The Consultant: Ex-intelligence official reveals covert operation to free Boyle family from militants
In the board room of a suburban office building north of Toronto, the plan to free Joshua Boyle and his family from Haqqani Network militants was plotted on whiteboards on the walls.
“Operation Hurriyah,” it read across the top in blue marker, using the Arabic term for freedom. “Mission – Thru influence, negotiation, pressure or ransom enable their safe return.”
That homecoming finally happened on Oct. 13, when Boyle, 34, and his American wife Caitlan Coleman, 32, landed at Toronto airport with their three children following five years in captivity.
They were rescued by Pakistani troops acting on U.S. intelligence, but Global News has learned a Toronto-area company headed by a former senior Canadian intelligence official also played a role.
“We tried the best we could to create a situation where their safe release would be realized,” Andy Ellis, who heads The ICEN Group, said in an exclusive interview.
“Our role was small but important.”
WATCH: How to avoid getting kidnapped.
Sitting in his war room surrounded by whiteboards outlining the operation, Ellis revealed the rescue followed months of behind-the-scenes work by his company, Pakistan and particularly U.S. intelligence and the White House.
“Sometimes kidnap victims come home and people say, ‘I guess they just let them go, I guess they escaped,’” Ellis said. “In my 32 years, I suppose, in this field, I’ve never seen that happen. It’s far more complex than that.”
ICEN was contracted by Boyle’s parents to help end the marathon kidnapping, Ellis said. Boyle’s father Patrick declined to comment but confirmed the family had retained The ICEN Group earlier this year and that the firm had contributed to efforts to resolve the kidnapping.
While the Boyle case ended happily, Ellis said it nonetheless underscored the need to re-examine the way the government dealt with such cases — everything from Ottawa’s unclear policy on ransoms to what he considers its aversion to risks.
“It needs a thorough review,” he said.
The saga of Coleman and Boyle, the Ottawa trial of one of Amanda Lindhout’s alleged Somali kidnappers, and the murder last year of two Canadians kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines are reminders of every traveller’s worst nightmare.
During his three decades at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Ellis worked on several international kidnap cases and came away feeling the government’s approach was lacking.
After retiring as the CSIS Assistant Director of Operations in January 2016, he began working privately with families whose loved ones had been kidnapped overseas. “And I became passionate about it,” he said.
He launched ICEN this year with retired Peel Regional Police superintendent Paul Thorne to help Canadian companies improve their travel safety and avoid situations like kidnappings — and respond to crises should they happen.
“The ICEN Group was set up because we looked at things like kidnapping and people getting themselves into danger abroad,” he said. “If people had been informed and aware of the risks they were facing, they may have taken measures and protected themselves.”
“So we set this up to fill that gap.”
According to its website, the Vaughn, Ont. company offers “unparalleled crisis management and response capability” by a team of intelligence, law enforcement and military professionals. “When the unpredictable occurs, we will bring you home safely.”
When Ellis was introduced to Linda and Patrick Boyle, it had been more than four years since their son and his wife had been abducted by members of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network while on a foolhardy 2012 journey to Afghanistan.
Canadian and U.S. police and diplomats had been trying to win the support of the right people in the right countries who could appeal to the Taliban and Haqqani Network but the efforts had stalled and the clock was running down.
An August 2016 video had said the family would be killed if Afghanistan executed captured Taliban members. Another video in December threatened “dangerous consequences” unless the demands were met.
WATCH: What should you do if someone tries to kidnap you?
As a former CSIS official, Ellis would have already been familiar with the case. He said he was moved by the parents. They were heartbroken and worried about how the ordeal could end.
“We felt that there was something that we could do for the Boyle family,” he said.
Residents of Smiths Falls, Ont., the Boyles were glad to have someone like Ellis on their side. He knew how things worked, had intelligence contacts around the world and could represent their interests.
At first, Ellis sat in on briefings with the officials assigned to the case, helping the parents better understand what was going on, advocating for them and asking additional questions on their behalf.
One of those questions was about ransoms.
Following a policy review, the White House announced in 2015 that while it would not make concessions to kidnappers, families would not be prosecuted for negotiating ransom payments.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made a point of proclaiming that Canada would not pay ransoms. But whether families could negotiate with kidnappers remained uncertain.
And since the Haqqani Network was a listed terrorist group in Canada, a ransom payment might be considered a terrorism offence. Ellis wanted to know, what were the rules?
The answers were neither clear nor reassuring, he said.
“What is advancing the interests of a terrorist group?” Ellis said. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll never charge a family member.’ Will you charge me? I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question.”
With no apparent movement on the case, the ICEN contractors became “more operational,” Ellis said. They began pushing more aggressively on what Ellis termed “influence operations.”
