Someone to watch over me
A reclusive investigator who helped journalists kidnapped in war zones, Heather Jenkins died under mysterious circumstances earlier this year. James Harkin investigates
Late one evening in 2012, Heather Jenkins was relaxing on the sofa in her pyjamas in her Montreal apartment with her cat Flash, when she decided to open her laptop for a final time. By day, Jenkins worked in sales at an organic food company, but in the past six weeks the routine of this quiet, self-effacing but determined woman in her late 30s had been thrown off-kilter.
Jenkins was a current-affairs junkie and had been following the Twitter updates of isolated freelance journalists reporting from the war zones of Syria – and worrying on their behalf. One correspondent she had been in touch with was Austin Tice, a 30-year-old American who had made it as far as the suburbs of Damascus alongside local rebels. With increasing trepidation, Jenkins had followed him every step of the way via social media.
Then Tice disappeared and Jenkins swung into action. Within 24 hours, she was in touch with Tice’s editor, Mark Seibel, at the US news website Mcclatchy. Over the next six weeks she pored over grainy footage of a massacre that had taken place a few days after Tice went missing, in Darraya, the area where he was last seen. Was he among the dead? That night a brand-new Arabic-language social media account popped up with a 47-second video that appeared to show Tice being led up a craggy mountainside, blindfolded and being taunted by Islamic extremists. Jenkins knew immediately what to do. She raised Seibel from his bed in Washington, DC at 4am, and together they verified it and got it to Tice’s parents and the authorities. This enigmatic footage remains the last proof of Tice’s existence – he is still missing, presumed alive, somewhere in Syria. ‘The FBI didn’t know about it until we called,’ she told me. ‘We worked on it through the night.’
It was Jenkins’ first triumph as a new kind of online private investigator. The mainstream media had been rowing back from the dangerous, expensive and unpopular business of reporting foreign wars for some years; into the vacuum stepped not only the hardy freelance journalists that Jenkins was following, but a new breed of amateur investigators like herself, there to make sense of the torrent of murky, viciously partisan information making its way from war zones on to social media.
The next few years would see Jenkins ‘check out of her life’, as she put it, in Montreal and be inducted into secret cabal. The group included Syria-focused journalists, families of the kidnapped and volunteers like Jenkins, who were alarmed by the disappearance of Tice. One member of her ‘team’ was James Foley, another American freelancer. When he and British photographer John Cantlie were themselves kidnapped that November, she redoubled her efforts. As she came across nuggets from Syria that were useful to all kinds of people, her network increased. She spoke to and became trusted by David Bradley, the powerful owner of The Atlantic magazine, who had taken it upon himself to help get the kidnapped journalists and aid workers out.
Jenkins looked out for me, too. After one difficult reporting trip to Iraq and Syria, I arrived back in London to a Twitter message – ‘Good to see you back online,’ she wrote, even though I hadn’t told her I was away.
I’d first come across Jenkins during my research into missing journalists in Syria for Vanity Fair, and found her a useful sounding board as events went from bad to worse. In the hushed tones of a librarian, Jenkins would nudge me in what she thought was the right direction on an issue or a tip, always without giving any of her sources away. Over the next few years we must have had a hundred conversations. In a world bristling with egos, Jenkins distinguished herself with a charming humility. ‘I am 100 per cent in the background,’ she told me.
But a taste for secrecy can be a dangerous thing. As her work brought her to the attention of more international players, Jenkins became convinced that she’d made powerful enemies; that heavies from Syria, employed by shady intelligence agencies, were tracking her movements, that they were reading her emails, even that they’d tampered with her car and broken into her apartment. ‘If anything ever happens to me,’ she half-joked in one of our last conversations, ‘check it out.’ Then, on 9 January this year, Jenkins dropped dead in her apartment, at the age of 43, in a manner that has yet to be explained. The photos in her low-key, online obituary show a slight, delicate-looking woman; looking at them, I realised that I’d never set eyes on her before.
The first I heard of her death was four months after it happened, during a phone call with Mustafa, a Syrian photojournalist who knew Jenkins better than most. From the Syrian-turkish border Mustafa idly wondered why Jenkins, who was trying to help him win a visa to Canada, hadn’t been in touch lately. I typed her name into Twitter, and saw that she had died. Mustafa and I were stunned.
