Joshua Boyle sauntered through a suburban Ottawa shopping centre and pulled up a chair at a Timothy’s. Wearing a blue winter coat, baggy khakis and a chinstrap beard, he was indistinguishable from the other shoppers making their way in and out of the mall’s mid-range shops. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, planting his feet and leaning forward. “I was checking out a potential apartment and the bus got stuck in traffic.”
Less than a month and a half ago, Boyle, 33, along with his wife, Caitlan Coleman, 31, and their three children—Najæshi Jonah, 5, Dhakwœn Noah, 2, and Ma’idah Grace, around six months—were hostages of one of the most brutal terrorist groups on Earth, responsible for murdering thousands of innocent civilians.
For five years they were shuttled around some of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s most inhospitable places, beaten and starved, Coleman raped, not knowing from one day to the next if they would live to see another sunrise.
But in mid-November, back in humdrum suburban Canada, with the media frenzy surrounding their release reduced—for the time being—to a mild simmer, they seemed to have slipped briefly into a familiar routine: doctor appointments and apartment hunting, figuring out how to proceed with the education of their children, all of whom were born in captivity.
The family had been holed up in a hotel in downtown Ottawa, less than a kilometre from Parliament Hill. Their one-bedroom suite was littered with toys and bits of garbage. They had recently left the Boyles’ family home in Smiths Falls, Ont., where they stayed after arriving in Canada on Oct. 14. “We were stuck in one room there for the five of us,” Boyle explained. “It was intolerable.”
It was a surprising complaint, to say the least, given their recent past as captives of terrorists. But like so many things about Boyle and his family’s terrifying saga, things aren’t always as they seem. Weeks later, headlines blared that Boyle had been arrested on a long and disturbing list of charges, including sexual assault and forcible confinement. “It is the strain and trauma he was forced to endure for so many years and the effects that that had on his mental state that is most culpable for this,” Coleman said in a statement to the Toronto Star on Jan. 2.
WATCH: Joshua Boyle arrested for sexual assault, forcible confinement
In a week of meetings with Maclean’s before his arrest, signs of Boyle’s controlling nature and distress were evident. During interviews at the hotel, he refused to leave the room while Coleman spoke, at one point snapping at her when she responded to a follow-up question. “Check with me before you say any of that on the recording.”
Friends, speaking on condition of anonymity, described him as manipulative long before his ordeal. One, an American named Greg who met Boyle in an online role-playing game, described his digital persona this way: “He played this trickster character who would scam people out of their assets,” Greg said, asking that only his first name be used because he is a member of the U.S. military. “He was the best the game’s ever seen at doing that. The charisma, the intelligence and getting in and seeing how he could get to people, that very much appealed to him.”
In interviews, Boyle refused to comment directly on many of the questions that have been dogging him since his release: What drove him to go to Afghanistan in the first place, when Coleman was seven months pregnant? What were they hoping to achieve? Boyle’s previous marriage to al-Qaeda apologist Zaynab Khadr has led many to speculate that he had a desire to join the Taliban’s jihad.
Boyle was most eager to talk about what happened to them in those five years and the crimes he says were committed against them. What becomes clear from these conversations is that their ongoing story began with an overconfident and tragically naive belief that in their travels they would be accepted, even protected by Afghanistan’s extremists.
Very little is known about Boyle and Coleman’s movements in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in the days before they were kidnapped. From sources in the city, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, the couple didn’t leave much of an impression beyond the fact that they seemed excited about the prospect of travelling in Afghanistan.
They sent their last email to their family on Oct. 8, 2012, telling them they were in an “unsafe area.” The next day, they reportedly withdrew money from their bank account, which they could only have done in Kabul. The day after that, they were kidnapped.
The speed of the kidnapping points to a scenario common in kidnapping cases in Afghanistan: Boyle and Coleman were directly targeted, and the kidnappers had knowledge of their movements.
