Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 October 2020

A principled man in ISIL’s grip: The troubling case of John Cantlie

In the dark history of the hostages seized by ISIL, who are often treated abominably and in many instances murdered, the case of John Cantlie stands out as particularly troubling.
An image grab taken from a video released by ISIL in October last year shows kidnapped British reporter John Cantlie rejecting US claims that the “mujahideen” were retreating from Kobani. Courtesy AFP
An image grab taken from a video released by ISIL in October last year shows kidnapped British reporter John Cantlie rejecting US claims that the “mujahideen” were retreating from Kobani. Courtesy AFP

John Cantlie is the last of the group’s known western hostages, and he has made statements about the extremists that range from neutral to positive. But experts warn against rushing to conclude that he sympathises with them.

In the dark history of the hostages seized by ISIL, who are often treated abominably and in many instances murdered, the case of John Cantlie stands out as particularly troubling.

The British photographer from a distinguished family, with a background in health, science and engineering, is the group’s last known western hostage. He has appeared in a series of ISIL videos, talking about it in terms that range from neutral to positive.

But it is clear from what has become known about the behaviour of hostages that nothing can be taken at face value.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and others with knowledge of the phenomenon warn 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 a ruthless group of extremists.

It is a disturbing feature of the conflict in Syria and northern Iraq that ISIL’s crimes, along with its comprehensive disregard for the Geneva Convention, have ceased to surprise.

This was underlined this month, when ISIL extremists beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had migrated to Libya in search of work.

Even on the evidence of the actions to which ISIL freely admits, it can be assumed that a hostage’s refusal to obey its instructions would prove fatal. The instinct for survival would encourage most captives to accede to the group’s demands.

This is not necessarily the same as succumbing to Stockholm syndrome, in which people held hostage come to support their captors’ aims or activities.

Neil Greenberg, an occupational psychiatrist and professor of defence mental health in the psychology department at King’s College London, says Stockholm syndrome arises from a combination of factors, in which a hostage’s survival strategy is replaced by a willingness to identify with the hostage takers.

The syndrome takes its name from a bank raid in the Swedish capital in 1973, when bank employees were seized by robbers and, during a six-day siege, began to sympathise with them.

The most famous example is Patty Hearst, an American teenager from a wealthy publishing family who joined an urban terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, after being kidnapped by its members in 1974.

She was later jailed but, after outrage at her treatment, was released early into a long sentence. She was finally pardoned in 2001 by Bill Clinton, the US president at the time.

Prof Greenberg restricts his comments to general issues and not any specific hostage, when he says there is no “black and white” definition of how people behave as hostages.

“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,” he says.

“Just as you want to make yourself a human being to them, they become human beings to you.”

A hostage who disapproved of what their captors were doing could nevertheless develop “an element of understanding” to replace hatred or anger, Prof Greenberg says.

In the case of ISIL, the willingness to comply with what is demanded would be deepened by knowledge of what the group has already done to other hostages.

For Cantlie, the danger to his life is acute. His most recent message, or at least the words attributed to him in an article published this month by ISIL’s online magazine Dabiq, offers a chilling hint that even compliance may not help him.

Cantlie, whose father died last November shortly after being filmed in a bedside appeal to the kidnappers, urged his family and fiancee to put him behind them.

“Thank you so much for your tireless efforts,” the article reads. “But let it go. Leave it be and get on with your lives, all of you.”

The air of resignation reinforces the impression left by a previous message in a video distributed by ISIL last November, in which he said he had already accepted it was “overwhelmingly likely” his fate would be the same as that of the other captives who had been murdered.

Cantlie criticised the British government for refusing to pay a ransom. But as media reports of the Dabiq article point out, it is impossible to be sure he wrote the words himself or, if they were genuinely his, under what pressure he did so.

Fears about his future were also raised after the latest of eight videos featuring him was released by ISIL earlier this month.

He spoke of it being “the last film in this series” and his demeanour prompted Hassan Hassan, an analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Research Institute and author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, to tweet that Cantlie sounded more nervous than in previous broadcasts.

As before, he adopted the style of a western television reporter. He referred to the “remarkable and breathtaking” advances and stretch of ISIL, saying that the approach to the city of Aleppo shows the “large swaths of territory liberated and in control of the mujahideen”.

There was praise for ISIL’s work in agriculture and education; an accusation that airstrikes by Syria’s Assad regime were aided by US drone flights; and an interview with a French-speaking fighter acclaiming the murderous attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

But responding to a tweet asking whether he was the victim of a “cat and mouse game”, Cantlie’s Dabiq article stated: “The truth of the matter, for anyone who is interested, is that I’m making the most of my situation.

“Way back in September I said I would speak out against our deceitful governments for as long as the mujahideen allowed me to live, and now in February that still remains the case.”

ISIL’s belief in the power of extreme violence to enforce its will has led to repeated mass murders, the slaughter of civilians, the killing of hostages and gang rapes.

Far from being deterred by hostile foreign publicity, the group glories in its notoriety and the terror it spreads, sometimes citing religious justification regarded by most Islamic authorities as spurious.

The message and methods may have no theological merit but continue to attract a trickle of fanatical young followers, not always unintelligent misfits with little in life to inspire them.

Recruits who do not already have violent tendencies are allegedly brainwashed into disregarding or supporting the most gruesome and barbaric of acts, accepting or even committing brutality that might once have horrified them.

Anecdotal evidence suggests at least a few do realise – too late – the realities of what they have signed up to, only to be deterred by fear or force from trying to escape.

The hostages inevitably know what ISIL is capable of, even if they do not witness it for themselves, and act as best they can to stay alive in the hope that release may eventually come.

Cantlie has been in a peculiarly strong position to appreciate the nature of his predicament, because this is not the first time that he has been taken hostage.

He was abducted with Jeroen Oerlemans, a Dutch photographer, in July 2012 near Bab Al Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border, but was rescued by the Free Syrian Army after a week.

Both men had been shot and wounded in an earlier escape attempt. Although they could not be sure of the identity of their captors, both men talked of them having different nationalities.

Cantlie said a British member of the group chanted “die, Kafir” at him after the attempted escape.

The second abduction came in November that year, when Cantlie and American photographer James Foley were captured by ISIL in north-west Syria while reportedly making a film about the first kidnapping.

Foley was beheaded in August last year.

In a video message last November, Cantlie described a failed US attempt to rescue him again and spoke of a feeling of being “left for dead” by his own government.

Seated at a desk, wearing an orange jumpsuit, he said: “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.”

Cantlie will be aware of the arguments against paying ransoms for hostages, and the fact that some western governments, reportedly including those of France, Switzerland and Spain, have done so.

Prof Greenberg and other experts caution against any rush to assumptions about the true attitudes of people held in circumstances of extreme danger.

But it may be that Cantlie’s best hope of survival rests on his own outspokenness and his perceived value to ISIL as a declared opponent of western military intervention in the conflict.

His sister, Jessica, told Britain’s The Sunday Times last year that he believed “at least two thirds of what he is saying [in videos]”.

“He’s a very principled man.”


Updated: February 24, 2015 04:00 AM

Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email