WASHINGTON — An American woman and her Canadian husband who were held hostage by militants in Afghanistan for five years have been freed along with their young children, President Trump said Thursday, ending a case that has long frustrated diplomats and FBI agents trying to secure their release.
Pakistan’s military said that “through an intelligence-based operation,” it took custody on Wednesday of the hostages from the Haqqani network, the Taliban faction that had seized Caitlan Coleman, 31, and her husband, Josh Boyle, 34, in 2012. The Pakistani military pledged to repatriate them, and US intelligence agencies were tracking the hostages as they crossed into the rugged tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.
The Trump administration and the Pakistani government worked together to free them, Trump said, but a senior US official said Pakistan’s intelligence service arranged the handover of the family after being pressured by US officials. It was not clear what, if any, concessions were made to the Haqqani network to ensure the family’s release.
“This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan,” Trump said in a statement. “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. 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.”
The pair was kidnapped in October 2012 while backpacking in Wardak province, a militant stronghold near Kabul. At the time of her abduction, Coleman, who is from Pennsylvania, was pregnant, and later gave birth. She had two more children in captivity, adding pressure to resolve an already desperate situation.
US officials were exploring ways to get the family out of South Asia, with Boyle possibly headed to Canada and his wife and children back to the United States.
In an unusual moment Wednesday night, Trump appeared to telegraph the family’s impending release.
“America is being respected again,” the president said during a speech on his tax plan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Something happened today where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news. And one of my generals came in, they said, you know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would have never done that. It was a great sign of respect. You’ll probably be hearing about it over the next few days.”
Trump did not mention Coleman, Boyle, or Pakistan, but the revelation was notable for a president who had often complained that President Barack Obama shared what Trump viewed as important secrets, such as battle plans against the Islamic State.
He echoed those comments Thursday, this time mentioning Pakistan by name and saying the family’s release showed the country was “starting to respect the United States again.”
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has been rocky. The United States has long accused its military and its intelligence agency of harboring or ignoring militants, and relations have grown increasingly strained over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
In a statement about the hostage release, the Pakistani army 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.”
The end of the family’s captivity was a victory for the State Department officials and the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell that had worked on the case for years. The group was created under the Obama administration to improve the government’s efforts to free hostages and to ensure their families received timely information about them.
In December 2016, the militants released a video of the family, including footage depicting their children. Coleman described her time as a hostage as “Kafkaesque” and said she had been “defiled.”
‘This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan.’
“Indeed, they threaten to retaliate against our family,” she said. “Their group will do us harm and punish us. So we ask that you are merciful to their people and, God willing, they will release us.”
An earlier video made public in August 2016 showed the couple. During it, Coleman urged the US government to “help stop this depravity.” She also said her captors “will execute us.”
Earlier attempts to bring the family home fell short. In January 2016, Colin Rutherford, a Canadian, was freed after Qatar arranged a prisoner swap with the Afghan government. Officials had hoped Rutherford would be the first in a series of releases, including Coleman and her family.
But that never materialized, for reasons that remain unclear. The Obama administration sought to jump-start talks with the Taliban but those efforts faltered after the US military killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban’s leader, in a drone strike in May 2016.