada. In Boyle’s frequent interviews since his release, his accent occasionally sounds like that of a native-Arabic speaker, even though he was born and raised in a small town in Ontario. Unlike his Pennsylvania-born wife, Boyle seems more than happy to jump in front of the camera and tell his tale.

And the more Boyle talks, the more he sounds like a religious fanatic. Examining Boyle’s actions and considering his background, which includes a high-profile marriage into a renowned al Qaeda family, it’s easy to become skeptical of his story. Boyle’s eccentricities are so distinct, even the Taliban-allied Haqqani network has contested his statements. Islamist terrorists don’t usually care to correct the record in North American news, but in this case, the group was quick to release a statement denying some of Boyle’s claims, namely that his wife was raped in prison and that the kidnappers “authorized the murder” of his infant daughter. Boyle later clarified that the baby died in a miscarriage, which he blamed on his captors. In his first statement on touching down in Toronto, Boyle decried the “stupidity and the evil of the Haqqani network in the kidnapping of a pilgrim” and referred to the Taliban using its self-styled formal title, “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

So many things about Boyle and his family’s ordeal remain a mystery. Writing in the Toronto Sun, Pakistan-born Canadian writer Tarek Fatah says his first questions to Boyle would be: “when did you convert to Islam” and who introduced you to the faith? Boyle’s wife hasn’t been seen in Canada without a hijab on her head; she “declined” to tell a Toronto Star reporter “whether she has converted to Islam.”

Looking at Boyle’s history, it seems most likely that he was converted by his first wife, Zaynab Khadr—well known to Canadians as the outspoken and radical older sister of convicted war criminal and former Guantánamo Bay inmate Omar Khadr.

Zaynab is notorious for her radical beliefs and praise for Osama bin Laden, who attended one of her weddings (though not the one with Boyle). She appeared in the 2004 PBS documentary Son of al Qaeda, covered in a niqab and offering her vile and anti-Western worldview. “They deserve it,” she said of Americans killed by Islamic terrorists, while also seeking to justify the 9/11 attacks: “sometimes innocent people pay the price.” She also defended her terrorist brother Omar, who admitted to murdering Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer in Afghanistan, saying that he “killed an American soldier. Well, big deal.”

Boyle’s marriage to Khadr was as brief as it was high-profile, lasting only about a year. According to a friend, Boyle met Zaynab while working on an advocacy campaign for Omar Khadr, and the two bonded during an anti-abortion rally in Ottawa. Before the couple divorced in 2010, Boyle became the Khadr family’s spokesman and organized publicity stunts to raise sympathy for Omar, who was 15 when he fought for al Qaeda and threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer. Earlier this year, Omar settled his case against the Canadian government over his Guantánamo experience, receiving CDN$10.5 million.

Alex Edwards, a friend of Joshua Boyle who penned an article about the kidnapping on Medium, writes that Boyle described himself as a “pacifist Mennonite hippy-child” from rural Canada. Edwards also notes that Boyle “may .  .  . have been in the process of converting” to Islam when he traveled to Afghanistan. Far from the caricature of a naïve Western idealist, the Boyle described by Edwards is “an exceptionally cunning and savvy man.” Likewise, a former U.S. intelligence official revealed the U.S. government’s distrust of Boyle by anonymously telling the Washington Post, “I can’t say that [he was ever al Qaeda]. He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”

The Canadian government might have shared some of these concerns. “With Mr. Boyle, it was very unclear what he was trying to achieve, and we were very confused about what he thought might happen to him in that part of the world,” says Andrew House, chief of staff to the Canadian minister of public safety from 2010 to 2015. “We didn’t understand his motives, and that was frustrating.” When asked if Boyle was considered a national security threat by the Canadian government, House explains that while Boyle’s intentions remain unclear, his capacity to engage in terrorism was “nonexistent.” “He had no meaningful understanding of the Middle East,” says House. “I don’t detect anything nefarious about his motivations, but what I do detect is vast negligence and a complete misunderstanding of the danger in traveling in that region.”

House is adamant that Boyle’s case be examined more closely. He specifically questioned what Boyle meant when he said he went to Afghanistan to “do good.” “What does it mean to ‘do good,’ ” House ponders, “did he want to provide humanitarian aid?” Or did he mean providing aid and assistance to the Taliban in its Islamic cause? For now, House says he’s happy the family is home, particularly for the sake of the children, who are “victims and blameless in this ordeal.”

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