Armed with information from U.S. intelligence, Pakistani soldiers staged a dramatic but successful rescue operation last week to free American Caitlan Coleman, 31, and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle, 34, and their three young children after five years in Haqqani network captivity.
According to multiple U.S. sources with close connections to the operation, no prisoners were exchanged and ransom money was not paid. The Canadian government also asserted that their longstanding policy of not fulfilling ransom demands remains, and no money was dished out.
Because of information obtained from drone footage, it is believed that the U.S. had long known of their location, as did Pakistan’s military arm ISI, and it was “always a matter of someone pulling the trigger to go over and get them.” A Pakistani official told the press Friday that the car carrying the family was tracked down soon after it crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but sources say that the family long had been in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“Anything inside Pakistan has to be done carefully,” one source with knowledge of the operation told Fox News. “There is still a deep trust issue between the U.S. and Pakistan.”
So why did the rescue happen now?
Sources say the U.S. government started floating rumors some time ago within the Pakistani high military that a rescue operation was highly probable. It is believed that while the couple was moved around a few times in the early stages of their captivity, their location had remained static for some time and Joint Special Operations Command were getting ready to embark on a rescue, when ultimately the Pakistanis — fearing another national upstaging and embarrassment akin to the bin Laden raid in 2011 which exposed them as harboring major terrorists — took the reign.
“This was presented as an opportunity to clear up their bad name. Trump was about to cut off funding and the Pakistanis knew it,” another source said.
The mission came at a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations had hit a low point, with President Trump threatening to withdraw aid money and accusing the country of harboring militants. On Friday, nonetheless, Trump praised Pakistan for its “cooperation of many fronts,” and tweeted about how the two nations were developing “a much better relationship.” In a video message filmed shortly after her liberation, and posted by the Pakistani military, Boyle profusely thanked them for their “tremendously professional operation.” The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad also publicly expressed their “deep gratitude” to the Pakistani government and its army — and subsequently Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nafees Zakaria since has stated that the rescue demonstrates that Pakistan will act against “a common enemy” when the U.S. shares information.
But Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed out that Pakistan has a “long history of providing a sacrificial lamb to the U.S. during times when relations are at a low point.”
“After Trump’s speech that all but labeled Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, Pakistan has been desperate to change the narrative. The operation to free Coleman, Boyle and their children gives Pakistani officials all the ammunition they need to claim they are partners with the U.S. against jihadists,” he said. “In the short-term, the Trump administration will be buoyed by the operation, but the real proof will be how the Pakistanis deal with Taliban leaders and fighters based inside Pakistan.”
However, the U.S. plan is said to have gone somewhat awry following the rescue, after Boyle refused to board a U.S. military aircraft flown out especially to collect the family with a military hostage team onboard. The C-130 was scheduled to stop at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, but Boyle reportedly freaked out, fearing detainee abuse at the hands of the U.S. The rescued family thus were then flown on a commercial airliner from Pakistan to London and then to Canada.
But their refusal to use the military resources and travel to the United States, according to a source familiar with the operation, has broader implications as it also means that they essentially waive their “reintegration” rights.
“The goal was to ensure they were debriefed, information obtained and that they were carefully repatriated into society after all these years with the right psychological help,” the insider explained.
The U.S. has in place a three-phase “reintegration” process for rescued hostages, which involves medical exams, structured operational and intelligence debriefings from officials, and professional psychological help. But in refusing the U.S. help, the source says, it means that not returnees are not subject to providing highly sought-after intelligence pertaining to the inner-workings of the terrorist outfit.
Several other Americans remain in Haqqani captivity in the region, and thus it now remains unclear if and when U.S. officials will be able to glean further intelligence on the status of fellow westerners from the newly released couple.
The Department of Defense declined to comment on the reintegration issue, and the U.S. State Department and FBI did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Yet the in wake of his rescue and refusal to board the U.S military aircraft, Boyle’s background and connections, and the reasons why he lead his pregnant wife to a warzone in the first place also has become a source of speculation.
Soon after marrying in 2011, Coleman and Boyle embarked on a hiking expedition, going first to Russia and Central Asia. Although pregnant with their first child, in 2012, the couple decided then to go hiking in Afghanistan’s dangerous, militia-teeming Wardak Province.
Before Coleman, Boyle was married to Zaynab Khadr, the oldest sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian alleged to have Al Qaeda ties. He was arrested by U.S. forces in 2002 and held at Guantanamo Bay for 10 years. Zaynab’s late father Ahmed Said Khadr is believed to have been a prominent Al Qaeda financier who personally stayed with Osama bin Laden.
But since his release, Boyle has stated that he was a “pilgrim” who was in Afghanistan initially to help villagers “who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where no NGO, no aid worker and no government has ever successfully been able to bring the necessary help.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has said that neither Boyle or Coleman are wanted for any federal crime, and sources who worked closely on their release said that there was no reason to suspect them of any terrorist ties.
“Joshua may have thought he had a deeper understanding of these terror groups than he did, he may have thought that if anything bad happened he would have the ability to get them out of it,” a U.S source explained.
Sources located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also told Fox News that the family did become known to influential tribesman in the area, and the narrative floated was that they were Christian missionaries who were at first abducted by a criminal enterprise after meeting with Afghan villagers, and were then sold Haqqani. At first the demands for their release were financial, but likely emboldened by the release terms of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, in which five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for the deserted U.S soldier, the terror outfit then switched tactics and instead insisted on the release of at least five prominent prisoners being detained by the Afghan government, sources in both the U.S. and Afghanistan said.
Upon touching down in Toronto on Friday, Boyle claimed that they would have had four children born into captivity, but that their Haqqani captors killed one of their infant daughters and raped his wife during their five-year ordeal.
“The stupidity and evil of the Haqqani network’s kidnapping of a pilgrim and his heavily pregnant wife engaged in helping ordinary villagers in Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan was eclipsed only by the stupidity and evil of authorizing the murder of my infant daughter,” he said.
The Taliban, which has become closely linked to the Haqqani operations in the past couple of years, since has denied both the allegations of assault and murder, insisting that Coleman “naturally miscarried” one of the four children. However, a U.S. source told Fox News that they received information several years ago that indicated Coleman was indeed the victim of sexual assault, and may have been forced to undergo an abortion.
“They went through hell,” the source added. “And there are still many more that need to come home.”
The Pakistani Embassy in Washington D.C. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mir Jalalzai in Afghanistan contributed to this report