In the weeks, months and years after Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle went missing in Afghanistan, their families repeated the same story:
They were young adventurers, drawn off the beaten track. “They were interested in cultures that are underdeveloped,” Caitlan's mother Lyn said in 2014. They didn't do things like stay in hotels or visit tourist traps. They were idealists, and also a little naive.
Soon after the pair married in 2011, they spent four months in Guatemala. And in the summer of 2012, they jetted off for Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Family members called it a backpacking trek. Afghanistan was not a part of the plan, at least not as far as anyone knew.
What happened next has become, by now, well-known. Coleman and Boyle did make their way to a remote area of Afghanistan outside Kabul, where they were kidnapped by the Taliban and imprisoned for five years before being rescued this week.
Why did Boyle and Coleman, seven months pregnant, decide to go to Kabul? What were they trying to accomplish? We don't have the full story yet. But in the past couple of days, we've gotten some clues.
In comments to reporters, Boyle said he and Coleman went to Afghanistan to try to help “the most neglected minority group in the world, those ordinary villagers who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan … where no NGO, no aid worker and no government has ever successfully been able to bring the necessary help.” In that same statement, Boyle described himself as a “pilgrim.”
It's not clear how he and Coleman intended to help, or what they were up to when they were kidnapped.
Coleman's friend suggested to USA Today that she and others had at least a vague notion that the couple intended to do some volunteer work. Sarah Flood said she related to Coleman's travel plans because she had just come back from a service trip to Ukraine. “The idea of going to a country and being helpful is something we absolutely shared,” Flood told USA Today. She also said that the trip had been Boyle's idea, but Coleman quickly got excited about it, even though she was ready to settle down in the United States and start a family.
And then there's the insight of Richard Cronin, who met Coleman and Boyle while they were in Central Asia. The pair befriended Cronin at a hostel in Bishkek. In a blog post from 2012, Cronin wrote that Boyle's excitement about Afghanistan convinced him to go. “I hadn’t thought seriously about traveling to Afghanistan until I started talking to Josh,” he wrote. “He was planning to travel there with his wife Caitlan very shortly. We started talking about Lawrence of Arabia and the explorer Richard Burton. He asked me if I admired these explorers. Of course I did. ‘Wouldn’t you like to be like one of them?’ ”
“I asked Josh where he wanted to go in Afghanistan and he replied All over,” Cronin continued. “He had also said it was safe provided you didn’t go to a region where there were foreign troops and the Taliban, namely the south.”
Boyle's fascination with the Middle East and Central Asia was more than a decade in the making.
After the 9/11 attacks, Boyle became consumed by questions of terrorism and Islam, studying up on the issue and even learning Arabic. A few years later, he got involved in an effort to get Omar Khadr, once the youngest detainee at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, released. Khadr pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. Special Forces medic. Boyle briefly married Khadr's sister.
As my colleague explained:
Boyle’s associations with the family led some U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that the visit to Afghanistan may have been part of a larger effort to link up with Taliban-affiliated militants. “I can’t say that [he was ever al-Qaeda],” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. “He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”
Authorities denied that Boyle had any ties to terror.
His “first concern in life has always been helping others,” Alex Edwards, a friend of Boyle's since 2002, told Philadelphia magazine. “If things were different, and I was the one being held hostage, Josh wouldn’t rest until I was free,” says Alex. “He’d stage sit-ins. He’d put up posters. He’d dedicate his life to it. That’s just who he is.”