U.S. Woman And Family Freed After 5 Years In Captivity In Afghanistan

Oct 12, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 8:54 pm

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET

An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children have been freed after five years in captivity by an extremist group in Afghanistan, the White House said Thursday.

Caitlan Coleman, now 32, was several months pregnant when she and her husband, Joshua Boyle, were abducted in 2012 while on a trip to Afghanistan.

That child, and two more, were born while the couple was held by the Haqqani network, an Afghan extremist group affiliated with the Taliban.

U.S. intelligence agencies were tracking the family and provided information to the Pakistanis as the hostages were moved across the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Pakistan military said in a statement.

"The operation by Pakistani forces, based on actionable intelligence from U.S. authorities was successful," the Pakistan statement read. "All hostages were recovered safe and sound."

President Trump said in a statement: "Today they are free. This is a positive moment for our country's relationship with Pakistan."

A U.S. official told NPR that the Pakistani security forces used the U.S. intelligence to locate and stop the vehicle carrying the hostages. A gunfight broke out and the hostage-takers got away, but the family was rescued.

Then, in an unexpected twist, Boyle declined to get on a U.S. transport plane in Pakistan that would begin to take the family back to North America, a U.S. official said.

Boyle was previously married to another woman, Zaynab Khadr, whose family has been connected to extremists in Afghanistan. Two of her brothers were held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay. One of them, Omar Khadr, pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. Omar Khadr spent a decade at Guantanamo, but is now free and living in Canada.

Boyle apparently had concerns about traveling with the U.S. military, fearing he might be detained. But U.S. authorities have given no such indication.

Meanwhile, Trump appeared to drop a hint about the hostage case 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," he 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," the president added.

Coleman and Boyle set off on an extended trip that took them through Russia and central Asia in the summer of 2012. Coleman's parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, said the last contact they had with the couple was on Oct. 8, 2012, when their son-in-law reached them from an Internet cafe in Afghanistan.

Last December, the couple appeared in a YouTube video, pleading for the U.S. and Canadian governments to help win their release.

"Indeed they threaten to retaliate against our family," Coleman says in the video. "Their group will do us harm and punish us. So we ask that you are merciful to their people and, God willing, they will release us."

Two young children appear in the video with them. The Toronto Star reports Boyle told his father that the couple has since had a third child.

The Haqqanis are believed to be linked to two other missing Americans in Afghanistan. One is Kevin King, in his 60s, a university professor kidnapped in August 2016. The other is Paul Overby, who is in his 70s. He vanished in May 2014 when he was trying to contact the leader of the Haqqani network.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children have been freed after five years as hostages of an extremist group in Afghanistan. We have a few details. All three children were born in captivity. But there are strange twists in this case and many unanswered questions. And for more, we welcome NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hiya.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: First question - how did they wind up as hostages in Afghanistan?

MYRE: Well, Caitlan Coleman and her husband, Joshua Boyle, they got married in 2011. And they decide to take this six-month hike through Central Asia. And they start off going to the safer places - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan. But they end up going to Afghanistan. And in October 2012, exactly five years ago, they're in a very dangerous place outside Kabul and they're seized by the Haqqani network, this extremist group that's also closely linked to the Taliban. Not only that, she was pregnant, several months pregnant, at the time, had her first child in custody - in captivity and two more since then. We've been hearing occasional news from them with some videos. And here's Caitlan Coleman speaking in a video that was released this past January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAITLAN COLEMAN: I would just like to say to all of my family and extended family and in-laws that if we all come out of this safely and alive, then it will be a miracle.

SIEGEL: It appears they have come out of it safely. What happened? How were they freed?

MYRE: Well, the U.S. and Pakistan cooperated, not a phrase we hear often involving those two countries. But they're both saying that they worked together. The U.S. provided intelligence and the Pakistan military picked them up in western Pakistan, in the border region. Now, there's still a lot of details that are pretty fuzzy here. Whether this was a negotiated release or whether this was a commando-style rescue, we're hearing little versions - a little bit of both right now. Pakistan says it has them and it's going to repatriate them.

SIEGEL: Have we heard from the couple?

MYRE: No. And this is where things start to get pretty strange. A U.S. military official tells NPR that the U.S. offered a military plane and the husband, Joshua Boyle, declined to get on board. Now, we don't know explicitly why he's doing that. But he was previously married to another woman, and this other woman had a family with many, many contacts with Afghan extremists. She was very outspoken in her own right. Two of her brothers spent time in Guantanamo Bay. One of them is a very famous case, Omar Khadr, who pled guilty to killing an American soldier. He spent a decade at Gitmo. So it appears Boyle has some concerns about traveling with U.S. military, thinking they might want to detain him. But there's no evidence that that is indeed the case.

SIEGEL: Now, President Trump was talking about this case. Let's hear what he said earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank the Pakistani government. We want to thank Pakistan. They worked very hard on this, and I believe they're starting to respect the United States again.

SIEGEL: So, Greg, how significant is this release in terms of U.S. relations with Pakistan and improving them?

MYRE: Well, we certainly haven't heard a U.S. president speak so favorably of Pakistan in quite a time.

SIEGEL: It's been a while, yeah.

MYRE: It has indeed. This is one problem. And they worked together here. So it certainly is a positive development. But I think we need to see it in the broader context of the many problems they have, Trump laying out this Afghan strategy that he wants to develop - still many, many challenges to go. One last quick note on the kidnapping front - the Haqqani network holds two Americans and the Afghans hold a Haqqani leader.

SIEGEL: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks.

MYRE: Thank you, Robert.

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