Maria and Phil Jenkins, Heather’s parents, still live in the quiet residential suburb in Ontario where they brought up her brother, Trevor, and her. When I called they were still processing their daughter’s death. Her mother recalled that when the children went door-todoor to collect for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Jenkins came back with hundreds of dollars more than anyone else, and promptly announced that she was going to discover a cure for MS. At the University of Western Ontario, where she studied genetics and French, she seems to have spent much of her time looking out for other people – volunteering at a local sexual assault centre and regularly doling out money to the other women in her dorm to make sure they’d take a cab home. Allied to her concern for others’ safety, according to her parents, Jenkins excelled at following her nose. ‘Even if Heather got into something at 4am she just kept on digging,’ says Maria. Seibel concurs, ‘She could keep a lot of information straight, which made her a fantastic resource. She wasn’t scattered at all.’
Another journalist who spoke to Jenkins, the former CBS foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward (now senior international correspondent at CNN), told me that she was ‘incredibly thorough, unbelievably diligent, meticulous’. Another Syria-focused journalist remembers that ‘over time she proved to be discreet, trustworthy and reliable – and her work was much appreciated’. In a world thick with highly paid kidnapping and ransom specialists, whose information wasn’t always very good, it helped that Jenkins’ work was carried out free of charge.
Like all good investigative journalists, Jenkins excelled at keeping secrets, but this made some suspicious about who she really was, and who she might be working for. All the same, on 22 July 2013, Jenkins boarded a plane to travel to Syria’s Turkish border to meet some of her sources and try to discover the fate of Foley and Cantlie. Her parents put her on the plane and paid her fare, even though they didn’t know much about the trip. ‘Trevor is an open book,’ says her mother, ‘but Heather would talk to you about everything and tell you nothing.’
After staying with a journalist friend in Istanbul, she travelled down to Reyhanli, a town on the
A taste for secrecy can be a dangerous thing and Jenkins became convinced that she had made powerful enemies
border with Syria that even then was becoming a no-go zone for journalists and aid workers. There she spent time with Mustafa, who had been in Idlib in northern Syria as the fixer for Foley and Cantlie when they were kidnapped. Few journalists had managed to reach Mustafa, and Jenkins pumped him for information. Mustafa remembers her showing up wearing a white shirt and a modest long skirt. ‘I told her, let’s make a selfie, but she said, “No, no please, I don’t like pictures.”’
As usual, she was forensic about detail. At a time when most experts believed the pair were being held by the Syrian regime in Damascus, Jenkins was not taken in. She had spent months gathering information on the Hyundai people carrier that Mustafa told her had been used by a British-led gang of jihadis to kidnap the pair, and she asked Mustafa about the car again. The pair met twice over two days, drinking coffee and eating food, but Jenkins was nervous, perhaps out of her depth. ‘She kept looking around, saying let’s go to another place, and then another place.’
The trip didn’t reveal any new information – Foley was murdered by Isil in 2014 and Cantlie remains missing. But it paid off in other respects, providing Jenkins with a wealth of sources and material for her work. In time she’d be rewarded
with an invitation to an event in Washington, DC for the families of the kidnapped; it was the only time Seibel ever met her, and he remembers ‘an attractive woman in her early 40s, with short dark hair. She seemed to get along just fine.’
The work, however, was quietly taking its toll. Both Seibel and Ward noticed that Jenkins was becoming more intense. Jenkins informed Seibel that someone had concealed a hidden camera in her computer and initially he humoured her, before eventually telling her he thought she was barking up the wrong tree. Being under surveillance was her recurring theme. ‘My understanding is that it’s the FBI,’ she wrote to a journalist in Syria. On another occasion she mooted that, ‘I think it might be the CSIS [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service], but I’m not sure.’ To yet another confidant she claimed that ‘Syrian guys’ had even managed to get into her apartment while she was there. ‘When I got home that evening, my cat tried leading me to the small room at the back of my apartment and for some reason I ignored it. My computer was sitting on the coffee table when I went to bed. As I was lying there I could hear someone using the keyboard.’
