A British journalist who was captured in Syria with American reporter James Foley in November 2012, and who is being held hostage by the so-called Islamic State (also referred to as ISIL and ISIS), has now made a propaganda video for his captors.
In the slickly produced recording, freelance photojournalist John Cantlie, 43, accuses the Western media of manipulating the truth. He plays to the war-weariness of Americans and Britons, urging them to understand the foolishness of yet another United-States-led military intervention in the Middle East.
Cantlie, who worked for several British newspapers, including the Sunday Times, has had a curious history with the jihadists in Syria, and some analysts have suggested that Foley was picked up by the terrorists mainly because he was with Cantlie at in Internet café in Idlib. The two had met covering the 2011 war in Libya. At the request of the British Foreign Office and members of the Cantlie family, however, most journalists had kept Cantlie’s name and problematic behavior out of their stories until now.
In fact, Cantlie was kidnapped once before in Syria. In 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.
“I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists—young men with south London accents—shot to kill,” Cantlie wrote afterwards. “They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands. Bullets kicking up dirt as I ran.”
Back in the United Kingdom, Cantlie identified several British jihadists to the security services. The authorities arrested three men, one of them a doctor, when they returned to London, but the cases against them fell apart when Cantlie didn’t appear in court as a witness. By then he had returned to Syria—and been kidnapped again.
Cantlie’s decision to return to the war zone prompted alarm among the Western press corps, several of whom urged him not to go back in and pressed Foley not to accompany him. A senior British intelligence official told The Daily Beast: “It was an incredibly risky thing to do—we were not happy when we heard he had gone back.”
In the video that surfaced on Thursday, Cantlie wears an orange jumpsuit similar to the ones Foley, American journalist Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines wore in the videos that showed them decapitated.
Cantlie speaks calmly, although with obvious signs of stress, as he lashed out at the American and British governments for failing to pay hostage ransoms—contrasting their failure to do so with the Europeans.
He says in the three-minute-long video titled “Lend Me Your Ears” that the Western media, “the very organization I used to work for, can twist and manipulate” to help the American and British governments drag their countries back into a war in Iraq they can’t win.
The video is a further demonstration of the “professionalism” ISIS propagandists have demonstrated, with varying camera angles and polished production values.
In the videos of the beheadings, the Western hostages are pictured before their execution keeling on a desert hill and reading from a script blaming their leaders for their approaching deaths. The Cantlie video could have been made in any TV studio in the West—he is sitting behind a desk like an anchor man—with the only glaring inconsistency being the speaker’s orange attire.
There is no one else visible in this video—no British-accented “Jihad John” standing beside his victim ranting a warning to President Barack Obama or Prime Minister David Cameron—as there was in the previous videos.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Cantlie says. “You’re thinking, ‘He’s only doing this because he’s a prisoner. He’s got a gun at his head and he’s being forced to do this.’ Right? Well, it’s true. I am a prisoner, that I cannot deny.
“But seeing as I’ve been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose,” he says. “Maybe I will live and maybe I will die, but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify. Facts that if you contemplate, might help preserving lives,” promising that he put them forward in future videos. In effect, this one is just a teaser.
Cantlie is one of more than 20 Western captives being held by ISIS. Major media outlets—because of blackout requests from his family and the British Foreign Office—have hitherto withheld Cantlie’s name, but with the release of the IS video The Daily Beast now feels under no obligation to continue observing the blackout.
According to a British private-sector security adviser who knew Cantlie before he was captured, the photographer looks changed and unwell. “Yes, he appears calm and collected but he is clearly stressed and doing this under duress,” the source says.
The reaction from Western reporters and human rights workers in the Middle East was immediate. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that Cantlie was “not speaking 4 himself,” adding that he is “being forced 2 read IS script under threat of death.”
Toby Harnden, a former Sunday Times journalist, tweeted that the video struck him as “bizarre,” noting that his former colleague looked “fluent, relaxed.”
Once again, whatever setbacks it is suffering on the physical battlefield, ISIS shows that it knows how to keep the world guessing about its next offensive on the Internet.