Video footage has emerged showing U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice being held by a group of masked men toting assault rifles in the first direct evidence of his condition since his disappearance in mid-August.
The 47-second video clip was posted on YouTube on Sept. 26 and came to light Monday after it appeared on a Facebook page associated with supporters of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is the first to show Tice since he disappeared while reporting on Syria’s civil war. Tice contributed stories to multiple news outlets, including The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers.
The video opens with shaky footage of a convoy of three vehicles moving through scrubby mountain terrain, before cutting to a small knot of armed men, faces obscured, leading Tice up a mountain path while calling “Allahu al-Akbar,” or “God is great.”
A blindfolded Tice is then pushed to his knees and filmed speaking a prayer in Arabic. Tice, visibly distressed, cries out “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus” in English, before reverting to Arabic, seconds before the footage is cut.
The emergence of the video comes amid other reports suggesting that Tice has been in the custody of the Syrian government. Experts on Monday cautioned against taking the apparent content of the video clip at face value because, they said, there are clear discrepancies between the footage of Tice and other videos released by Islamist extremist groups operating in Syria.
Those discrepancies included the clothing of Tice’s apparent captors, the production quality of the film, the means of distribution and other signs that cast doubt on whether Tice was actually being held by one of the extremist groups that has become active in battling Syria’s government. Assad’s government has been eager to portray the country’s conflict, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives, as a struggle against Islamist extremist groups within Syria.
In the video, the captors are wearing Afghan-style salwar-kameez — tunic and pants — that appear to be freshly pressed and clean. The video would mark the first time Syrian rebels have been seen wearing such clothes, said Joseph Holliday, who researches Syrian rebel groups at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Islamist extremists typically address the camera head-on with statements, but in this instance the film has been carefully edited to avoid displaying any faces, he said. And the only comments made are the phrases “Allahu al-Akbar” and “takhbir,” which means praise.
“It’s like a caricature of a jihadi group,” he said. “It looks like someone went to the Internet, watched pictures of Afghan mujaheddin, then copied them.”
“My gut instinct is that regime security guys dressed up like a bunch of wahoos and dragged him around and released the video to scare the U.S. and others about the danger of al-Qaeda extremists in Syria. It would fit their narrative perfectly,” he said.
Previous reports have suggested that Tice was captured by Syrian government forces on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. The Czech ambassador to Syria, who represents American interests in the country, said in late August that she believed Tice was being held by the Syrian government. Evidence collected by news organizations investigating Tice’s disappearance has supported that claim. The Syrian government has not publicly commented.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that U.S. officials had viewed the video but could not verify it. “We continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge . . . he is in Syrian government custody,” she said.
The FBI has opened an investigation into Tice’s disappearance but declined to comment further.
The video of Tice, which carries no time stamp indicating when it was taken, was uploaded onto YouTube last week by a new user named khalidfree75 with the title “Austin Tice still alive.” It is the only video posted from that account.
Unlike many videos issued by extremist groups, which are typically posted on radical Islamist forums or circulated to TV networks in the region, earning huge numbers of views in the process, this video had fewer than 500 views as of midday Monday.
The video came to light on Monday after it was posted twice on a pro-regime Facebook page called “The Media Channel of Al-Assad’s Syria.”
A comment accompanying the initial posting of the video said it offered proof that “Western media is working against Syria.”
The second posting identified a known extremist group, the al-Nusra Front, as being responsible. “After accusing the Syrian army, American journalist Austin Tice is in the hands of armed gangs, the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda,” the text reported.
The video clip includes no logo or other information identifying the group apparently responsible for Tice’s capture — which is not typical.
“If it were a jihadist group, they would likely want to take credit for the kidnapping and use it as propaganda to bolster the group’s fame and make demands,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist networks.
As of yet, there have been no known demands for Tice.
Tice, a 31-year-old law school student and former Marine infantry officer, had been reporting on Syria since May, when he entered across the Turkish border. Tice contributed more than a dozen articles to McClatchy and three to The Post.
Syrian government and pro-regime news sources have posted highly critical messages about Tice since his disappearance. A Facebook page that purports to be Assad’s described Tice on Sept. 16 as a “Mossad officer,” a reference to the Israeli intelligence service, and said he had “infiltrated” the country. Other pro-government sites have accused Tice of killing three Syrian military officers, without offering evidence.
Tice’s parents stressed in a statement that their priority is to get him home.
“Knowing Austin is alive and well is comforting to our family. Though it is difficult to see our eldest son in such a setting and situation as that depicted in the video, it is reassuring that he appears to be unharmed,” Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, said in a statement. “It is evident that the current events in Syria are challenging and difficult for everyone involved. Our wish is that peace and stability can once again return to the people of Syria and that our treasured son Austin will soon be safely returned to our family.”
The editors of publications to which Tice had filed said he should be released.
“We call on those who are holding Austin to release him promptly, unharmed,” Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Post, said in a statement. “Austin is a journalist who was doing his job. He should be allowed to return to his family.”
Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy vice president for news, asked “in the strongest possible terms for his immediate release.’’
Syria has been one of the most difficult and dangerous countries in the world to report from since its uprising began in 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy organization, has tallied a total of 25 professional and citizen reporters killed covering the conflict since February 2011. It believes that 21 of those killed were deliberately targeted.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate and safety of U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice and call upon his captors to disclose his whereabouts and release him immediately,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney.
“Journalists are internationally recognized as civilians and must be treated as such. CPJ has documented a resurgence in dangers facing the press in Syria over the past six weeks including the disappearance of Tice and two other foreign journalists, Turkish cameraman Cüneyt Ünal and reporter Bashar Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, who work for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Al-Hurra.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.