More than once, Jenkins took her concerns to the Canadian authorities, but in 2015, she was taken to a mental-health facility after what seemed like a breakdown. When interviewed by a psychiatric doctor she duly told them about her hush-hush work on Syria and kidnapping. Another doctor suggested she get one of her contacts on the phone – at which point Jenkins called Seibel, who told them it was all true. ‘You should have seen the expression on the doctor’s face,’ remembers her mother.
The incident only confirmed Jenkins’ worst fears. ‘I went to the police for help,’ she wrote, ‘and instead of helping or remotely looking into anything I was telling them, they locked me in the hospital…’ The doctor told her parents that no one like Jenkins should be doing work like this on her own. When the news came in that Foley had been beheaded the year before, her mother Maria remember Jenkins sobbing uncontrollably. But like everything else she’d seen online in the previous two years, she made herself watch it in full. ‘She was devastated.’
Jenkins’ personality made her perfect for online sleuthing, but the truth was that she’d been troubled for a long time. Ever since university she’d suffered from crippling anxiety, for which she was being medicated at the time of her death, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. In preliminary findings, the coroner has told her parents that there was no sign of suicide, of intruders, or of anyone else being involved. The family are still waiting for a toxicology report and they do not yet have a firm cause of death.
Jenkins’ concerns about her personal security were perhaps unfounded, but on the other hand everything else she came up with turned out to be unfailingly true. ‘I never felt that she was making up information,’ says Aretae Wyler, David Bradley’s attorney, who spoke to Jenkins often. Her parents believe that her phone had been tapped and that her mail might have been tampered with. It’s also likely that her work could have piqued the interest of intelligence agencies in Europe and North America. ‘We think there were a number of people who were trying to figure out what she did,’ says her father, Phil. At one point, according to both her parents and Seibel, Jenkins was asked to travel to Ottawa to meet an officer from Scotland Yard who was at a conference there and was also investigating kidnapping cases in Syria. Jenkins met him, but didn’t give him all the information he was after; she wanted to protect her sources in Syria.
But all this secrecy also reinforced Jenkins’ long-standing, self-imposed loneliness. She had few friends and never seems to have had any romantic relationships. ‘She was too busy looking after everyone else,’ says her mother.
Her work gave her purpose, but it became all-consuming. She said so herself. In one of her late-night conversations with me, in December 2014, she bemoaned ‘constantly having to do stuff from behind a computer with people who are in a different time zone from me. Because I got into this so randomly, none of my friends are involved, so I can’t discuss it with them.’
Just a few months after her death, Jenkins’ parents have come to find solace in their daughter’s achievements. They are proud that she was as skilled, if not more so, than many of the world’s top journalists and investigators. They are also awaiting the final coroner’s report.
Seibel counted Jenkins as a good friend. A respected veteran of national-security journalism, he was aware of her more unlikely fears, but reserves judgment on her death until the toxicology reports come in. He knows what she would have made of it. ‘They finally got me in the end,’ she’d say, and then purr into a giggle.
James Harkin is director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and author of Hunting Season (Little, Brown, £11.99)
‘I went to the police for help and instead of looking into anything I was telling them, they locked me in the hospital’
MONTREAL Heather Jenkins The reclusive investigator who helped reporters working in war zones – from her computer in Canada. She died at home aged 43 earlier this year.
WASHINGTON, DCMark Seibel (far left), former chief of correspondents at news website Mcclatchy, now national security editor at Buzzfeed News, andDavid Bradley (left), co-owner of The Atlantic magazine; both used Jenkins’ work
LONDONJames Harkin, journalist and author of this report, had dozens of conversations with Jenkins, while CNN reporter Clarissa Ward called Jenkins ‘meticulous and diligent’
SYRIAAustin Tice (below) was kidnapped in 2012 – Jenkins brought his plight to international attention.John Cantlie (left) was kidnapped alongsideJames Foley (far left), who was a contact of Jenkins’. Foley was executed by Isil in 2014
Left Heather Jenkins, the ‘opensource’ investigator whose sudden death is still being examined