‘We’re looking forward to a new lease on life:’ Joshua Boyle after five-year kidnapping nightmare
Boyle’s parents invite Torstar News Service into their home to listen in a call with their son, his wife and three children, who were born in captivity.
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SMITHS FALLS, ONT.—After five years of communicating with his family only through hostage videos and carefully written letters, Joshua Boyle spoke freely to his parents from a guest house in Pakistan.
They talked of the passports his young family needed, the flights they could take and their long-awaited reunion that could come as early as Friday afternoon.
“My family is obviously psychologically and physically shattered by the betrayals and the criminality of what has happened over the past five years,” Boyle told the Star during a call from Islamabad to his parents, Patrick and Linda.
It was a moment of calm for the Boyles — being able to hear their son’s voice, to listen to him laugh and at one point nearly cry — in what had been an emotional day marked by relief, anxiety and anticipation.
“But we’re looking forward to a new lease on life, to use an overused idiom, and restarting and being able to build a sanctuary for our children and our family in North America,” Boyle told us as we sat listening around the dining room table.
Then he added, with a laugh: “I have discovered there is little that cannot be overcome by enough Sufi patience, Irish irreverence and Canadian sanctimony.”
Boyle, 34, his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, 31, and their children were freed Wednesday after a dramatic rescue by the Pakistani Army, based on intelligence provided by the U.S.
Boyle told his parents in a phone call earlier Thursday that they had been in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car during the rescue and the Pakistani forces had shot dead five of the captors.
He later told the Star that some of the kidnappers had escaped and he wanted to ensure they were caught and charged for their crimes.
The Taliban-linked Haqqani network has held the couple since 2012 and their two sons, age 4 and 2, and a two-month-old daughter were all born in captivity.
For five years, since Boyle and Coleman were kidnapped while on a backpacking trip in Afghanistan, their families have prayed for this day.
It began Wednesday.
Canadian government officials emailed the family at 12:56 p.m. Wednesday and asked them to gather at their Smith Falls home.
“First and foremost, no bad news,” Jennifer Kleniewski, the head of Global Affairs Canada hostage team wrote.
But minutes later the meeting was cancelled.
The Boyles didn’t know what to think but it was impossible to not get their hopes up. There had been here so many times before, so many heartbreaking near misses — negotiations that seemed promising but then fell apart.
At 4 p.m., they had their regularly scheduled weekly call with government officials. Nothing new was discussed. Officials told the Boyles there had just been some mixed signals. That wasn’t unusual — there were always rumours and erroneous reports that needed to be tracked down.
But still, Patrick, Linda and Josh’s siblings hoped a deal was quietly underway and they just couldn’t be brought into the loop yet.
It wouldn’t be until nine hours later, at 1 a.m. Thursday that the phone rang. “We’ll be there in five minutes,” Kleniewski said.
“They couldn’t help but smile and just nodded their heads,” Linda Boyle said about the Canadian officials who knocked on their door moments later. “I just gave them a big hug.”
The family was freed.
All five were safe.
It was not a deal.
It was not release.
It was a rescue.
Linda cried. She’s not the one who usually cries — that’s the joke with her and her husband, a federal tax court judge, who on matters concerning their children is usually the first to break.
They called security consultant Andy Ellis, a retired member of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who the Boyles had hired earlier this year to help them navigate the political and security labyrinth that relatives of hostages must negotiate.
But the celebration was short lived, as just 10 minutes later the Canadian officials were back in their dining room.
There was a problem. Josh Boyle did not want to get on a U.S. flight.
They asked Linda and Patrick if they could they talk to their son. They would arrange a call.
At 1:40 a.m. Thursday, they spoke to Josh.
“Josh said he was doing pretty well for someone who has spent the last five years in an underground prison,” Patrick Boyle told me about the conversation with his son.
Josh Boyle talked about being in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car and in what he called a shootout. He said the last words they heard from the kidnappers were “kill the hostages.”
