John “Can’t Lie” Cantlie: From IS Prisoner to Every Jihadist's Hero
Take away the media group watermarks, and mute the spoken anti-Western propaganda, and the Islamic State's (IS) most recent video featuring John Cantlie might look more like a VICE News story: a brave, skinny jean-wearing journalist documenting a rubble-covered warzone. The video, titled "From Inside Aleppo," marks yet another step in one of history's most bizarre climbs to superstardom. In a matter of months, Cantlie, whom IS had originally intended to be a conduit into Western discourse, has surprised both himself and his captors by becoming a champion of the jihadist movement.
IS debuted Cantlie in the inaugural installment of the "Lend Me Your Ears" on September 18, 2014. Rhetorical subtleties aside, the aim of the series was straight-forward: forcibly rebrand a British photojournalist as a loudspeaker to critique Western foreign policy. The series' appeals to a Western audience, as noted in previous SITE analyses, were not hard to spot: the wooden desk and the black background, similar to such news sets as Charlie Rose; the Shakespeare reference (Lend Me Your Ears" being the first words of Mark Anthony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's "Julius Ceasar").
Furthermore, Cantlie's calm commentary throughout the installments seem to be an intentional counter-offer to Western audiences amid what were the rampantly-released beheading videos of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning.
In the first "Lend Me Your Ears" installment, Cantlie comments on his undecided fate:
But, seeing as I've been abandoned by my government and my fate now lies in the hands of the Islamic State, I have nothing to lose. Maybe I will live, and maybe I will die, but I want to take this opportunity to convey some facts that you can verify; facts that if you contemplate, might help in preserving lives.
A lot has changed in the months since that release, though. As time went on, Cantlie would seem to capture a completely different audience: IS fighters and supporters.
The captive's popularity among this group emerged most prominently after the October 27 release of "Inside 'Ayn al-Islam," wherein he criticized Western coverage of IS from Kobani. In the video, viewers saw a different side of Cantlie than they had in the original "Lend Me Your Ears" series, showing him strutting through the debris-scattered roads of Kobani in a casual black button-down shirt, accompanying his criticism of Western media with tongue-in-cheek facial expressions and hand gestures. At one point, Cantlie states, "Now, the Western media," and then shrugs his shoulders to mockingly follow up, "and I can't see any of their journalists here in the city of Kobani..."
In his gestures, convincing delivery, and attire...IS had effectively sold Cantlie to its followers not as a Western prisoner, but as a member of the movement.
In his gestures, convincing delivery, and attire (a drastic step away from his orange prisoner jumpsuit), IS had effectively sold Cantlie to its followers not as a Western prisoner, but as a member of the movement. And IS's fighters and supporters were not shy in showing love to their new anti-Western champion. Jihadist accounts erupted with support for the video, commenting on its delivery, "It's not 'John Cantlie' it's 'John Can't-lie' GREAT JOB man," and "Dawlah [IS] knows very well how to troll West." One alleged fighter with al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's (AQ) Syrian affiliate and staunch rival to IS, even claimed:
As a JN fighter I must say; IS just slammed the US in the face & all the false western propaganda filled journalism.
Perhaps more notable—as IS's leadership seems to have picked up on—were these accounts' support for Cantlie personally. Messages on Twitter indicated a perception that Cantlie was one of them, and soon to be, if not already, a believer in radical Islam. The account of an Australian IS supporter tweeted the day of the video's release, "I like john cantlie. May Allah guide him to Islam," while another would state two days later, "Anyone else have the feeling John Cantlie is going to burn his passport in last episode of 'Lend me your ear'?"
These statements of admiration in mind, "From Inside Mosul" was IS's answer to the demand of its supporters. The eight-minute, 15 second video—wherein Cantlie tours Mosul's shops and various intersections–seems a lot more like an episode of No Reservations than the forced messages of a detainee. In the video, Cantlie casually strolls through what he claims to be "the top of the world in Mosul," visiting shops and speaking with residents of the city. In one scene, Cantlie even rides on a police motorcycle, stating nonchalantly:
There's really very little crime being committed from what I can see. Just people going about their business and nothing like the police before who would run at the slightest sign of trouble. Anyway, we gotta go patrol now.
Following the video, jihadists published various memes praising the video and Cantlie to the like of a mainstream television celebrity:
Today's video, showing a more serious side to Cantlie, offers more of the same: a trustworthy journalist 'exposing' the hypocrisy of coalition airstrikes. As Cantlie tours the aftermath of airstrikes in Aleppo (which he refers to by "Halab," the city's ancient name), he reports on what he describes as a recent airstrike and then states that American forces have been collaborating with the Assad regime:
That must have been an American drone. That was definitely an Assad bomb dropping here on the market. So what's going on? Someone is working with someone around here to drop bombs. Look around. It's smashed there. It's smashed there. The people are absolutely terrified from bombs being dropped by Assad's aircraft, but with American drones flying overhead.
IS has as much as of a public relations puzzle in Cantlie's unexpected success as they do a treasure: will they stay true to what has been a consistently unapologetic history of brutal showmanship, further push for ransom demands, or spare Cantlie to the desire of his unexpected fan base? The recent killings of Kenji Goto Jogo, Haruna Yukawa, and Mu'adh al-Kasasibah have proved that barbarity is always an option for the group. However, considering Cantlie's convincing delivery of messages and likability among jihadists, his life has hopefully become a little more valuable to those imprisoning him.