A video that apparently shows US journalist Austin Tice being held captive in Syria has emerged online and generated much debate as to its authenticity. Tice’s family and friends believe he is indeed the man shown in this strange footage; but doubts have been raised as to whether it was staged to look like he was kidnapped by jihadists, with some suspecting the Syrian government of being behind the video.
Tice, a freelance journalist for several American newspapers including the Washington Post, had been on good terms with the Free Syrian Army – the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government – when he disappeared near Damascus in mid-August. This video, which was posted online nearly a week ago but only started getting noticed yesterday, appears to show him physically unharmed. However, it is impossible to verify when it was filmed.
This last 12 seconds of this video, where the camera films a shook-up Tice reciting a prayer in Arabic, have been deleted by FRANCE 24 out of concern for his privacy.
The video is filmed in a shaky, amateur-like fashion, yet is carefully edited into several scenes, during which the captors’ faces are never visible. They lead Tice, who is blindfolded, up a rocky hillside, all the while repeating “God is great”. Then, they force him to recite a prayer in Arabic. In the middle of the prayer, Tice calls out “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus”; the video cuts off a few seconds later. The captors are dressed in an Afghan style of tunic and pants called shalwar kameez that is not worn in Syria. Early on, the video, first posted on YouTube, was reposted to a pro-Assad Facebook page with a comment indicating the captors hailed from the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
However, our Observer Rami, an opposition activist in the central Syrian city of Homs, finds this scenario unlikely:
Yes, there are jihadists who have come to fight against the regime alongside the Free Syrian Army, but they’re not here to kidnap foreign journalists, who are helping show the world our plight. Plus, they don’t dress like in the video – they dress just like every other fighter here. So it seems to me that this video was likely staged by the regime, as it could benefit them in a number of ways: by discouraging foreign journalists from coming to Syria; by discouraging other foreigners from coming to fight against the regime; and by convincing the world that Syrians who are opposed to the regime are terrorists.
Rami isn’t the only one to think that the Syrian government might have staged this video. Joseph Holliday, who studies Syrian rebel groups at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told the Washington Post: “It’s like a caricature of a jihadi group. It looks like someone went to the Internet, watched pictures of Afghan mujaheddin, then copied them.” He added: “My gut instinct is that regime security guys dressed up like a bunch of wahoos and dragged him around and released the video to scare the US and others about the danger of al-Qaeda extremists in Syria. It would fit their narrative perfectly.” Indeed, Syrian authorities and media have consistently referred to the rebellion as “terrorists”.
Online, opposition activists and Syria-watchers have pointed out how clean – and possibly even new - the captors’ clothes are:
Some have also remarked – rightly so - that jihadist groups tend to release videos of their hostages in a very different style. These are usually filmed the kidnapped facing the camera. As for distribution, they generally add logos to their videos and publish them on known jihadi websites and forums. This video, by contrast, appeared on a YouTube account with no other videos, and was first reposted on a pro-Assad Facebook page called “The Media Channel of al-Assad’s Syria”.
Whatever the truth may be, the United States government is not buying the “jihadi kidnappers” narrative. A state department spokesperson told US reporters on Monday: “We have seen the video. We are not in a position to verify, A, whether it is him, or B, whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged.” She added: “There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe, to the best of our knowledge, that he’s in Syrian government custody.”