An ISIS Hostage on the Dark Side
British hostage John Cantlie, who was abducted by jihadists alongside American journalist James Foley, was featured in a new propaganda video posted Monday night reporting from inside the besieged town of Kobani. He scornfully rejects Western media coverage of the battle for the Syrian border town, saying the militants of the Islamic State are not on the retreat and are now just mopping up.
But as with other propaganda videos from the so-called Islamic State, this one is less about what’s said than the collection of subtle and not-so-subtle messages put across by its slick production tailored to the tastes of a generation that has grown up glued to computer screens and mobile devices. This one, for instance, opens with aerial video of Kobani shot from an “Islamic State drone.”
The video then homes in on a healthy-looking Cantlie, who is dressed in black—like an ISIS fighter—in contrast to the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner he was seen wearing in five episodes of jihadist propaganda films called “Lend Me Your Ears.” His hair has grown out and his skin color is less pale, suggesting that the previous videos were shot several weeks ago, around the time ISIS beheaded Foley and another American reporter, Steven Sotloff.
In the “Lend Me Your Ears” series, the British freelance photojournalist emphasizes that he is a prisoner of the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, and doesn’t know whether he will live or die. But in Monday night’s five-and-a-half minute clip, titled “Inside Ayn al-Islam” (the Arabic name for Kobani is Ayn al-Arab), the 43-year-old Cantlie makes no reference to his captivity, raising questions about whether he has crossed the line and is now a willing propagandist for the jihadists behind the camera.
“The video is troubling,” says a U.K. security official, who asked not to be named in this article. “Was this filmed under duress? Volunteered and suggested? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Does it cross a line? Is he playing them?”
One of Cantlie’s colleagues in the Mideast press corps was more sympathetic. In the video, Turkish territory is clearly visible over Cantlie’s shoulder. “All that freedom so close—with Turkish spectators nearby. The fact that ISIS is moving him around there shows it has a lot of confidence.”
Cantlie’s record in Syria is a strange one. He was kidnapped once before, on July 19, 2012. British Islamic militants affiliated with a small jihadist faction seized him as he crossed into Syria from Turkey near Bab al Hawa along with Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans. Cantlie was shot in the arm while trying to escape his captors but was rescued by another, more moderate rebel group after he had been held for a week.
He returned to the area where he was kidnapped a few months later along with Foley, and both men were seized as they left an Internet café in Idlib in northern Syria. The two had met covering the 2011 war in Libya.
Now Cantlie appears to accuse the Western media of skewing coverage of the month-long siege. “For a month now, the soldiers of the Islamic State have been besieging this key Kurdish city, and despite continual American airstrikes, which so far have cost nearly half a billion dollars in total, the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city,” he says. “They now control the eastern and southern sectors.”
In point of fact, The Daily Beast in last week’s coverage noted that Islamic militants still seemed to be fighting street by street in the center of the city and that they appeared to dominate in the southern and eastern districts.
Cantlie continues: “The Western media—and I can’t see any of their journalists here in the city of Kobani—have been saying recently that the Islamic State are in retreat.” This is all a turnaround, he says, from what American officials were saying a month ago, when they conceded that Kobani could not be secured by U.S. airstrikes.
“Mujahideen are definitely not on the run,” he adds. He mocks also the “hopeless United States Air Force” for parachuting two crates of ammunition into the hands of the Islamic militants that were meant to have gone to the Kurdish defenders. Many others did make it to the Kurds.
Over the weekend the Islamic State posted the fifth episode in the “Lend Me Your Ears” series in which Cantlie was seen speaking like a beleaguered anchorman in prison garb from behind a desk and criticizing the British and U.S. governments for failing to negotiate for the Americans and Britons held by the Islamic State. The jihadists, allegedly in exchange for ransoms, have released several European hostages—French, Italians, and Spanish among them.
In the apparently scripted clip from the weekend, which lasts six and a half minutes, Cantlie says: “Now, unless we tried something stupid like escaping or doing something we shouldn’t, we were treated well by the Islamic State.” But he noted: “Some of us who tried to escape were waterboarded by our captors, as Muslim prisoners are waterboarded by their American captors.”
He also read from emails supposedly exchanged between the militants and families of American hostages. The families have complained publicly about the U.S. government’s refusal to negotiate with the Islamic State for the release of Americans held captive.
The fifth episode was posted just days after Cantlie’s 80-year-old father died from complications following pneumonia.
On Oct. 19, Cantlie’s sister Jessica told the London Sunday Times, “He believes at least two-thirds of what he is saying. He’s a very principled man.”
In the fifth episode, Cantlie made no reference to recent events, unlike in earlier episodes and in Monday night’s video. Cantlie appears also to have written an article for the Islamic State’s English-language online propaganda magazine rehashing much of what he said in the early propaganda films.
“The use of the drones is impressive and follows other recent videos the IS put out that included similar footage,” says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute. “As early as March 2014, the IS displayed aerial shots from a military parade it held in Fallujah. By including today’s footage in the Cantlie video, they are clearly trying to get the West to take notice of their military capabilities.”