An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children have been freed from captivity by Pakistani security forces, nearly five years after being taken hostage by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network in Afghanistan.
The initial word came from a Pakistani Army statement and was confirmed by US officials.
The couple, American Caitlan Coleman, 31, and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, 33, were kidnapped in 2012 while they were traveling as tourists in Afghanistan and were held in captivity since.
Coleman was pregnant when she was kidnapped. The couple had two more children born in captivity.
In a statement, the Pakistani Army said US intelligence agencies had been tracking the hostages and shared intelligence with Pakistan when the family was moved to the country. US officials confirmed there was intelligence about their location in recent days that was shared with the Pakistanis.
In the initial hours after their release, the family was still in Pakistan as arrangements were being made to return them to either the US or Canada.
“The operation by Pakistani forces, based on actionable intelligence from US authorities was successful; all hostages were recovered safe and sound and are being repatriated to the country of their origin,” the statement said. “The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy.”
A senior US official told CNN that US intelligence assets had detected and monitored the movement of vehicles that the US assessed to contain the family.
US officials provided this new intelligence to the Pakistani authorities and US officials even began unilaterally discussing a possible US-staged rescue attempt.
However, to the surprise of the US government, the Pakistani authorities soon called back their US counterparts, informing them that they had taken custody of all five family members.
“That was a surprise to us,” the official said.
The US does not know at this point what the Pakistanis might have “said or did” on the ground to get the family back.
But the official added there is no evidence that any of the Haqqani members currently imprisoned by the government of Afghanistan have been released in a prisoner exchange.
The US is calling the Pakistani operation a “transfer of custody” because of the circumstances of how it unfolded the official said.
CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen spoke Thursday to Boyle’s parents, Patrick and Linda Boyle, who have spoken to their son since his being freed from captivity. Patrick Boyle said that all of the recovered family members are OK. The parents also learned for the first time that they now have a granddaughter.
The senior US official said Joshua Boyle refused to board a US military C-130 bound for the US because “he thinks he will face law enforcement and possible arrest,” though there is no indication at this time that he will face arrest.
The official said there are some questions surrounding his past. Boyle was previously married to the sister of Omar Kadhr, a Canadian citizen who was imprisoned for 10 years at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after fighting US troops in Afghanistan. Kadhr later sued the Canadian government for violating international law by allegedly not protecting its citizen and conspiring with his US captors, who he says abused him.
A Pakistani military official told CNN that the recovery operation was conducted by Pakistani intelligence agents with the Pakistani military helping to secure the perimeter. He said that the operation took place in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan while the family was being transported from one location to another.
President Donald Trump thanked Pakistan for its role in recovering the hostages Thursday during remarks before he signed an executive order on health care at the White House.
“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wish that it do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said,
“I want to thank Pakistan. They worked very hard on this and I believe they are starting to respect the United States again,” Trump added.
Trump issued a statement earlier Thursday confirming the recovery of the hostages.
“The United States government, working in conjunction with the government of Pakistan, secured the release of the Boyle-Coleman family from captivity in Pakistan,” the statement said.
“This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan,” Trump added, saying, “The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region.”
Trump has made getting tougher with Pakistan in an effort to get them to crackdown on the Taliban a central tenet of his recently announced strategy for Afghanistan and the wider region.
“We hope to see this type of cooperation and teamwork in helping secure the release of remaining hostages and in our future joint counterterrorism operations,” Trump said in the statement.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Thursday that the successful recovery of the family was what was being referenced Wednesday when Trump told a crowd in Pennsylvania that “something happened today where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news.”
Trump did not disclose what country or any details involved but said “one of my generals came in and they said, you know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would have never done that.”
“This is a country that did not respect us, this is a country that respects us now. The world is starting to respect us again, believe me,” Trump said appearing to reference Pakistan and that country’s role in bringing about the the recovery of the four hostages.
US intelligence officials believed the couple was being held by the Haqqani Network, a branch of the Taliban believed to be responsible for some of the group’s most violent and sophisticated attacks. In December the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said the Haqqani Network held a total of five American hostages.
The Taliban released a “proof of life” video of Coleman, Boyle and their two children in December 2016 where Coleman addressed President Barack Obama and then President-elect Trump, saying the Taliban “are not going to simply release our family easily, because it is correct. They want money, power and friends. … We are told there are Afghans who are prisoners in Kabul that these men care about.”
The Afghan government has captured several senior members of the Haqqani Network and US officials believed the Taliban faction had hoped to exchange American hostages for their release.
The US military has long believed that Pakistan’s principal intelligence organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has maintained links with the Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network.
“I think it’s clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Armed Services Hearing on Afghanistan and South Asia last week, using the Pakistan intelligence agency’s acronym.
Trump has previously slammed Pakistan for not doing enough to combat terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network.
Trump has made getting tougher with Pakistan in an effort to get them to crack-down on the Taliban a central tenant of his recently announced strategy for Afghanistan and the wider region.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said during his August speech announcing the new strategy.
And while Trump labeled Pakistan “a valued partner” in the past, he also said the US had “been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.”
“That will have to change, and that will change immediately,” Trump added, saying “No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already withheld millions in military funding from Pakistan due to the Pentagon’s view that Islamabad has not “taken sufficient action against the Haqqani Network.”
The Taliban continue to hold other western hostages including US citizen Kevin King, 60, and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks, 48. Both men were working as teachers at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul when they were forcibly kidnapped from a vehicle in August 2016.
In September, three administration officials told CNN that US Special Operations Forces from SEAL Team 6 attempted to rescue the two teachers shortly after they were kidnapped but the captives were not at the location the US forces raided.
One other American is believed to be held hostage in Afghanistan or Pakistan: writer Paul Overby, who is in his 70s.