After five harrowing years, Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman – and their three children born in captivity – have been freed from the grasp of Taliban-affiliated militants.
Pakistani officials on Friday said they have left Pakistan by plane from Islamabad, but did not say where the family was headed.
The BBC was reporting early Friday that the family was headed to London, England.
The Canadian man, 34, and his American wife, 31, were newlyweds when they disappeared while travelling into Afghanistan in 2012, triggering a long-running effort by Canada and the United States to free the family from the Haqqani network. That effort came to a sudden and successful conclusion on Thursday, although there are conflicting accounts as to whether their freedom was secured by a negotiated handover or by a shootout at the Afghan-Pakistani border.
In a brief statement to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Boyle’s father said he is still waiting for his son to return to Canada. “We are still trying to sort out a very complex situation,” said Patrick Boyle, a Federal Court of Canada judge based near Ottawa.
The couple have two sons, ages 2 and 4, and a daughter, who was born within the past few weeks.
Multiple governments claimed credit for helping achieve their release, while giving vague and, at times, conflicting explanations.
Pakistani government officials claimed their military acted on a tip relayed by U.S. intelligence – one that allowed them to intercept the “terrorist” abductors and their captives after their car crossed from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The country’s high commissioner to Ottawa said a firefight led to their freedom.
White House officials did not mention any specifics about a shootout in their public statements.
Meantime, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed his new-found clout with Pakistan had led to the hostage release, while his chief of staff, John Kelly, was ambiguous, saying only that his government and Pakistan worked together as “partners.”
“Thank God that the Pakistani officials have – took them into custody, so to speak, from the forces of evil in that part of the world,” he said.
The federal government said Canada helped achieve a resolution. “Canada has been extremely actively engaged in this case for the past five years,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Mexico City, where she was engaged in free-trade negotiations. She added: “No ransom was paid. Canada has been very clear that we do not believe in paying ransoms.”
The Haqqani network is formally designated in the United States and Canada as a terrorist group – an overt declaration that any direct dealings with the group ought to be considered off the table for anyone in North America. Such designations exist to help federal officials seize assets, or facilitate federal prosecutions against anyone who helps the group in any material way.
A notorious and powerful clan of armed militants, the Haqqani network has footholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Formed during the 1980s Afghan fight against the Soviet occupation, the Haqqanis aligned with the Taliban as it took over Afghanistan in the 1990s. The group has close ties to Pakistani intelligence, according to security officials.
Late Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Mr. Boyle refused to board a U.S. transport plane outbound from Pakistan, for fear he would be taken into custody by the U.S. government for his past connection to a notorious Canadian family.
In the late 2000s, Mr. Boyle was married to Zaynab Khadr, the sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen held in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade. The couple divorced in 2010.
Late Thursday, Patrick Boyle said that media accounts of his son’s reasons for not wanting to board a plane were “not accurate.”
He said the newly freed couple simply didn’t want to route through an American military base in Afghanistan on their way back to North America. “Their preference was to get back directly to their families and begin their reintegration back home.”
Mr. Boyle’s hesitation to board a U.S. plane amounted to a last-minute wrinkle in a saga that has been playing out behind the scenes for half a decade as multiple governments have grappled with possible solutions.
In 2013, a Pentagon group headed by a former special forces officer, Jason Amerine, was assigned to develop options to free a captive American soldier.
That soldier was freed in an apparent prisoner swap with the Taliban. But Mr. Amerine has since gone public with an account of how his mission had once morphed into talk of a “one-for-seven” deal that would have swapped seven Westerners for one Taliban warlord.
Mr. Boyle, Ms. Coleman and another Canadian were part of these negotiations, Mr. Amerine has said. So was another Canadian – Colin Rutherford – who was captured in similar circumstances to Mr. Boyle’s before being released in 2016. At the time, the newly elected Liberal government thanked Qatar for brokering a deal.
On Thursday, Patrick Boyle told the Toronto Star he received a phone call from his son after his release. Joshua Boyle relayed that he and his family were freed while travelling in the trunk of a car driven by his abductors. He says he heard gunshots as the abductors were killed in a shootout with the Pakistani military.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada Tariq Azim Khan also said the rescue effort involved a shootout. “Without knowing the full details, I understand there was an operation and there was a shooting. … How many of them were killed? I’m not aware at the moment,” Mr. Khan said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked partners and allies in the region and around the world.
“We’re obviously working very hard to get the family home,” he said, asking for the family’s privacy to be respected.
“I can certainly say that we’re pleased that the ordeal that they’ve been through over the past years has come to an end.”
COLIN FREEZE AND MICHELLE ZILIO
The Globe and Mail, October 13, 2017