Yes we can feel for the Boyle family but questions remain and should be asked

First and foremost, Canadians and others should be very happy for Joshua Boyle, Caitlin Coleman and their children now that their five-year ordeal is over.  The conditions under which the family was held hostage by the Taliban/Haqqani group were truly horrendous and no one should underestimate or dismiss that.  I for one feel most for the kids and we have already read where the oldest is having a hard time adjusting to freedom.  Yes, children are resilient and their very young age in this case will help with their recovery but the suffering they endured will take time to undo.

Unfortunately some in this country have been less than generous  in their remarks towards the family.  As The Ottawa Citizen’s deputy editor Keith Bonnell wrote yesterday comments have been made that eschew pity and suggest that Joshua Boyle is at best a narcissist and at worse a terrorist.  As Mr. Bonnell stated these views appear to be “barely concealed relish… at times, to verge on gleeful disdain.”   Expressions such as these are really uncalled for but are, alas, all too common in today’s Twitterverse.  They rightfully should be condemned.  The depths to which some people stoop in insulting and debasing others online never ceases to amaze and concern me: I too have received them from both the left and the right even though I consider myself a fairly centrist person (which may strike readers odd coming from a 30-year intelligence veteran in Canada).

So no, this kind of language is not welcome and while we cannot eliminate it we can condemn it.  And yet, several valid questions do remain surrounding this case and its aftermath and they should be asked.  This is not in a spirit of schadenfreude but rather a need to learn more about what actually happened and about the actors involved.

Among such questions are the following:

  1. What were the couple doing in Afghanistan in 2012?  Some reports say ‘backpacking’ while Mr. Boyle now says they were ‘pilgrims’.  Pilgrims to where?  If they were truly doing humanitarian work that is indeed admirable but we can still criticise them for going to an area of the world that was unsafe and dangerous, especially in light of Ms. Coleman’s advanced pregnancy.
  2. Did the fact that Mr. Boyle was once married to Zaynab Khadr have anything to do with their capture?  Should it as some have suggested or is this a red herring – after all it was almost a decade ago?    Were the terrorists who seized Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman aware of his ties to the Khadrs  or was this truly a random (well, semi-random) hostage incident?  Was the fact that the patriarch of the Khadrs – Ahmed Said Khadr – was tied to Al Qaeda at all at play here?
  3. Why was Mr. Boyle reluctant to board a US plane to get  him and his family out of Pakistan?  I can understand why some are not too keen to support the US, especially with the Trump Administration now calling the shots, but why would a man hesitate to get on an aircraft that would take them away from the hellhole they were in?  As Ms. Coleman’s father told the media “I’d be running down the tarmac to get on that plane”.  Furthermore, why has Mr. Boyle not acknowledged the role that US intelligence played in his rescue? He has thanked the Pakistani forces for their actions but not the US: it is clear, at least to me, that without US help he and his family would still be hostages.
  4. What does Mr. Boyle mean when he says that if he does not get ‘justice’ for what happened to him he will “turn to other outlets to seek our justice”?  Does he intend to go through the Canadian justice system? Does Canada have any weight with Afghan authorities?  Does the Afghan government with which we would need to work have any capabilities against the Taliban/Haqqani network?
  5. Why has the Taliban gone to extraordinary lengths to deny they killed the Boyles’ baby daughter and raped Ms. Coleman, a story that runs counter to Mr. Boyle’s account?  After all, it is not as if the terrorist group usually is known for kindness and charity.  Why make a big deal about this incident?

I am sure there are other questions that need to be asked.  We can certainly allow the family time and space to recover from their ordeal and we should refrain from insulting or disparaging remarks.  Mr. Boyle, however, has not made himself a lot of friends lately with his statements.  Again, that in itself should not invite opprobrium but we have the right to question his stupid choices, choices that ultimately put not only his family in peril but also his rescuers in danger as they extracted the family.  To put a muzzle on legitimate challenge is neither helpful nor in keeping with our values of freedom and openness.

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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