The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage

OCTOBER 12, 2017: The entire Boyle-Coleman family is now free!

For an update about Josh & Caitlan, please click here : The Legion Lost : 4 Years As Taliban Hostages

Joshua Boyle & Caitlan Coleman, from a Taliban video

Clever. Gentle. Dedicated. Kind. There are a lot of words you could use to describe Joshua Boyle. I call him “friend”. The Taliban has a different word for him — “hostage”.

Joshua, his wife Caitlan Coleman, and their infant have been prisoners of the Taliban since 2012. Caitlan was pregnant when they were kidnapped, and their child was born in captivity. For two years, I and some of his other friends assumed they were dead. The Taliban isn’t known for treating their prisoners well. Last year, though, there was a ray of hope. Joshua’s family went public with a video of Joshua & Caitlan that the Taliban sent them a year earlier. They were alive, although they appeared shaken, and Joshua had clearly lost an enormous amount of weight.

Since then, however, there has only been one new development, and it isn’t good. Earlier this summer, an American Green Beret testified to a government committee that he had been assigned to free Taliban-held hostages, but his efforts were stymied by bureaucratic confusion and political squabbling. Based on his testimony, the United States may have given up on Joshua and Caitlan. That’s bad news, because even though Joshua is Canadian, it looks like the Canadian government can’t be counted on to help him.

Joshua has publicly butted heads with the recently-ousted Conservative government before. What’s more, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had plans to outlaw any travel to areas afflicted by terrorism. In the eyes of the Conservative Party, Joshua is a troublemaker and a criminal. It seems unlikely that they put forward much effort to free him, Canadian citizen or not.

Meanwhile, the newly-elected Liberal government has remained silent about Joshua and Caitlan. The only Member of Parliament who had publicly committed to helping them, Paul Dewar, lost his seat in the last election.

Of course, as outsiders we can’t know exactly what the government is doing. We can only judge them by their results. And although the American government secured the release of Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban after 5 years of imprisonment, the Canadian government seems to have achieved nothing at all for Joshua, Caitlan, and their child.

How did a self-described “pacifist Mennonite hippy-child” from rural Canada end up as a prisoner of the most brutal terrorist group in Central Asia? Not even his family is sure. Joshua is a complicated man. I’ve known him since around 2002. We played the same online Star Wars game, and soon discovered that we lived fairly close to each other, and had a number of similar interests.

Even back then, before he became front page news, Joshua was one of the most fascinating people I had ever met. He was charismatic, principled, and passionate about his causes, whether they were political, intellectual, or personal. He had a deep insight into human nature, and a knack for finding loopholes. There’s nothing he loved more than standing up for what he believed in, especially if it gave him a chance to thumb his nose at authority. He was a rebel, an iconoclast, a Robin Hood. I hope he still is.

One of his most interesting projects dealt with extremists. Joshua wasn’t that interested in ideology, but he cared very much about people. He wrote about Nazis, terrorists, and killers not because he sympathized with them, but because he thought it was important for people to understand them. He hated that people could be reduced to sound-bytes and caricatures, because that’s the point where critical thinking stops.

Joshua was dedicated to treating people as people, from an academic and educational standpoint, but he also took a more practical approach to the same problem. He was an activist, and he cared deeply about justice. That’s how he got involved with the Khadr family.

The short version of the Khadr story goes something like this : Ahmed Khadr was an Egyptian-Canadian who had close ties to Osama bin Laden, and who was repeatedly accused of terrorism himself, although these claims were never conclusively proven. He was killed in Pakistan in 2003.

A year earlier, Ahmed’s 15 year old son Omar was badly wounded and captured by American troops in Afghanistan. Omar was accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. At worst, Omar was a child soldier. At best, he was an innocent child caught up in a horrible situation. Instead of treating Omar as a victim, he was held in Guantanamo Bay for a decade. During his imprisonment, he was tortured, threatened with rape, and denied medical treatment.

The government of Canada refused to help Omar, and many Canadians despised the Khadr family, with some justification. Joshua felt differently. He believed that everyone, no matter how serious their crimes, deserved justice and fair treatment, and he decided to do something about it. Joshua volunteered to act as a spokesman for the Khadr family, in the hopes that they would be able to see Omar released, or at least given a fair trial.

It was during this time that Joshua first became close to Zaynab Khadr, Omar’s eldest sister. In fact, Joshua told me that he and Zaynab worked together on Omar’s case, but they only really bonded at an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill. For Joshua, a devout Christian, it was an area of common ground with Zaynab, a devout Muslim.

(Incidentally, you might think that this is the only thing that the Khadr family has in common with Canadian conservatives — after all, the Tories have gotten a lot of mileage out of demonizing the Khadrs. The truth is a lot stranger than that. Joshua once said, half joking, that if they ever win a lawsuit against the Canadian government over the way they’ve been treated, the Khadr family would probably donate some of it to the Conservative Party, which shares many of their values.)