The plan was to identify the Haqqani Network’s “stressors” and exploit them in ways that would squeeze the kidnappers to release the Boyle family — or at least to not harm them.
The players listed on the whiteboards at the ICEN office included General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, who might be able to facilitate access to Sami ul Haq, the Pakistani cleric known as the Father of the Taliban.
Another was Lieutenant-General Naveed Mukhtar, head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which the U.S. has accused of being closely linked to the Haqqani Network.
ICEN also recruited sources who were assigned code names for their protection. One of them was known as Sabre. The contractors communicated with them securely using what Ellis called a “virtual forward operating base” in Pakistan.
“I can’t give a lot of details on it but I can say, yes, human sources in the area were critically important to our campaign,” Ellis said.
Their task was to pass on information about what was happening on the ground but more importantly to influence the institutions the Haqqani Network relied upon for their ethical and religious guidance.
“We reached out to different highly-placed people to influence those institutions so that those institutions would influence the kidnappers on areas like, for example, you ought not to kidnap and injure and hurt women and children,” Ellis said.
“That had an impact.”
Ul Haq, who heads a seminary the Western press has dubbed the University of Jihad, was an important part of the strategy.
“We were trying to influence him,” Ellis said.
The hope was that ul Haq would make it known to the kidnappers that harming women and children was contrary to Islamic law.
Eventually, ul Haq agreed to meet with Patrick and Linda Boyle, and indicated he would consider intervening in the kidnapping. Ellis made arrangements to accompany them to ul Haq’s headquarters near Peshawar.
The Canadian government, however, declined to help with the trip, considering it too dangerous and advising against it, Ellis said. Ottawa would not even help them get Pakistani visas, he said.
A private security team was contracted to help with the visit. Former special forces members were to travel from Canada. Armored vehicles were hired and put on standby.
“Myself and Mr. and Mrs. Boyle had a plan to travel to Pakistan and meet with a notorious influencer, leader in the Taliban and Haqqani Network, meet with him personally at a place called the Darul Haqqania in Pakistan, a very dangerous area of Pakistan,” Ellis said. “Hugely risky but we’d reached the point where after five years something needs to be done to push things.”
But then a window seemed to open.
The kidnappers were under pressure to end it and the U.S. had found their compound. Perhaps fearing the optics of the Boyles’ pending visit, not to mention the possibility the U.S. military might mount a rescue itself, Pakistan appeared willing to take action.
“We’re putting pressure on them from a moral, ethical, religious interpretation of what they’re doing, and then they added to that that the American intelligence community were able to influence enough things to make the kidnappers move the hostages,” Ellis said.
“I can’t get into why or how or anything else but you know that the kidnappers are moving the hostages and now the Americans – and this is where, frankly, the White House and the rest of the administration deserves credit – they took the risk to share that with the Pakistanis, a risk that they didn’t take with bin Laden, for example, highly valuable information shared with the Pakistani government, who to their credit acted on it and saved lives.”
“It worked and it worked according to plan, that’s probably the best way I can put it.”
WATCH: What to do if you get kidnapped.
Apparently expecting a ransom, the kidnappers put the family in the trunk of a vehicle. Tipped off by the Americans, Pakistani forces were waiting in the northwest Kurram Agency to intercept them and free the family.
“Hijackers and kidnappers should be aware that in today’s world intelligence organizations are very, very good. And if you kidnap people you’re going to pay the price for it at the end,” Ellis said. “And I think the Pakistani military’s intervention to rescue the family showed that. The kidnappers lost their lives in the firefight thinking they were about to win the lottery on the release of the hostages.”
The meeting with ul Haq wasn’t needed in the end and Ellis said he couldn’t say for certain the conservative cleric had instructed the kidnappers to free the family. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I would hope so.”
Neither Global Affairs Canada nor the RCMP would comment specifically on the case.
“Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, we do our utmost to provide support to families and also to engage with international partners,” said Brendan Sutton, a Global Affairs spokesman. “In all hostage cases, Canada works closely with foreign authorities and its allies, at every level, to free Canadians and bring them home.”
WATCH: What to do if you get kidnapped – and armed rescuers come for you
The day after the rescue, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada had been “actively engaged” with the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan governments.
But it’s uncertain what role Canada played in ending the kidnapping. Ellis said Ottawa had engaged in diplomacy but that ultimately it was U.S. intelligence and Pakistani military action, supported by the pressure campaign, that got results.
Ellis said a policy rethink was needed in Ottawa, which he believes is too risk-averse when Canadians are kidnapped abroad, unwilling to take chances that could have a political backlash if things go badly.
He isn’t convinced Canada even has a coherent kidnap policy, and felt that many things were not done well in the Boyle case.
“I think the whole government system, of the way we handle these type of situations in Canada, needs a deep look.”
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