Boyle wouldn’t talk about the moment he and Coleman were abducted, citing ongoing police investigations. It’s unclear if the abduction happened in Kabul or en route to Wardak, just west of the city, a Taliban stronghold since at least 2008, where the couple was reportedly planning to set up camp to do humanitarian work. It’s also unclear what sort of work they intended to do—and again, Boyle refused to talk about it—but sources in Kabul say he talked openly about their desire to leave the city and serve Afghanistan’s neediest.
In doing so, they broke the cardinal rule of travelling in unsafe places—keep your movements secret. Boyle disclosed his plans to employees at the guesthouse where he and Coleman stayed after spending a night at the home of a local Afghan. And the couple was hard to miss, particularly Boyle, whose burly demeanour and oversized backpack could not be glossed over with local dress.
The group that kidnapped them would almost certainly have been on the watch for potential targets. These were not ideologues from any of Afghanistan’s Islamist groups, people who, given the right circumstances, could be reasoned with. They were a criminal gang, intent on selling the couple to the highest bidder.
Boyle begins his retelling “a few hours” after their initial capture, once he and Coleman had been driven deep into Wardak. Their first destination was the Afghan Taliban commander of the province, who Boyle claims refused to buy them. It was with him that Boyle first used the argument, in broken Farsi and Arabic, that his marriage to Khadr and past work advocating for imprisoned Muslims should count in his favour.
“Seemingly he agreed with that,” Boyle said. “We parted on very friendly terms. He made it very clear to the kidnap gang that the Taliban would not be buying us as prisoners. So they continued to shop us around for a bit, driving four hours this way, then talking to somebody, then over here. Most of the first week was spent in a car.”
Boyle said he doesn’t understand why the commander didn’t order the kidnappers to release them. At the time, he thought the ordeal would end there and then, only a few hours after it had begun. What he failed to understand was that the Taliban were not the only players in Afghanistan. And they were increasingly losing their dominance in the country’s jihadi milieu to another, vastly more dangerous group: the Haqqani network.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’
The Afghan Taliban has a code of conduct, particularly as it pertains to the Islamic laws of war. Holding a pregnant woman hostage would violate their code. In recent years, however, its code has frayed as more radical elements have gained a foothold in Afghanistan and the Taliban has become more fractured.
Boyle felt he could deal with the Afghan Taliban, a group he continues to refer to as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the official name the Taliban adopted when they formed a government in the mid-1990s. Friends who spoke to Maclean’s also say Boyle was convinced the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime was unjustified.
“His interest in the Taliban came from a ‘how did they get here’ type of curiosity,” one of them said. “I never thought he was sympathetic to their cause in any sort of religious fundamentalism or terrorism sense. I do think he kind of had a little sympathy for the Devil going on.”
In the end, however, it was the Haqqanis, a purely jihadist outfit backed by Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, who style themselves not as a government in exile but as a sword for Islam, who got their hands on the couple.
The transfer happened somewhere in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. The couple was bundled into a car and sent packing to Miranshah, in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the Haqqani home base.
“I could read between the lines of what going to Miranshah meant,” Boyle said. “So I started arguing with the drivers, let’s not go to Miranshah, let’s go to Kandahar, or why don’t we go to Lashkar Gah. Why are we going to Miranshah? That’s not good. We didn’t want to be in the custody of the Haqqani network.”
On Oct. 15—less than a week since their kidnapping—they arrived in the town, or somewhere in its vicinity, easily crossing the Afghan border into Pakistan. Immediately, Boyle said, their situation deteriorated. He and Coleman were placed in separate, windowless rooms, his with nothing but a concrete floor to sleep on.
Coleman was only slightly better off. She had a mat for a bed but little else. Pregnant and alone, her mental state deteriorated and within weeks she went into a “semi-catatonic state.”
