IRBIL, Iraq - John Cantlie, the Briton taken hostage in Syria in November 2012 who became the star of nine of the group's propaganda videos late last year and early this year, has disappeared again - baffling hostage recovery investigators familiar with his case.
Cantlie was taken hostage on Thanksgiving Day 2012 with American journalist James Foley during a reporting trip. Foley was later beheaded in a grisly video that the Islamic State posted in August 2014, the first of seven U.S., British, and Japanese hostages to be executed over five months.
Cantlie somehow escaped that fate, only to surface as the star of a series of nine bizarre Islamic State propaganda videos posted on the Internet between Sept. 18, 2014, and Feb. 9 this year. In his final video, a 12-minute field report from the Syrian city of Aleppo, Cantlie said this would be his final appearance. It was the last time his image has been seen on the Web.
After that his byline appeared periodically in Dabiq, Islamic State's English-language magazine, with articles purportedly by him in issues 4 through 9, which appeared May 21.
An article attributed to Cantlie did appear in the 12th issue of the magazine, which was posted Nov. 18, but people are uncertain if it was really by him.
"The Issue 12 story might have been written by Cantlie but it lacked a lot of the same hallmarks of the writing style in his previous dispatches for the magazine," said an investigator in Great Britain who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the search for Cantlie. "It is generally agreed that John was at least involved in the writing [of the earlier articles] but there's no consensus on the 12th issue, which is the last, albeit vague, sign that he remains alive."
"There's been nothing of any substance at all since the February video release that we have found," said another security expert who has worked on multiple hostage cases in Syria and, as with everyone interviewed for this story, requested that his name not be used. "He has used the first tape to say there would only be nine videos and after the final one, he literally disappeared. Prior to that, sources in Syria were able to occasionally report sightings or even rumors of sightings, but since then there's been nothing at all beyond the articles, which themselves appeared to have stopped."
Two sources in British intelligence categorically refused to comment for this article and another European intelligence official confirmed that little if any useful information has been reported on Cantlie's situation through usual information-sharing practices.
"The Brits might have something they're not sharing, because obviously it's very sensitive, but it's my sense that nobody has heard a thing since that last video," the European official said.
In a Dabiq article released around the time of the final video, Cantlie told his family to move on with their lives and implied that his fate would never be learned. He also repeated claims that he and the other murdered hostages would still be alive if not for the policy of the United States and Great Britain to refuse to pay or negotiate ransom payments for hostages held by the group.
Islamic State or other jihadist militants in Syria held dozens of foreign hostages in 2014, and earned tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from countries willing to pay for their citizens' freedom. But the Islamic State is thought to hold few, if any, Western captives now, with few news organizations and aid groups willing to dispatch workers to Syria who might become hostages.
The exceptions appear to be an Italian priest, the Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, and three Spanish journalists who vanished over the summer.
Dall'Oglio, who had worked in Syria for decades, was abducted in July 2013, apparently by the Islamic State. The group, however, has never mentioned him in a statement or video, and rumors conflict on whether he is still alive or died in captivity.
The three Spanish journalists entered Aleppo this past summer to cover fighting between the Syrian government and a range of rebel groups, including the Islamic State, but lost contact with their editors July 12. Spanish diplomats refused to comment on their disappearance and their fate apparently has not been discussed in interagency communications with other European Union states, according to several intelligence officials from other countries.
Also still missing in Syria is McClatchy special correspondent Austin Tice, who last communicated with his editors on Aug. 13, 2012, from near Damascus. He is not believed to have ever been held by the Islamic State, and the Syrian government has never acknowledged that its forces had captured him. But recent reports from individuals in Syria say he is still alive.