However unusual their relationship was, Joshua and Zaynab ended up getting married. Their union made the front page of the Toronto Star, but it was plagued by outside pressure. Bullets were fired at his family home, her family originally suspected that he was working for Canadian intelligence services, and a listening device was found in his car. Joshua even said that his marriage and advocacy were probably hurting his father’s career in the federal judiciary.

There were bright spots, too. Joshua introduced Safia, Zaynab’s daughter from an earlier marriage, to the cult TV show Firefly, and she quickly became a huge fan.

Eventually their marriage ended. Joshua and I had grown apart, so I don’t know what happened. He had mentioned Caitlan as a friend, but I had no idea they were married until I read about it in an article about their kidnapping. After their wedding, Joshua and Caitlan spent several months in Latin America, exploring and doing freelance aid work.

We can’t know for sure, but they probably meant to do much the same in Afghanistan and a number of other Central Asian nations. What’s even less clear is why they thought this was a good idea. Joshua has a loose connection to Afghanistan, a deep respect for Islam — he may even have been in the process of converting — and a purely academic interest in terrorism, but none of that even remotely qualifies him to travel safely in Afghanistan. It could have been simple naiveté, but I, and many others, have always known Joshua as an exceptionally cunning and savvy man. Maybe he was overconfident. Maybe he was immature. Maybe this time Joshua just bit off more than he could chew.

Quite some time ago, Joshua wrote a controversial Wikipedia article with an incredibly inflammatory title. People were outraged, which I’m sure thrilled him. Years later, that article is still there, in all its glory, because his work was too well-researched to remove. That’s Joshua in a nutshell — he’ll break every rule in the book, as publicly as possible, and get away with it because he covered all his bases. I just hope he and his family get away with it this time.

If anyone can survive the Taliban’s hospitality, it’s Joshua Boyle. I have faith in him. Unfortunately, it seems like not many people can say the same. It’s funny — you’d think that an innocent family being held hostage by terrorists would provoke some kind of reaction. Every time there’s a new development in their case, the newspapers write a couple articles, and then…nothing. No public outrage. No wave of support for their families. No calls for action. No one in power has promised to do anything. In an age of slacktivism, no one has even made a Facebook page for them.

The United States is in the middle of election season. National security and terrorism are major issues, yet no one has faced any tough questions about their failure to rescue Joshua & Caitlan. None of the major candidates have pledged to do any better — not Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not even Donald Trump.

It’s as though everyone has agreed to just forget about them, because actually doing something would be inconvenient. After all, getting Bowe Bergdahl released was a tricky matter, and President Obama took a lot of criticism for the way he did it (of course, there’s very little that Obama doesn’t take a lot of criticism for). Why open yourself up to that kind of hassle over a couple of nobodies? Politically, because there’s no pressure to save Joshua and Caitlan, that means there’s no real upside to doing it, and plenty of downside.

That’s why the politicians don’t care. Why don’t you? Where are all the yellow ribbons? You don’t have to go over to Afghanistan or Pakistan yourself in order to help. This is an election year, and if enough people speak out, the politicians will have to listen. What’s your excuse?

Canadians can contact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at —
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
Twitter : @JustinTrudeau
Facebook : facebook.com/JustinPJTrudeau

You can also find the contact information for your Member of Parliament here : http://www.parl.gc.ca/parliamentarians/en/members

Americans can contact President Barack Obama at —
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Telephone : 202–456–1414
Twitter : @Potus
Facebook : facebook.com/WhiteHouse

You can find contact information for your Senators & Congressional Representatives here : https://www.congress.gov/members

Additional Information :
http://globalnews.ca/news/1374898/canadian-held-in-afghanistan-who-is-joshua-boyle/
http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/u-s-special-forces-officer-says-he-was-stymied-in-plan-to-obtain-release-of-canadian-hostages-in-pakistan
http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/07/26/family_keeps_hope_alive_for_son_daughterinlaw_kidnapped_by_taliban.html

This article was edited on October 6th, 2015, at the request of the Boyle family, in order to remove potentially misleading information.

This article was edited on November 9th, 2015, as a result of the Canadian federal election.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also be interested in my other work -

Serious Stuff : Basic Income : An Introduction, The Legion Lost — 4 Years As Hostages Of The Taliban, The Plight of the Millennial, my thoughts on the White Poppy Campaign, a quick biographical sketch of a Canadian hero, thoughts on masculinity in the modern era, Black Dogs & Blue Devils : 7 Years of Depression, America, Sit Down. We Need To Talk, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Home & Native Land, Trigger Warnings, The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage

Fiction : Birthday Present — A Fairy Tale

Pop Culture : Preachin’ ‘Bout Preacher, On the Moral Status of Vampires, My Harry Potter apologia, an essay about Heinlein’s influence on Harry Potter, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Magicians, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, another essay about The Magicians, my essay about Star Trek, and my thoughts after reading every Discworld book …plus a third essay about The Magicians

Consumerism : My guide to purchasing knives, & my article about ethical clothing, The Dildo Business Is Harder Than You Think

Advice : Some general advice about life, & my opinion about New Year’s Resolutions

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