‘Harmless’ family on the way home
PAKISTAN: An AmericanCanadian couple and their three children were freed yesterday after being held hostage in Afghanistan for five years by militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Caitlan Coleman, 31, who gave birth to all three children in captivity, and her Canadian husband Josh Boyle, 34, are now at the United States embassy in Islamabad after an operation by the Pakistani military and US intelligence.
The family had been held by the Haqqani network, a powerful Pashtun group that recruited Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and retains close links with the Taliban.
They were freed after US intelligence agencies, which had been tracking the family, alerted Pakistan’s army that they had crossed over from Afghanistan. Pakistani troops moved in on a site in Kurram Agency, in the country’s lawless tribal belt.
US President Donald Trump praised Pakistan’s efforts. ‘‘ We hope to see this type of cooperation - a key word - in helping secure the release of remaining hostages and in our future joint counterterrorism operations,’’ he said.
Coleman, of Pennsylvania, and Boyle, of Ontario, were seized in October 2012 while backpacking in Afghanistan’s Wardak province, a militant stronghold near Kabul.
At the time of her abduction in October 2012, Coleman was pregnant. She had two more children in captivity, putting added pressure on already fraught hostage negotiations and further raising diplomatic tensions around the case. A video released by the Taliban last year showed the couple with two boys.
The newly married couple were described as ‘‘harmless hippies’’ at the time of their capture. Boyle’s parents spoke with him yesterday and learned for the first time that they had a granddaughter in addition to two grandsons.
However, a wrinkle emerged in the plans to repatriate the couple when Boyle apparently refused to board a US C-130 Hercules airplane that had been chartered to take the family to the US. He was previously married to a Muslim woman whose father was linked to an extremist group, and is said to fear legal repercussions. At the time of his capture, US authorities concluded that his abduction with his new wife was merely a coincidence.
It was unclear yesterday whether the family’s release was the result of a swap, a rescue or a payment deal struck with the Haqqanis, who oversee the Taliban’s lucrative sideline in kidnapping.
With the family in captivity, the terrorist group put great pressure on the US and Afghan governments. In 2014, after Coleman had given birth to her second child, the group threatened to kill the whole family if the Afghan government went through with its sentence of death for Anas Haqqani, one of the group’s commanders who had been captured.
The Pakistani army issued a statement saying that Coleman, Boyle and their children had been rescued ‘‘through an intelligencebased operation by Pakistani troops and intelligence agencies’’. It added that the family were already ‘‘being repatriated to their country of origin’’. Pakistan gave no further details of the operation.
Trump suggested that the operation could help to improve strained relations between the two countries. His administration was previously critical of Pakistan for failing to do more to combat extremism, accusing the country of offering a safe haven for terrorists.
At the White House yesterday, Trump said: ‘‘[Pakistan] worked very hard on this, and I believe they’re starting to respect the United States again.’’
FBI Director Christopher Wray said he ‘‘could not be happier’’ that the family had been released, but that the US was ‘‘not going to rest when Americans are held overseas’’.
At least two other Americans are still believed to be held by the Haqqani network.
Paul Overby disappeared in May 2014 while on his way to Pakistan’s tribal lands to interview a jihadist leader for a book.
Kevin King, a 61-year-old pro- fessor, was snatched from outside a university in Kabul last year. In January, militants from the Haqqani network released a video of King in which he pleaded with Trump for help. ‘‘Have mercy on me and get me out,’’ he said.
An Australian professor was kidnapped alongside King. An unsuccessful attempt to rescue them was mounted in 2016.
The group was also responsible for kidnapping Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held in captivity for five years before the US government agreed to trade him for five Taliban commanders.
The family’s release is helpful for Pakistan, coming days before a renewed effort to revive Afghan peace talks next week. Diplomats from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US will meet in Oman, though the Taliban has said it will not attend the talks and that its position of refusing to engage with the Afghan government ‘‘remains unchanged’’.
Tentative negotiations collapsed last year after the Taliban’s former leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was assassinated in a US drone strike in a remote part of Pakistan.
Islamabad has also been under diplomatic pressure from the US, with Trump signalling a tougher line on its covert support for Islamist militants sheltering in Pakistan, including the Taliban and Haqqani leadership.
Trump, confirming plans to deploy an extra 4000 US troops in Afghanistan in an effort to force the insurgents back to the negotiating table, warned that Pakistan must ‘‘change immediately’’ its strategy of harbouring militant groups.
The Haqqanis play a pivotal role in kidnapping. Criminal gangs and smaller Islamist groups snatch targets and sell the hostages on. The Haqqanis commonly move prisoners across the border to their strongholds in Pakistan, out of reach of US forces.
- The Times
A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media in December 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons. The couple also had a daughter during the five years they spent as captives in Afghanistan.