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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - 21.07.18 -

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

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