Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit finds Italian government paying millions in ransoms to groups in Syria and Somalia.
The images may be blurred, shaky, and violent, but to the parents of a missing man, they offer hope.
The blindfolded figure being pushed around by masked fighters in a video posted online is Marc and Debbie Tice’s son.
The dishevelled character in the video was a long way from where he grew up in Houston, Texas. He was in Syria. To this day, the video is the only proof he was taken hostage and could still be alive.
When Austin Tice disappeared near Damascus in August 2012, he joined the growing list of Western journalists held captive.
The kidnapping placed his parents in a small club of American families doing all they could to bring their loved ones home.
But for the Tices, there was one major difference: Whereas the other families faced the awful ordeal of negotiating with armed groups, Austin and, as such, the family have no one to negotiate with. To date, no individual, group, or government has confirmed that they are holding him.
Austin, a freelance journalist and former US Marine Corps officer, was studying law at Georgetown University in Washington when he decided to use his year to further his journalism career. “He felt compelled to go to Syria and learn and share what he could about the conflict there,” says Austin’s father, Marc.
Austin was experienced in conflict zones and had won the George Polk award for war reporting. He arrived in Syria on May 20, 2012.
Three months later, he had just filed his final Syrian story and was planning to leave via Lebanon when he vanished. The exact circumstances surrounding Austin’s disappearance on August 14 are still unclear.
“Nobody has a really clear picture of the moment that he went missing,” says his mother, Debbie. “It’s just become cloudier with the passing of time.”
“What we have been able to piece together is he was in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus,” says Marc. “Some of the people that he was with thought it was dangerous to leave at that moment. He kind of had a plan and [was] on a schedule, so he was determined to leave there.”
That determination appears to have cost Austin his freedom and possibly his life.
“He had a driver to take him towards … Lebanon, [then he] left and his trail goes completely cold,” says Marc. “We have not found anyone who even claims to have witnessed what happened – his actual abduction or capture or whatever transpired.”
Hostage of the Syrian regime?
Other than the blurry video that emerged five weeks after the disappearance, there have been no further sightings or communication with Austin or his kidnappers.
Rumours circulated about who may be holding Austin, with the strongest suspicion falling on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In August 2012, the Czech Ambassador to Syria, who acts as a representative for American interests in the region, said she believed that Austin was being held by the Syrian government. Two months later, the US state department said it shared that view.
Why the Syrian regime may have taken Austin Tice captive and why they continue to hold him remains unclear. But more than three years later, his parents Marc and Debbie, are still searching for their son.
“We were thinking, ‘Okay. He’ll turn up tomorrow. He’ll turn up today, in two days’. We did not have any kind of long-term perspective on this,” says Marc.
“Everything that we were doing and saying and other people were doing was based on the idea that this is not good, but it’ll be over soon.
“For me, I guess, it was about six months, and I started to get this feeling that this isn’t going to be over tomorrow.
“Every one of our days right now is all about balancing what you have to do for work, for the other children, around the house, the routine things of life – with: who do we need to call, who do we need to re-contact, what’s happened in the region that might be something that we can act on, what more can we do about Austin for us right now?
“So, every day there’s that tension, and I call it a balance, but I still don’t feel like I’ve got a handle on balancing it, frankly.”
Austin’s parents reached out to the US authorities for help, but, like many, the Tices found that the US authorities’ response to the hostage crisis was sympathetic but confused.
They met with as many as 30 government officials from a variety of agencies. During one meeting, a retired assistant FBI director took them aside.
“He said, ‘Here is something you just need to understand: It’s going to be up to you to connect the dots to make sure that [the] state [department] knows what the FBI knows.'” says Marc.
“‘That any information is being shared’,” says Debbie, quoting from the same encounter. “‘Oh, and by the way – we’re not giving you any information. So, good luck with that role.'”
June’s presidential review of US hostage policy was designed to improve communication between the US authorities and the hostage’s families. The review also removes the threat of prosecution should the families of hostages try to pay a ransom.
Marc and Debbie Tice have not yet had the opportunity to negotiate, but say that should the opportunity arise, the US government must do all it can to secure Austin’s freedom.
“Regardless of who is determined to be holding Austin, once we learn who that is, we absolutely must negotiate,” says Marc, who is clear in his stance.
“I would say that in every case, our government – any government – should negotiate. Saying that you will negotiate is very different from saying that you’ll give away the farm or that you will pay an enormous ransom. We have to dissociate those things. Negotiation is not equivalent to paying. It’s not equivalent to supporting a group.”
“Where will those negotiations lead? It’s impossible to say until you engage in them. But you’re not going to have a resolution on any kind of conflict like this – a hostage situation, a political conflict – without negotiation.”
Austin Tice has now been held for more than 1,000 days. Marc and Debbie Tice remain convinced that their son is alive, and earlier this year, they were given renewed hope that a resolution may be in sight.
In March, the US state department reported that it had been communicating both directly with Bashar al-Assad’s government and through Czech intermediaries about Austin. It added, “We continue to work through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get information on Austin Tice’s welfare and whereabouts.”
“We have been in periodic, direct contact with Syrian government officials strictly on consular issues, including the case of Austin Tice.”
Marc remains hopeful. “Whatever dynamic existed to incline someone to take Austin captive and to hold him, that dynamic will change,” he says. ” I mean, it’s the nature of the world, right? Conflicts end, relationships mend.”
“That’s what we look for every day. What’s the key, what’s the event, what’s the thing that’s going to make that change happen?
“We don’t want to miss it, and we want to push through the crack in the door as soon as we can to get him back home. But we know it’s going to happen. No doubt.”
See the full documentary, Al Jazeera Investigates – The Hostage Business, online via this link from October 12: https://youtu.be/gEKW-8W5QAI
You can also see the film on Al Jazeera English at these times:
Monday, October 12: 2000G
Tuesday, October 13: 0600G
Wednesday, October 14: 1200G
Thursday, October 15: 0100G
Friday, October 16: 2000G
Saturday, October 17: 1200G