Blaming Islamists for a journalist’s kidnapping

When I first read that journalist Austin Tice had gone missing from Syria after August 11, I was worried about how the story would play out. The good news is that we have an update and he appears to be alive. But the plot really thickens from there.

Tice has been captured but it’s unclear by whom. A couple of days ago, a video clip appeared that showed Tice being forced to march in rugged terrain and recite a Muslim prayer. Gasping and frightened, he says “Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus,” as he rests his head onto the arm of a captor. You can watch the clip above.

To learn more about what’s so weird about this story, I recommend David Kirkpatrick’s very helpful write-up in the New York Times of what we know — and don’t know — about Tice’s situation. Headlined “Video Seems to Show American Journalist Being Held by Islamists in Syria,” we learn:

The 47-second video, with the headline “Austin Tice Still Alive,” shows frightening scenes of masked gunmen jerking Mr. Tice along a trail through low hills. One captor holds what looks to be a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Mr. Tice kneels, and the men force him to repeat in clumsy Arabic the prayer that Muslims traditionally recite before dying. Mr. Tice then says in English, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” sounding breathless and frightened. Then he lowers his head, and the video ends with him, unhurt, resting his head on the arm of a captor.

Several analysts said that the video appeared to be staged and that it lacked the customary form and polish of jihadist videos. The men hid their faces, and no group was identified claiming responsibility for Mr. Tice’s capture or the video, which was originally posted on YouTube by an unknown user instead of on a jihadist Web site, as militant groups prefer.

In the video, the call-and-response of “God is great” seems unpracticed and out of sync. The captors are dressed in freshly pressed Afghan dress never seen before among Syrian rebels. And it was unusual for Islamist militants to force Mr. Tice, a non-Muslim, to recite a Muslim prayer for a video.

Now, it would definitely help if these “analysts” were better sourced. The clear implication of these anonymous claims is that the Syrian government is holding Tice and trying to make it appear as if their enemies are. But we have no idea who these analysts are, much less what their expertise or affiliations are. I don’t really have any reason to doubt these claims, and I actually trust Kirkpatrick more than I do many other reporters, but some more substantiation would be wise, I think. Here’s more on the implication:

The Facebook posting declared, “The American journalist Austin Tice is with the Nusra Front gangs and al Qaida in Syria,” a well-known group of Islamist Syrian opposition fighters. But the group releases its own videos through its own channels, and if this clip had been produced by a militant opposition group, it was unclear why it was being disseminated on pro-Assad Web sites.

Also, I would like a bit more explanation about whether it is unusual for Islamist militants to force Muslim prayers for video. It seems that forced conversions and forced prayers aren’t unheard of when it comes to journalists kidnapped by Muslim extremists, to give a few examples that pop randomly into my head here, here and here.

But all that said, some helpful context to a complex and scary situation involving a brave reporter who is in some serious trouble in Syria. And a good use of the word “seems” in the headline. It introduces the doubt without saying more than is known.

Sometimes there is less to a religion angle than first appears — or, at least, that the religion angle is more complex.

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