“Most of the time there was nobody in the cell with me, although one of the guards would come in sometimes to complain about my husband,” she said. “ ‘Your husband is impossible,’ he would say. ‘He’s not a simple man.’ ”
Boyle used his knowledge of Islam, gleaned from his research and short marriage to Khadr, to try to torment his captors. Most of them, he says, were munafiq, or hypocrites. They never prayed, and they drank alcohol. At sunrise, he would wake up for morning prayers and berate his sleeping guards. “I would loudly start declaring, ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’ to wake them up,” he said. “Then, with a smile on my face, I would say, ‘Brother, you are about to miss prayer. You did not wake up.’ They would be very angry, ‘Shut the eff up, I’m trying to sleep.’ ”
Islam became Boyle’s weapon, and in some ways his armour. He used faith to divide his guards between true believers and the munafiq. During those first seven months, when he and Coleman were kept apart, senior representatives—from the Taliban, the Haqqani network and possibly the Pakistani ISI—would come to the compound to check on the captives. He would appeal to anyone who would listen and ask them to bring in an Islamic judge to rule on the validity of their captivity under Sharia law.
Eventually, a saviour arrived. Mahmoud, soft-spoken and kind-hearted, was not a member of the Haqqani network but had a family member who was. And he was a devout Muslim who took exception to the conditions under which the captives were being kept.
In May 2013, they were moved to his house. For the first time, Boyle met his son Najæshi, then five months old. The family was reunited and given a proper bedroom, albeit with only a single locked door leading outside. For the next year they lived together in relative peace.
That would all come to an end in June 2014. In the middle of the month, the Pakistani army launched an offensive targeting militant groups in North Waziristan, the tribal region of which Miranshah is the capital. The Haqqanis, still considered an asset by the Pakistani military, were reportedly told to vacate the area. Boyle and Coleman were hastily moved out of Mahmoud’s house and driven into the mountains.
For the next 18 months, they were on the run. Sometimes they would stay in abandoned homes or militant training camps, at other times in safe houses. On occasion, they would be chased out of a location by local villagers who were unhappy about Haqqani network fighters in their area.
Boyle said they weren’t surprised these locals didn’t try to help. “It wasn’t their fight. They just wanted their village back and they didn’t want criminal miscreants shacking up, making a mess of everything.”
A few months after they had been moved out of Miranshah, Coleman realized she was pregnant again. She and Boyle told the guards about the pregnancy. “Approximately three days after we informed them, they said, ‘We will bring medicine, we will finish this,’ ” Boyle recalled. “We assumed they wanted us to voluntarily abort. We argued it was murder. They seemed to accept that. We stupidly didn’t even consider the possibility they’d dose the food until we were given a jar of honey that week. We honestly just thought they meant it when they said, ‘No, no, we don’t do that—baby is good.’ ”
Coleman had a miscarriage. Boyle claims it was a forced abortion resulting from some drug in the honey, a charge both the Taliban and Haqqanis have denied.
The loss of their second child hit Boyle hard. He ratcheted up the vitriol and began accusing Abdurrahman, the commander assigned to oversee them, of murder. Two months later, Boyle said, Abdurrahman and two of his men had had enough of his accusations. They decided to teach Boyle a lesson: they raped Coleman.
‘An Act of Rebellion’
Many Canadians have asked why Boyle and Coleman would have children while in captivity. Publicly, Boyle has said it was because he and his wife wanted a large family and decided they would not let their situation get in the way. But after the forced abortion, Boyle said, getting pregnant also became an “act of rebellion.”
When Coleman became pregnant again sometime in early 2015, the couple kept the pregnancy hidden from their captors, a difficult task when they were being moved regularly in the mountains. But Pashtun traditions of gender segregation helped.
“She was in a burka 24/7,” Boyle said. “And from the point that she was showing, we had very strict rules that she was not allowed to face in profile to any door or window where they could pop up. She had to keep her back to it so they couldn’t see. So we were incredibly cautious about those things.”
Dhakwœn Noah’s birth—a delivery Boyle said he performed himself in the middle of the night with a flashlight clenched between his teeth—angered his captors. Boyle and Coleman were separated again. For months they were kept apart, and Boyle says he was beaten regularly.
Then, sometime around January 2016, the couple was moved into a permanent home back in Pakistan, likely near Miranshah again, according to local sources who spoke to Maclean’s. The Pakistani military had concluded its military operation, and the situation around the Haqqani home base had settled.
