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Kidnapped US-Canadian family freed in Pakistan: Who are they and how were they released?

Caitlan Coleman and her husband Joshua Boyle were abducted while travelling in Afghanistan in 2012. Coleman gave birth to her three children while in captivity.

world Updated: Oct 13, 2017 10:24 IST
A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (left) speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons.
A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (left) speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons. (Taliban/Social media via Reuters)

After being held for more than five years by a group with ties to the Taliban, an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children have been rescued.

Caitlan Coleman, of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, were abducted while travelling in Afghanistan in 2012. Coleman gave birth to her three children while in captivity.

US and Pakistani officials said Thursday they were rescued by an “intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops” after they’d crossed the border from Afghanistan.

A look at what we know and what we don’t know about the couple, their rescue and what happens next:

WHY THEY WERE IN AFGHANISTAN?

Exactly why the couple chose to enter Afghanistan is unclear.

Sarah Flood, a hometown friend of Coleman’s, told the York Daily Record that Afghanistan wasn’t on the couple’s original itinerary. Jim Coleman, Caitlan Coleman’s father, told the newspaper in 2014 that while they were in central Asia, the couple met people who spoke highly of Afghanistan.

A fellow traveller who met the couple in a hostel in Kyrgyzstan wrote on his blog that Boyle had been talking up the idea of travelling to Afghanistan, saying it was a place for true explorers and the window to visit was closing since it would only get less secure once US forces withdrew.

WHO WAS HOLDING THEM?

Members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organisation, kidnapped the couple near Kabul.

The network is believed to command thousands of fighters.

US and Afghan intelligence agencies say Pakistan’s intelligence network has allowed the Haqqanis to live freely for decades in Pakistan’s tribal regions, a claim Islamabad denies.

The network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a one-time ally of the United States who achieved fame fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and who developed close ties to the slain al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. After his death, his son Sirajuddin Haqqani took over.

The elder Haqqani aligned his group with the Taliban after the insurgents were driven from power in the US-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

HOW WERE THEY RELEASED?

Pakistani commandos carried out a raid when the family and their captors crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Boyle described being in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car with his wife and children when the Pakistani forces rescued them, said his father, Patrick Boyle. He recounted the captors were killed and the five hostages survived, with him being hurt by shrapnel, the father said.

Coleman’s father told ABC News he was tipped off Wednesday that good news would be coming about his daughter and she was in safe hands.

No ransom was paid, according to a Canadian official.

The family was flown by helicopter to the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

WHO ARE THEY?

Coleman grew up a devout Catholic in tiny Stewartstown. Boyle attended a Mennonite school in Canada. The two, described as well-meaning but naive adventurers, were introduced by a friend and started their relationship online.

Boyle was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a senior al Qaeda financier.

Her father, Ahmed Said Khadr, and the family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy. Khadr’s Egyptian-born father was killed in 2003 when a Pakistani military helicopter shelled the house where he was staying with senior al Qaeda operatives.

The Canadian-born Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured by US troops following a firefight at a suspected al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of an American special forces medic, US Army Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer.

Khadr, who was suspected of throwing the grenade that killed Speer, was taken to Guantanamo and ultimately charged with war crimes by a military commission. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges that included murder and was sentenced to eight years plus the time he had already spent in custody.

ADVENTURE SEEKERS

Just over five years ago, soon after they wed, Coleman and Boyle set off on a journey to areas of the world infrequently travelled by Westerners, an admittedly quixotic trek their parents say was in keeping with the couple’s adventure-seeking spirit.

During a trip that took them to Afghanistan and neighbouring central Asian countries — Coleman, a homeschooled devout Catholic and Boyle, her Canadian husband — the couple slept in tents and hostels, interacted with villagers and bought local goods from vendors.

The couple was supposed to return to the US so that Coleman, then pregnant, could deliver her baby. Instead, they were abducted in Afghanistan, surfacing periodically over the next five years in video recordings sent to their loved ones and scrubbed by the FBI for clues.

‘HORRIBLE ORDEAL’

They were found in Kurram district, part of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt. “US intelligence agencies had been tracking them and shared their shifting across to Pakistan on 11 Oct 2017 through Kurram Agency border,” a Pakistani military told AFP.

Boyle and Coleman appeared in a hostage video in December last year with two of their children pleading for their release.

The video was released after rumours swirled in Kabul that the government was planning to execute Anas Haqqani, son of the Haqqani network’s founder, who has been held since 2014.

Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland expressed relief at the release.

“Joshua, Caitlan, their children and the Boyle and Coleman families have endured a horrible ordeal over the past five years,” she said.

Afghanistan is rife with militants and organised criminal gangs who stage kidnappings for ransom, targeting wealthy Afghans and foreigners, who have been ferried over the border.

The Taliban are also thought to be holding American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weekes, professors at the American University of Afghanistan who were dragged from vehicles in Kabul by gunmen.

WHAT DON’T WE KNOW?

It’s unclear why Pakistani forces acted to free the couple and their children. The family’s whereabouts were unclear as of Thursday evening, and it was unknown when they would return to North America. The family was not in US custody.

Earlier Thursday, Boyle refused to get on a US transport plane that was prepared to take him and his family out of Pakistan. A US official said Boyle was nervous about being in “custody” given his background.

The family plans on returning to Canada, Boyle’s father said.