Columns

British Journalist Held for Years by ISIS May Still Be Alive, Says SDF

In this Nov. 11, 2012 photo, freelance British photojournalist John Cantlie poses next to a Syrian rebel fighter's vehicle in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo)

A British journalist kidnapped more than six years ago and forced to do propaganda as a prisoner of the Islamic State may still be alive, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Veteran photojournalist John Cantlie, who has worked for the The Sunday TimesThe Sun and the Telegraph, was seized in Syria along with American photojournalist James Foley in November 2012; they were eventually handed over to ISIS. Foley was beheaded in an August 2014 ISIS video.

In Septemer 2014, ISIS released the first in its Lend Me Your Ears video series, in which Cantlie argued against the “Western media” portrayal of the Islamic State and the U.S.-British refusal to pay ransom.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking. 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?” Cantlie said, making a gun-firing gesture toward his head with his fingers. “Well, it’s true. I am a prisoner. That I cannot deny. But seeing as how I’ve been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State I have nothing to lose. Maybe I will live, and maybe I will die.”

ISIS continued to use Cantlie as a video “reporter” and put his byline on pieces penned for their magazine. In a February 2015 video, he was no longer in an orange jumpsuit but wearing black pants and a casual brown jacket while walking through Aleppo.

The reporter then went to a Sharia courtroom waiting room, explaining the 1,400-year-old penal code and why thieves get a hand lopped off. “Sounds harsh, but you’re not going to commit the same crime again and it will dissuade others from doing the same,” he said.

Those in the Sharia waiting room were positioned to stare at ISIS propaganda videos on a flatscreen TV. “And I must say, they’re a lot more entertaining than watching the news at 6,” Cantlie quipped.

Cantlie was last used in an ISIS video in December 2016, talking about the battle for Mosul that began in October 2016.

In July 2017, Iraqi media reported that Cantlie had been killed, based on accounts from jihadists.

Mustafi Bali — director of the SDF, the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian force that captured Raqqa from ISIS — tweeted Sunday that there is unconfirmed information that Cantlie “is still alive and is moving around” in Hajin, a town in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province liberated by the SDF last month.

While the town has been heavily damaged by airstrikes, ISIS does have a tunnel network in the region.