LONDON - British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was abducted by the Islamic State more than six years ago alongside American reporter journalist Jim Foley, is believed to be alive, according to Britain’s security minister Ben Wallace.
After being seized in northern Syria, Cantlie fronted several propaganda videos for the terror group, presumably under duress, but has not been seen alive since 2016, when he was featured in a video shot in Mosul at the start of a siege that eventually saw the city fall last year to Iraqi government forces.
Foley, who had worked previously with Cantlie in Libya before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, was the first Western hostage to be beheaded by IS, an act that provoked worldwide horror.
Among private security experts the consensus until recently was that Cantlie was most likely dead, killed either by his captors or during fighting.
British government officials also privately said they thought he’d been killed. July 2017 Iraqi media outlets reported Cantlie had died in an airstrike during the battle to recapture Mosul. The reports were based on interviews with captured IS fighters. But a French IS fighter told French magazine Paris Match that Cantlie survived the siege of Mosul and had been moved to Raqqa in Syria.
In a news briefing Tuesday, Wallace said the British government believes the 49-year-old photojournalist remains alive, although the security minister wouldn’t elaborate further on the whereabouts of the journalist or what information the government had received.
Analysts say it is unlikely the security minister would have made his remark without the British government having some firm piece of evidence, possibly provided by one of the growing number of foreign IS fighters falling into the hands of mainly Kurdish forces now battling to capture a pocket of land in eastern Syria still held by the terror group, all that remains of IS’s so-called caliphate.
There was no immediate comment from Cantlie’s family to Wallace’s remark. In 2014, his 80-year-old father, Paul, issued a video appeal from his hospital bed for his son’s release, days before he died from pneumonia.
On Twitter the "Free John Cantlie" group, which has sought to keep the journalist’s plight in the public mind, said, “We are aware of the current news circulating that John Cantlie is alive, whilst this is not substantiated at present, we continue to hope and pray that this turns out to be true.”
Last month, Kurdish officials also told Western reporters that Cantlie may still be alive and that he had been spotted in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
Since the December 2016 propaganda film he appeared in, IS has been in retreat.
Dressed in black, like an IS fighter, Cantlie appeared healthier in the Mosul video than in some of the previous propaganda films he fronted. In the films he accused the Western media of skewing its reporting from Syria and Iraq, and in one episode Cantlie, appearing as a beleaguered anchorman in prison garb from behind a desk, criticized the British and U.S. governments for failing to negotiate for the Americans and Britons held by the Islamic State.
In one early film the British freelance photojournalist emphasized that he was a prisoner of the Islamic State and didn’t know whether he would live or die.
In later films he made no reference to his captivity, raising troubling questions for some journalists and analysts, and prompting a debate among security officials about his state of mind and whether he was suffering Stockholm Syndrome and identifying more with his captors or whether he was playing his captors and doing what he needed to stay alive.
Cantlie was kidnapped once before in Syria, on July 19, 2012. British Islamic militants affiliated with a small jihadist faction seized him as he crossed into Syria from Turkey with Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans. He was shot in the arm while trying to escape his captors, but was rescued by another, more moderate rebel group.
He returned to the area where he was kidnapped a few months later with Foley and they were seized as they left an Internet café in Idlib in northern Syria.