The Islamic State posted a video Monday in which a captured British photojournalist, shown in an embattled Syrian town on the border with Turkey, denied that the fanatical group was retreating before a Syrian Kurdish militia backed by U.S. airstrikes and arms supplies.
It wasn’t clear precisely when the video featuring John Cantlie was recorded, although references that he made to Western news reports and other events showed that it was produced on or after Oct 20.
The video was aimed at discrediting media reports that the Islamic State had been driven from the town of Kobani after a weeks-long assault against a Syrian Kurdish militia, known by the Kurdish acronym YPG, aided by U.S. airdrops of arms and ammunition and U.S. airstrikes that at times have been intense.
“Despite continual American airstrikes which so far have cost nearly half a billion dollars in total, the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city,” said Cantlie, 43, using the Arabic word for holy warriors. “The battle for Kobani is coming to an end.”
Cantlie acknowledged that the airstrikes had forced some Islamic State commanders not to use tanks and other heavy “as they’d have liked.” But he denied that they’d broken off their push into the city. Instead, they’d adjusted their tactics and were now moving house-to-house with light arms.
“The mujahideen are just mopping up now, street to street and building to build. You can occasionally hear sporadic gunfire in the background as a result of those operations. But contrary to what the Western media would have you believe, it is not an all-out battle here now,” he said. “It is nearly over, as you can hear.”
The Obama administration initially dismissed Kobani as strategically unimportant. But its decision to aid the YPG – despite its close ties with a separatist Turkish Kurdish group that is on the U.S. terrorism list – has made preventing an Islamic State takeover of the town symbolically critical to the U.S.-led air campaign against the al-Qaida spinoff.
U.S. aircraft have launched at least 165 strikes around Kobani since the campaign began in Syria on Sept. 23, according to U.S. Central Command news releases. More than one-third – 60 – of the strikes took place Oct. 13-16, apparently before the video was recorded.
The video was entitled “Inside Ayn al Islam,” the name used for Kobani by the Islamic State. It opened with shots taken high above the shattered town by what the video labels a “drone of the Islamic State Army.”
The video also shows a Turkish flag flying atop a grain silo across the nearby border. A McClatchy reporter who was recently on the Turkish side of the border verified the scene, saying he recognized the buildings in the background as the location of the border crossing into Turkey.
Cantlie initially appears in the 5:32-minute video on a rubble-strewn street and then on a roof-top overlooking the shattered remains of buildings.
He quoted Western media reports from Oct. 16 and 17 that the Islamic State was retreating from Kobani, and noted that they were “quite a turnaround” from earlier statements by U.S. officials and “Kurd-hating” Turkish Pesident Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the town was likely to fall to the militants “in just a matter of time.”
Cantlie referred to an Oct. 19 U.S. air-drop of arms to the YPG, noting that two crates were captured by the Islamic State, something the Pentagon acknowledged on Oct. 21. He also cited Turkish approval of a plan to have Kurdish reinforcements from Iraq transit Turkey to Kobani, something Ankara agreed to on Oct. 20, but that has yet to take place.
“Kobani is now being reinforced by Iraqi Kurds who are coming in through Turkey while the mujahideen are being resupplied by the hopeless United State Air Force who parachuted two crates of weapons and ammunition straight into the outstretched arms of the mujahideen,” he said.
The video ended with Cantlie pointing out that some 200,000 residents had fled the fighting to Turkey, where they settled in refugee camps.
“You can see the refugee camps over my right shoulder in Turkey where the inhabitants now are,” he said. “But contrary to media reports, the fighting in Kobani is nearly over. Urban warfare is about as nasty and tough as it gets and it’s something of a specialty of the mujahideen.”
Cantlie wore a black shirt with a long-sleeved undergarment and black trousers in the video, a sharp contrast to the orange prison jumpsuit that he has worn in six previous videos that have been posted on the Internet over the past six weeks.
In contrast to those videos, shot with Cantlie sitting behind a desk in a dark room, the British hostage was recorded in the open air and seemed remarkably relaxed. He gestured over his right shoulder with his thumb to indicate Turkey behind him, walked comfortably in front of the camera in a common television reporting technique, and spoke from a variety of camera angles. At one point, as he was mocking Western media reports, he looked left, then right before noting that “I can’t see any of their journalists here in the city of Kobani.”
The new video resolved one burning concern raised by Cantlie’s appearance in the previous series of videos, dubbed “Lend Me Your Ears” – whether he might already be dead. Despite the episodic nature of the series – the most recent installment was posted Saturday – Cantlie has made no references in it to any event after mid-September, triggering fears that he already had met the fate of four other hostages whose beheadings were shown in grisly videos. The Islamic State has said a fifth hostage, American aid worker Peter Kassig, 26, is next on their execution list.
There was no immediate reaction by American officials to the video, and an official of the Kurdish government in Kobani could not be reached for comment. On Monday, Turkish news reports indicated that the Islamic State had made another effort to capture the border crossing, and Kurdish journalists in Turkey last week told McClatchy that about 40 percent of the town is in Islamic State hands.
Kurdish reinforcements from Iraq have yet to arrive in the city, and when they do will not engage in combat, according to the most recent news accounts. On Monday, the U.S. Central Command said U.S. aircraft launched four airstrikes near Kobani, destroying five vehicles and a building Islamic State fighters had occupied.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JonathanLanday Roy Gutman contributed from Istanbul.)