He said he didn’t want to board an American flight to the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and asked if they could be taken instead to the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan.
That didn’t surprise his parents. Boyle had been a staunch civil rights advocate and critic of the security measures that were implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was through this advocacy that he heard about former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr. He was briefly married to Khadr’s controversial and outspoken sister Zaynab, who the RCMP once investigated for terrorism offences.
Canadian and U.S. officials have dismissed any connection of his kidnapping with his involvement with the Khadr family.
As dawn broke Thursday, the Boyles’ home filled with people and boxes of doughnuts. Ellis arrived. As did Linda’s sister, Kelli O’Brien, who had launched a social media campaign to make sure Boyle, Coleman and their kids were not forgotten.
Josh’s sisters Kaeryn and Heather prepared the upstairs room — already filled with quilts, toys and a Maple Leafs jersey — for their two nephews and niece. Dan, Josh’s brother, kept an eye on the media gathering on the sidewalk.
The dining room became a war room with cellphones ringing and pinging, and laptops open, waiting for news.
Pakistan’s government issued a press release, confirming that it was “an intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops and intelligence agencies.”
The statement said U.S. agencies had been tracking the family and kidnappers as they crossed into the Kurram Agency, on the border with Afghanistan. The rescue was based “on actionable intelligence from U.S. authorities,” the statement said.
“The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through co-operation between two forces against a common enemy.”
The Pakistan press release appears to support what U.S. President Donald Trump alluded to in a speech Wednesday in Coleman’s home state of Pennsylvania. “Something happened today, where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news,” Trump said. “And one of my generals came in. They said, ‘You know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would’ve never done that.’ It was a great sign of respect. You’ll probably be hearing about it over the next few days. But this is a country that did not respect us. This is a country that respects us now. The world is starting to respect us again, believe me.”
In a Thursday morning statement, the White House called the rescue, “a positive moment in our country’s relationship with Pakistan.”
The Haqqani network is a powerful Afghan group with a history of taking and holding Western hostages. On Aug. 29, 2016, an Afghan court sentenced to death Anas Haqqani, the son of the group’s founder. In a YouTube video released around that time, Boyle told the Afghan government that if it does not stop executing Taliban prisoners, his family would be killed. He appeared to be reading from a script.
Negotiations about the family’s release always involved what the Haqqani’s regarded as a “prisoner swap.” Their highest profile captive was U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was held for nearly five years before being freed in May 2014, in return for five Taliban detainees held in Guantanamo Bay.
“Afghanistan was never going to release Anas Haqqani because of the political cost,” said New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen. “At the same time the Haqqanis were never going to harm the hostages because they wanted their brother back. So that’s the equilibrium that it settled into.”
Hostage rescues, however, almost always end in tragedy.
Phone calls came from around the world all day Thursday at the Boyle’s home. CNN, BBC and Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, whom Linda and Patrick had met repeatedly, emailed congratulations.
A morning of sensational news turned into an afternoon of waiting.
One of Josh’s sisters took their pet Labradoodle to the groomer for an appointment. Someone bought sandwiches. Linda wondered if she should keep her dental surgery for Friday morning and later went out to buy three children’s car seats — astonished at how the cost had gone up since her five children needed them.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was travelling with the prime minster on a visit to Mexico City Thursday, issued a statement expressing gratitude for the rescue.
“Canada has been actively engaged with the governments of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan and we thank them for their efforts, which have resulted in the release of Joshua, Caitlan and their children,” Freeland said in the statement.
“Joshua, Caitlan, their children and the Boyle and Coleman families have endured a horrible ordeal over the past five years. We stand ready to support them as they begin their healing journey.”
The Boyles kept in touch by phone and email with Canadian officials throughout the afternoon.
Then came the second call of the day to Josh. It was after midnight Thursday in Pakistan. Caity and her three children slept.
Patrick Boyle began: “Hi Josh. How are you? It’s Dad. Are you OK?”