ISIL and the curious case of John Cantlie

The latest video of ISIL hostage John Cantlie is a reminder of how far the group is willing to go to get publicity.

John Cantlie in a still from the latest ISIL video []
John Cantlie in a still from the latest ISIL video []

British photojournalist John Cantlie has been in ISIL captivity since 2012. But rather than appearing as a passive object of captivity, he has emerged as a media tool for the group to pursue its wider aims. 

New footage released this month, taking place against the backdrop of the busy streets of Mosul, was the first seen in more than a year. It was the seventh film of a series titled Lend Me Your Ears, in which a rather unenthusiastic and increasingly thin-looking Cantlie regurgitates standard rhetoric from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) about how great they are and how corrupt and ineffective their enemies are.

In this case, Cantlie bemoaned the waste of $5bn of US taxpayers’ money spent bombing innocuous ISIL “media kiosks”.

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The imagery and detail in the series has painted a very different picture from Mosul and Aleppo from that covered in the mainstream press.

Shift in his value

He also has a column in the slick online ISIL magazine, Dabiq, in which he made headlines when he floated the idea that “a truce with Western nations is always an option in Shariah law”. 

Unlike his video appearances we can be even less sure that the writing in Dabiq is Cantlie’s, although there is no doubting the shift in his value from hostage to an intimidated asset of a very different sort.

Indeed, while he initially appeared in the bright orange Guantanamo inspired jumpsuits, in his later films he is seen simply in black, ISIL’s shade of choice. 

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Stockholm syndrome, sometimes known as capture-bonding, describes how hostages can come to sympathise and develop positive feelings towards their captors. It is no surprise that after years in detention Cantlie is adjusting to do whatever he needs to do to survive.

John Cantlie in a still from the latest ISIL video [] [Unspecified]
John Cantlie in a still from the latest ISIL video [] [Unspecified]

He was captured by ISIL once before and released in a dramatic FSA-led rescue, saying afterwards that it was “every Englishman’s duty to try and escape if captured”. 

Some have asked why his fellow journalist and hostage James Foley was beheaded in 2014 while Cantlie has been kept alive.

Could this prove a transition from observer of the war to a defender of ISIL’s role within it? His sister Jessica told The Sunday Times that “he believes at least two-thirds of what he is saying. He’s a very principled man.”

Yet before a Homeland-like dynamic is automatically assumed, let us not forget that Cantlie’s exposure to what ISIL has or hasn’t done, and how it has evolved since 2012, has been experienced from within and probably in a very controlled manner.

His profile ... has meant that he is an important communications asset to a group whose image is a key part of recruitment and retention as well as being a means of tactical advantage.


Words of a free man?

Journalist Hala Jaber tweeted that his words “are not those of a free man”, while Reporters Without Borders condemned the “cowardly” use of a hostage as a reporter.

Hostages are powerful chips in the currency of conflict. While the executions of some have garnered global headlines, and the ransoms of others have filled ISIL’s coffers, Cantlie has found himself a niche within their plans. 

His profile and means of delivering Western-style news segments that ISIL know will be reported, has meant that he is an important communications asset to a group whose image is a key part of recruitment, retention as well as being a means of tactical advantage.

Unlike the horror films of executions that are often captured in stills, Cantlie’s series are suitable for sharing and can be found embedded in updates on what is happening to him.

Meanwhile the story of a hostage is always a powerful human coda to explain vast and complex conflicts.

We know John from who he was before. The brave man who, when reporting from Syria without duress, literally looked down (and took a picture of) an advancing T-72 tank with its barrel pointing directly at him. The man whose family have already gathered hundreds of signatures as part of a petition asking the British government to do more to secure his release. This is the man who has become a filter by which ISIL pushes out its messages. 

Are Cantlie’s ISIL videos believed? I doubt it, but ISIL’s media strategy is about seeking attention and defining the narrative, firmly based around the notion that all publicity is good publicity. Sadly this places the man himself as a pawn trapped in the middle of a war he meant only to observe.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.