After 18 months in the mountains, the move to Miranshah was an improvement. The couple were housed in a walled-in compound with a separate section closed off specifically for them where they could live relatively free from the abuses of their captors. Boyle believes the move was also a response to the rape and forced abortion. He had complained about the crimes to “visitors” who had come to check on them periodically over the previous 18 months, including Mahmoud.
Still, Abdurrahman continued to torment his prisoners whenever he could. Boyle believes their food was still being dosed, now with contraceptives, but the new house offered them a large outdoor space with dirt floors where they could hide packaged food.
Coleman secretly became pregnant with her third child, Mai’dah Grace.
‘She was precious to them’
Much of Boyle’s story is difficult to independently verify, but according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and a leading expert on Pakistan’s militant scene, many of the details ring true. He believes, for instance, that Boyle and Coleman would have been held near Miranshah at the beginning of their captivity and were likely there again at the end. The escape into the mountains also makes sense, he says, considering the situation in North Waziristan at the time.
He also says it’s understandable that neither the Taliban nor the Pakistani ISI were in a position to force their release, or have Abdurrahman replaced. “The Haqqani network has been operating independently for some time now,” he says from his home in Peshawar, bordering Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. “It has its own administrative structure, its own funding and its own military operations. The Afghan Taliban is still a bigger group, but they don’t want to fight their allies from the Haqqani network. That is the reason they did not fight them when they bought the Boyle family from the kidnapping gang.”
While the crimes at the hands of Abdurrahman and his lieutenants are plausible, Yusufzai adds, from what he knows about the Haqqanis, they would not have been approved by the senior leadership. Coleman in particular would have been protected because, as an American, “she was precious to them.”
Her value increased in October 2014 after Anas Haqqani, the son of the group’s founder, was captured by the U.S. while visiting the Afghan Taliban’s political office in Qatar and turned over to Afghan authorities. Indeed, a Taliban spokesperson told Reuters in 2016 that a video of the couple released at the end of August that year was intended to pressure the Afghan government not to execute Anas.
Nonetheless, the Haqqanis would have been under pressure not to harm the couple from a coterie of interested parties tasked with checking in on them and trying to secure their release, from tribal elders to the ISI.
Those pressures appear to have gained some traction in the summer of 2017. Yusufzai believes the turning point was Aug. 21, when U.S. President Donald Trump made his Afghanistan strategy speech in which he called out Pakistan directly as a country that “gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.” He went on to threaten to end financial support for Pakistan’s military if it did not change its ways and promised to increase U.S. support for Pakistan’s archrival, India.
Shortly after that, Boyle and Coleman received a visit from a man they had met before, someone they both refer to as representing “those who control the Haqqani network” (i.e. the ISI).
The man had a message for them: “Your detention will not last longer than five years.”
Based on what the visitor had said, Oct. 10, 2017, would be the last day of their captivity. On Oct. 7, the couple and their children were moved from their compound to another house nearby, which they called the mudhouse because its windows were covered over with mud. “At this point, we’re thinking this is right on schedule,” Boyle said.
The official story of how Boyle and Coleman gained freedom says nothing of a planned release. According to the Pakistani military, it was a “rescue” facilitated by intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and the Pakistanis. The co-operation was lauded as a sign of progress in U.S.-Pakistani relations, and the rescue was treated as a heroic moment in which the Pakistanis descended on the kidnappers, taking them out after a car chase in a hail of bullets.
The reality, according to Boyle, was very different.
Oct. 10 passed; nothing happened. But the next day, the guards told the couple they were going to be moved again. “We were giving them a bit of a rough time,” Boyle recalled. “We were like, it’s the 11th. We thought it was supposed to be the 10th. What, did you have a tea party yesterday that went overtime?”
The family was bundled into the trunk of what Boyle describes as “a luxury SUV with black leather seats” and covered with blankets. He was excited but at the same time anxious. The last time the couple had been moved in this way was the escape from Miranshah that had led to their 18 months of hell in the Afghan mountains.
