Two Canadians held hostage by terrorists, two responses – is this fair?

We learned today that a Canadian, Joshua Boyle, has been rescued in Pakistan, together with his American wife and three children born in captivity after having been held for five years by the Taliban.  Mr. Boyle and his very pregnant spouse were taken by the terrorist group while ‘backpacking’ through central Asia, including Afghanistan. It appears that intelligence shared by the US with Pakistan may have led to their rescue.

Meanwhile in an Ottawa courtroom we are learning more about the horrific capture and treatment, including beatings and rape, of Red Deer freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout who went to Somalia in 2008 to work on a story together with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan only to be captured by the Al Shabaab terrorist group. Ms. Lindhout was released more than a year later in exchange for undisclosed ransom payments.  The trial of one of her captors is the result of a brilliant RCMP ploy to convince him to come to Canada: a member posed as a book agent to lure the terrorist to Ottawa where he was arrested in 2015.

Two Canadians, two terrorist groups, two seizures.  Are the stories the same and should our reaction to them be the same?  Yes and no.  What must be acknowledged is that both exercised poor judgment and suffered as a result.  Backpacking in Afghanistan with a pregnant wife is probably not in the Lonely Planet’s top ten recommended tours and going to Somalia with little institutional support is also not a great idea. So the two are guilty of naivete at best and careless stupidity at worst.  But here the stories diverge.

Joshua Boyle is the ex-husband of Zaynab Khadr, the daughter of now (thankfully) dead Al Qaeda lieutenant Ahmed Said Khadr and member of Canada’s #1 terrorism family.  They did not stay married for long and I am not trying to say that the sins of the ex-wife should apply to the ex-husband, but is there not a pattern here?  Why would someone willingly choose to belong to the Khadr family in the first place (those born into it had no choice)? Given the open, vocal and frequent support by Ms. Khadr for terrorism, is it not reasonable to assume that Mr. Boyle was aware of what he was getting into?  Did he share those views to any extent?  He certainly seemed to have an inordinate interest in terrorism given his Wikipedia entries!

Ms. Lindhout on the other hand may be on the hook for nothing more than ignorance and an ill-placed sense of adventure.  She does not appear to have sympathised with her captors (no Stockholm Syndrome that I have read although I am not 100% up on her life since she regained freedom) and she has been remarkably generous in not hating her captors (I do not think I would be so forgiving).  Do Canadians see her as a ‘more deserving’ hostage?  Good question.

Moreover, what is it reasonable to expect from Canadian authorities when our nationals are held hostage abroad, either by terrorist groups or by criminal organisations? Should undue risks be taken to extract those who make awful decisions?  What are the limitations?  Even when our guys do help to rescue our citizens sometimes the victims are not so grateful (members of the Canadian Christian Peacemaker Team held in Iraq chastised the use of military force to effect their rescue in Iraq in 2006).  Should we place our men in women in serious harm’s way when success is all but impossible?

In the end it was probably very important that Mr. Boyle’s wife is a US citizen, thus bringing the American government, military and intelligence apparatus to bear on Pakistan.  It goes without saying that the Americans have many more resources than Canada does.  Perhaps the best decision Mr. Boyle has made to date was to marry a US person.

The rescue operation is also a rare bright moment in US-Pakistan security relations of late.  One commentator described the relationship as being on ‘life support’ after President Trump said that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. The fact that intelligence was shared and a successful extraction was made can only be seen as good news.

What is next for Joshua Boyle and his family?  I have no idea.  Do they return to Canada?  What about the kids?  In all this they are the true victims as they did not stupidly choose to tramp through Afghanistan like hippies, ignoring the war zone and threat to their lives.  I hope they are ok and can recover from this horrendous five-year period.  They are young and that should help their resilience.

As for Ms. Lindhout I hope her captor is found guilty and given a very, very long prison sentence.  I hope she can continue her humanitarian work – she has founded the Global Enrichment Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering leadership in Somalia through educational and community-based programs, a truly admirable achievement – but I also advise her to choose her trips more carefully next time.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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