Video of American journalist held in Syria may have been staged

McClatchy reports: Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist in Syria who hasn’t communicated with family and colleagues since mid-August, is shown alive and in the custody of armed men in a video posted on YouTube.

In the 47-second clip, headlined “Austin Tice still alive,” he’s shown blindfolded and disoriented, mangling an Islamic prayer before crying out, “Oh, Jesus.” Masked gunmen who act like militant Islamists surround him, calling out “God is great!” and wearing the baggy traditional outfits of fighters operating in Afghanistan.

The video was posted Wednesday but it escaped notice until early Monday, when a link to it appeared on a Facebook page that appears to support the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. Tips and other evidence previously gathered by the news organizations to which Tice contributed have suggested that he’s in the custody of the Syrian government.
Murad Batal al Shishani, a London-based analyst of jihadists who’s monitored extremist groups since the early 1990s, said many aspects of the video didn’t jibe with the communiques that al Qaida-style extremists typically sent out. The call-and-response rhythm in the cries of “God is great” seems off, he said, and it would be unusual for jihadists to include Tice’s mangled prayer, or to release such a low-quality clip when they’re known for slickly produced videos distributed via their own media wings.

“If it was a jihadi video, they have their own platforms. They wouldn’t release it on YouTube,” Shishani said.

The YouTube user who posted the video hadn’t previously uploaded to the site, suggesting that the account may have been created to disseminate the video. Analysts also pointed out that the captions include English and Arabic, which would be unusual – but not unheard of – for a jihadist group.

The clip was later shared on a Facebook page and Twitter account associated with a group called “the Media Channel for Assad’s Syria,” which echoes the government’s line that opposition rebels are terrorists intent on destabilizing Syria. The group’s tweet reads, “Important, please publish and share our clip on the truth about the disappearance of the American journalist Austin Tice.”

The Facebook page posting asserts that “the American journalist Austin Tice is with the Nusra Front gangs and al Qaida in Syria,” a reference to Jabhat al Nusra, a jihadist group that’s part of the opposition forces fighting Assad’s troops. For weeks, U.S. analysts have sounded alarm about the presence of an avowed jihadist group on the battlefield, a development that rattles not only Assad’s regime but also the non-Islamist Syrian opposition and its Western allies.

Jabhat al Nusra boasts a sophisticated media wing that produces a Twitter feed and videos that are clearly labeled and edited. The group repeatedly has said that any release outside its established platforms should be considered fake, said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at

A typical Nusra video, Zelin said, “would start out with a graphic of the media outlet, then a Quranic verse written out, then a series of videos of attacks or someone reading his last words before going out on a suicide mission, a martyrdom operation.”

McCants, the former government terrorism adviser, echoed that observation.

“Everything about the video is uncharacteristic of a polished al Qaida group like Nusra,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t them, but there’s nothing that points in that direction.”

Robert Mackey adds: Joseph Holliday, a former United States Army intelligence officer who tracks Syrian rebel groups for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told The Post that it seemed strange that the armed men around Mr. Tice were wearing what appear to be salwar kameez, traditional clothing worn in Afghanistan, which looked very clean. “It’s like a caricature of a jihadi group,” he said. “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 U.S. and others about the danger of Al Qaeda extremists in Syria. It would fit their narrative perfectly.”

In a post Tice put up on his Facebook page on July 25, he wrote:

Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom. They realize there are things worth fighting for, and instead of sitting around wringing their hands about it, or asking their lawyer to file an injunction about it, they’re out there just doing it. And yeah most of them have little idea what they’re doing when they pick up a rifle, and yes there are many other things I could complain about, but really who cares. They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death.

Neither were the Pioneers. Neither were our granddads. Neither was Neil Armstrong. And neither am I.

No, I don’t have a death wish – I have a life wish. So I’m living, in a place, at a time and with a people where life means more than anywhere I’ve ever been – because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest feeling of my life.

As a proudly declared partisan, who would see Tice as a threat? A jihadi group — or any other opponent of Assad? I don’t think so.

The Syrian government no doubt has a file on every foreign journalist in Syria whose presence they are aware of. Tice — a freelancer willing to venture places that most newspapers are reluctant send their own reporters — would probably look like an attractive target to authorities who want to intimidate other reporters yet sustain doubt about the identity of Tice’s captors.

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