But after about 20 minutes of driving, it became clear they were not heading anywhere remote. From cracks between blankets, Boyle said he started noticing signs of civilization—lampposts and buildings, all flying Pakistani flags—and the road was smooth and straight.
Sardined into the back of the SUV, Boyle and Coleman kept their excitement in check and soothed their terrified children. After a few hours of driving, the car pulled over. The driver exited and from the sound of the conversation he heard, Boyle guessed they had been stopped at a Pakistani security checkpoint. For a fleeting moment, he considered jumping up to reveal their presence. By then, however, he was sure all of this was part of the release, so he kept quiet.
WATCH: Parents of Joshua Boyle express joy over release of hostages
But if the checkpoint was part of the release plan, it seemed the guards in the car were not aware of it. They began speaking urgently to each other about being captured or killed. Suddenly, one of them jumped behind the wheel and drove off. “There was a lot of shouting outside of the car,” Boyle said. “They fired shots. A couple of them pierced the top of the SUV, above the windshield, and it turned into a car chase.”
Boyle said he could hear people screaming as they raced through what he assumed was a town or a city. One of the guards began shouting about their captives, saying they should kill them and dump their bodies. “The driver was arguing, ‘No, we’ll stop the vehicle and get out,’ ” Boyle said.
The chase ended suddenly when the guards jumped out of the car and made a run for it. After a few minutes of silence, Boyle said someone began shooting out the tires of their car. “That was one of the first times I was able to calm my wife somewhat,” he recalled, “because, you know, they’re shooting out the tires, which means they’re being somewhat careful now.”
According to the Pakistani military’s narrative of events, the tires of the vehicle were shot out during the chase and ultimately ended the pursuit. Repeated emails to the public relations arm of the army went unanswered.
If Boyle’s account is true, says Yusufzai, then it seems likely Pakistan’s military establishment took Trump’s Aug. 21 threats seriously and used whatever leverage they had with the Haqqanis to force them to release the captives.
Indeed, according to Coleman, a few weeks after the representative of “those who control the Haqqanis” told the couple they would be released, one of the guards came into their compound fuming. “Donald Trump is crazy,” he shouted. “He does not take good deal from Haqqani network. He is crazy man.”
Boyle and Coleman had interpreted that to mean the Haqqanis had made a final “pay for them or they die” offer that Trump had rejected and, with the Oct. 10 deadline looming, the chance for them to get something in return for their captives was gone.
Questions about Boyle’s mental state will undoubtedly mount in the aftermath of his arrest. Many experts and even some former captives of terrorist groups were surprised by the detailed public statement Boyle made in Pakistan shortly after his release and again after landing in Canada in October. Already, according to another friend from the online gaming community, Boyle was exhibiting some of the characteristics he had displayed in that fictional world. “In the game, he was an expert at manipulating opinion and had a love of public relations,” the player said, also requesting anonymity. “In a few months, he’ll start telling a story—the story he wants the world to hear.”
It seems that Boyle has now lost control, however. Some friends have described his decision to go to Afghanistan with a pregnant wife in tow as “unsurprising” if somewhat “naive” for a “passionate” individual like Boyle. At the same time, some have pointed out the arrogance and, to some degree, self-delusion needed to believe it would be a good idea to walk into a war-torn nation with little more than a tent and good intentions.
Any carefully constructed plan Boyle had for the next chapter in his life is disintegrating, and it appears the tragedy that began with one man’s overarching belief in his own outsized stature is far from over.
MORE ABOUT AFGHANISTAN:
- Joshua Boyle speaks out about years held hostage by Taliban-linked group
- Carol Off on how her work led to years of terror for an Afghan family
- Why Canada should return to Afghanistan
- Fighting in Afghanistan: ‘You have the watches. We have the time’
- The journey to honour Michelle Lang, a fallen Canadian reporter
- Trudeau says no plans to join U.S. missile defence
- The world must finish its job—and protect its legacy—in Afghanistan