John Cantlie, a British journalist captured by the terrorist group calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) in 2012, is still alive, at least according to the U.K. government.
While Security Minister, Ben Wallace, declined to elaborate on where British intelligence believes he is being held, it is likely that the government is relying on intercept evidence or information provided by one of the growing number of ISIS fighters returning to Europe.
Several senior British government sources have criticized Wallace for commenting on Cantlie’s status, saying it may put his life in immediate danger and urging media outlets to exercise caution in reporting the story. The British Home Office issued a statement saying: “We do not discuss individual kidnap cases and speculation is unhelpful.”
Another Whitehall source attempted to cover the government’s tracks further, saying: “Our position on Mr Cantlie has not changed for some time. We genuinely do not know if he is dead or alive . . . . This could prompt his captors to move him, or even worse. It is a massive own goal by Ben Wallace. The threat on Mr Cantlie’s life has increased exponentially.”
Then 42, Cantlie was captured by ISIS in Syria in November 2012, along with fellow journalist and US national James Foley. Foley was later beheaded on camera in 2014 by the infamous British ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John.
Cantlie was last seen in 2016 in an official ISIS video filmed in Mosul, before the city was liberated from the militant group. In the video, Cantlie can be seen traveling around Mosul, demonstrating the damage caused to the city by airstrikes. By all accounts, as a journalist and photographer, Cantlie was viewed as a useful asset by the ISIS leadership, which used him as a frontman in several other videos. In early videos, Cantlie was forced to wear an orange jumpsuit, similar to those worn by people detained by the United States at sites such as Guantanamo Bay.
Shortly before his death in 2014, Cantlie’s 80-year-old father, Paul, recorded a video from his hospital bed calling for his son’s release.
Meanwhile, the Free John Cantlie campaign still continues on social media. The group recently tweeted: “We are aware of the current news circulating that John Cantlie is alive, whilst this is not substantiated at present, we continue to hope and pray that this turns out to be true. Thank you for your continued support.”
Reports that Cantlie may still be alive date back to as early as November 2017, when a former ISIS fighter of French citizenship told the magazine Paris Match that he had seen Cantlie alive in the proclaimed ISIS capital, Raqqa, within the previous eight months. This may contradict earlier reports in the Iraqi media, among other sources, that Cantlie had been killed in an airstrike in mid-2017 while trying to cross the Tigris river during the battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS.
The French fighter went on to say that Cantlie had been working for ISIS in one of its prisons when he encountered him, saying the journalist had been speaking to prisoners about their working conditions. “I welcomed him and he went to interrogate the prisoners: how were they there? What were their conditions of detention? What they ate, if they were well treated . . . ,” said the man. “Then he left. It is not official, but his companions in ISIS say that he joined Daesh.”
Ellise Speed, a Scottish resident of Mosul, also says that she saw Cantlie on two occasions during 2017. “He was walking with a couple of ISIS minders through the market,” said Speed. “Then I saw him from a taxi a few months later . . . .”
In January 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (fighting to defeat both jihadist groups and the Assad government) stated that Cantlie may still be alive in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, one of the last remaining areas still held by ISIS.
The massive loss of territory by ISIS has inspired the much criticized, large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops in recent months. U.K. Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee that ISIS “had lost almost all the territory they once held.” While the group is still very active, this is what may make it possible for Cantlie to be recovered alive, something that was once only a fanciful hope, but now a legitimate possibility.
The cold reality, however, is that even if Cantlie is alive, whatever transpires in the coming months, as ISIS’ territory continues to shrink, his survival and that of other hostages in Iraq and Syria hangs in an extremely precarious balance. Much will depend on luck and on the conduct of security services and politicians in the West.
In any case, the friends and family of John Cantlie have been thrown a lifeline this month.