IRBIL, Iraq -- The Islamic State issued a new video Monday featuring its last known Western hostage narrating a news-broadcast-like report from the Syrian city of Aleppo and its surrounding areas.
The 11-minute video featuring John Cantlie, who’s been in Islamic State custody since Nov. 22, 2012, is the third on-the-scene report from the British hostage since October. It feeds growing speculation among some observers that Cantlie’s talents as a news presenter have made him more valuable to the Islamic State than just another soon-to-be-executed hostage.
“While the Islamic State has access to native British speakers, I suspect none is capable of the kind of delivery Cantlie can achieve,” said Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at King’s College London who closely studies the group. “They also know that we’re all much more likely to talk about, and focus on, a Western hostage than a random individual who’s gone out there and joined Islamic State.”
The Islamic State’s comfort level with Cantlie appears to be growing, Maher said. In contrast to the first video he appeared in, which was posted Sept. 18 and showed him sitting behind a desk dressed in the orange jumpsuit that the group’s hostages have worn in videos that ended with their execution, the later videos show an evolution in his clothing -- and in his apparent demeanor.
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“Previously we’ve seen Cantlie appear in those horrible orange overalls, evocative of captives held in Guantanamo Bay,” Maher said. Even in the first of his on-the scene reports, posted Oct. 27 from Kobani, Syria, Cantlie was dressed in black, marking him, Maher said, as a captive and subordinate.
But in the most recent videos, one from Mosul, Iraq, posted Jan. 3, and then the Aleppo one posted Monday, Cantlie is dressed in casual Western clothes, walking among people on the streets and even, in the Mosul video, riding a motorcycle.
“I consider the entirely casual, civilian clothing he’s wearing ... to be very significant,” Maher said. “To my mind, the Islamic State is trying to send a message that Cantlie is just an ordinary person making an objective assessment of what he sees as everyday life.”
In Monday’s video, Cantlie is far more animated in his descriptions of life under the Islamic State than in previous videos. He emphasizes the normality and dominance the group has established in the broad swath it controls from the Turkish border to central Iraq.
He describes a “thriving agricultural economy” and “grain silos packed to the top,” countering widespread reports of shortages of all goods in much of the Islamic State’s area of control.
In one sequence, reporting from the Syrian border city of al Bab, he points to American drones overhead and claims they appear to be futile. That recalls a scene from the Mosul video in which Cantlie berates an aircraft overhead as being “useless” when it takes no action to rescue him.
Clearly, however, the videos are propaganda and aren’t always tied to the facts. For example, in his Kobani video, Cantlie said the Islamic State was nearly in control of the city. Last month, however, the extremists withdrew their last units after taking heavy casualties from U.S. bombing over the past four months.
In the Aleppo video, titled “Inside Halab,” the Arabic word for Aleppo, Cantlie tours markets, visits the site of an alleged Syrian government airstrike and interviews a French member of the group, who praised the Charlie Hebdo assault last month in Paris and called on all French Muslims to conduct similar attacks.
But the video exaggerates the Islamic State’s presence in Aleppo, which is fiercely contested among three groups. While the Islamic State dominates significant portions of the city and countryside, other rebel factions and the Syrian government also have areas they control.
While visiting what he said was central Aleppo, Cantlie claims that a Syrian aircraft bombed a market immediately after the area was overflown by an American drone, quipping that “someone is clearly working for someone.” The U.S.-led coalition that’s conducting airstrikes on Iraq and Syria has denied any cooperation with the Syrian government.
Cantlie also visited an Islamic Courts waiting room, though he doesn’t show any of the judicial proceedings he described as “1,400 years of the rule of God.” He interviews an unidentified Islamic State militant who says attempts to kill the group’s leaders would have no impact. “If this religion relied on people it would have died with the Prophet Muhammad,” he said. “The deaths of our leaders of jihad only embolden and motivate us.”
Dating the video as relatively recent, Cantlie interviews the French-speaking jihadist who discusses last month’s spate of attacks in Paris.
“These attacks only made us happy when we learned of them a few days ago,” says the French jihadist, who calls on European Muslims “sitting on your couches watching Muslims getting slaughtered” to take action.
“Defend your religion wherever you are,” he says. “Use knives or even strike them in the face.”
Cantlie has the distinction among Western hostages of having been kidnapped twice by Islamist extremists in Syria -- once in July 2012, when he and a Dutch photographer were captured by a jihadi group that included many British fighters, and then again in November of that year, when he returned to Syria in the company of James Foley, an American freelance journalist who was the first of the Western hostages to be beheaded, in a video that was posted Aug. 19.
Cantlie is also the lone known Western hostage still alive. At least five others have been beheaded in Islamic State custody: Foley; two other Americans, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig; and two British aid workers, Alan Henning and David Haines. A sixth, American aid worker Kayla Mueller, was reported by the Islamic State as killed in an air raid last week, a claim that has yet to be confirmed.
That Cantlie was still alive when he first surfaced on video in September, a month after Foley was executed, surprised some who’d been following the hostage saga. If any of the hostages had done something to anger the jihadis, it might have been Cantlie, who after his first kidnapping in Syria had returned to England, where he identified a British physician as one of his kidnappers. Charges were brought against the physician when he went home from Syria, but by the time the matter came to trial last year, Cantlie had returned to Syria and been kidnapped again. Without him as a witness, the doctor was acquitted.
In his Sept. 18 video, Cantlie, dressed in the now-infamous orange jumpsuit, openly speculates about his fate. He says he’s a prisoner, feels abandoned by his government, has nothing to lose by making the video and that his eventual fate has yet to be decided. “Maybe I will live and maybe I will die,” he said.
But now, for a hostage whose fellow captives have all met grisly fates, Cantlie’s increasingly bizarre role has become the subject of speculation in jihadi chat rooms, according to one jihadist sympathizer who accesses password-protected sites and spoke only on the condition of anonymity. There, many wonder whether Cantlie has converted to Islam and joined the group and is no longer a hostage, but the jihadist sympathizer claimed the chatter sounds unrealistic and appears to be, in his words, “trolling.”
Maher also dismisses that speculation. “I don’t believe it in the slightest,” he said via email.
As for what Cantlie’s future holds, that too remains unclear. He introduces Monday’s video by saying this is “the last film in this series.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.