In October 2012, an email popped into my inbox from John Cantlie, the British journalist who has been kidnapped not once, but twice, by Islamic militants in Syria. It was just three months after his release from his first terrifying ordeal, and he was back out on the Turkey-Syria border, once again about to head for the chaos of Aleppo. But first he had a question for me.
“I’m popping back into Syria to get ‘back on the horse’ after falling off, so to speak,” he wrote. “But in today’s risk-averse workplace, does my doing this label me as a ‘lunatic’ in the eyes of editors and, therefore, damage my reputation as someone they might use?”
With hindsight, of course, I wish I’d said an emphatic “yes”. Anything to have spared him his second kidnapping, which took place in the northern Syrian town of Binnish about a month later. And anything that would have prevented his next journalistic assignment – being the hostage narrator of a series of videos singing the praises of the Islamic State, the first of which aired last week.
But then again, front-line news reporting isn’t a job where normal rules about being “risk-averse” apply. Most office health and safety managers, after all, would regard people as lunatics for going to war-torn Syria in the first place. Besides, a real “lunatic” – and there are a few in front-line journalism – wouldn’t have bothered soliciting first as to how his behaviour might be seen by his peers.
I mention this for two reasons, both personal. One is that since his hostage video first appeared, some of the reporting of his predicament has painted him as the author of his own plight, a devil-may-care adrenalin junkie who didn’t know where to draw the line.
That isn’t the John I know. The John I know is aware of the dangers all too well, but chose to face them in order to document the brutality of the Assad regime first hand. He has risked his life on countless occasions in Syria to show the suffering inflicted by the conflict on ordinary Muslims – suffering which has since proved the catalyst for the growth of extreme jihadist movements.
The other reason is that like John, I have also been kidnapped on the job. And but for an accident of timing, I too would have been abducted a second time – on this occasion, with John as company.
I’d got to know John earlier that year, when only a few Western journalists were crossing the Syrian border to cover the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. While the main threat back then was being caught by Assad’s troops rather than Islamist militants, it already had a reputation for being very dangerous, and many British journalists had thought better of it – me included. Having already spent six weeks kidnapped in Somalia while reporting on the piracy crisis in 2008, I found it all too easy to make excuses.
Not so John. A few weeks after a Telegraph colleague had visited the same Syria-Turkey border area and deemed it too dangerous to cross, John was in touch unexpectedly, offering up an exclusive, and terrifyingly upfront, report from the northern town of Saraqeb, where he’d spent time with rebels as Assad’s forces had stormed in with tanks.
In true freelancing style, John, who was by then safely back over the border, offered up not one package, but three. The first was a tremendous batch of pictures. The second was a well-shot, professionally-narrated video. And the third was a vivid written piece, which, unlike some freelance contributions that reach The Telegraph foreign desk, needed only cursory editing.
There aren’t many people who can deliver in all three mediums – and when I finally plucked up courage to propose to go to Syria myself that July, it was enough to make me ask whether he might want to team up. Going in with a photographer who already knew their way around would be much safer than going in with one who was a complete Syria novice like me.
Alas, as countless other journalists have discovered to their cost since, it is never wise to assume anything about Syria. As it turned out, our schedules for that July didn’t quite match as he had other work to do, so he went into Syria a week ahead of me. We agreed to keep in contact so that we might meet up after I too was across the border. When he then failed to get in touch, I thought he had simply decided to operate on his own – keen, perhaps, not to be playing nursemaid to me.
Only after a week of radio silence did it emerge that he had run into a group of British jihadists while crossing the border, who had held him for five days and rained machinegun fire one him when he tried to escape, by some miracle wounding him only in the arm. Equally luckily, he was then rescued by another rebel group. But reading his account of the incident in our rival paper, The Sunday Times made me distinctly queasy. Had we crossed in together, as I’d originally planned, it could have been me taken hostage along with him.
But why, though, after such a terrifying ordeal, go back to the same country? There have been reports, after all, that he was warned that he might run into the same people again, or others like them. Perhaps, as I did, he reasoned that Syria was a sufficiently big and chaotic war zone that the chances of bumping into them again were minimal – especially given reports that the leader of the group had been murdered not long after the kidnapping.
More to the point, though, I doubt John even saw it as much of a choice: in his view, he was simply going back to work. Unlike staff foreign correspondents such as me, for whom wars are just one part of the job – a change from reporting on Greece’s debt crisis or Moldova’s EU bid – John is a front-line specialist. He has spent the last decade in conflicts all over the world, from fall of Saddam to the demise of Gaddafi. And back in 2012, Syria was, frankly, the only place for anyone in his line of work to be, its very dangers and unpredictability making it the ultimate test of professionalism.
So it was, then, that he headed back. And so it was that in late November 2012, I got an unexpected phone call from his girlfriend. “You’ll be telling me he’s been kidnapped again!” I joked when I first heard her voice. To my horror, she said he had been.
Since then, I’ve not written about John, observing a blackout request on his kidnapping for his own safety. But with his name now out in the public domain, and his fate hanging in the balance, it’s time to state for the record what a fine journalist he is. Plaudits for war reporters tend to go to television big names and the odd staff newspaper hack. But just because he wasn’t John Simpson of the BBC or so-and-so of the Telegraph or Times doesn’t mean he doesn’t represent the trade at its very best.
Don’t take it from me, though. Watch the video that he shot from Saraqeb, where he follows a few dozen lightly-armed rebels against the might of a Syrian armoured column. The calm, collected way he talks to the camera as people are killed around him doesn’t convey how scary it must have been. But anyone who has been in that situation will tell you that it would have been – especially with the Syrian tanks cutting off all escape routes.
Look, also, at his photo of one of those tanks coming straight down the street, its barrel pointed almost directly at John’s camera (as even he later admitted, it was a “risky” shot”). And bear in mind, too, that had he been captured by Assad’s forces that day, a beating, torture and a lengthy stint in a Damascus jail cell would have counted as lenient treatment.
It’s the kind of reportage that makes me feel, quite rightly, like a bit of a lightweight on the war reporting front. It’s the kind of reportage that also shows exactly what the Syrian regime was up to at the time – oppressing Muslims whose only crime was to rise up against lousy government. And it’s the kind of reportage that has now got John into even more serious danger. But if the people now holding him admire courage as much as they profess to, they might think he is better off wandering the world as a free man.