Five years after they were seized by a terrorist network in the mountains of Afghanistan, an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children — all born in captivity — are free after a dramatic rescue orchestrated by the U.S. and Pakistani governments, officials said Thursday. The family flew out of Pakistan Friday and was headed to the U.K. after the husband rejected an opportunity to use U.S.-supplied transportation, NBC News reported.
The U.S. said Pakistan accomplished the release of Caitlan Coleman of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle, who were abducted and held by the Haqqani network, which has ties to the Taliban and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The operation, which came after years of U.S. pressure on Pakistan for assistance, unfolded quickly and included what some described as a shootout and a dangerous raid. U.S. officials did not confirm the details. One official told NBC News the release was more of a diplomatic handover than hostile confrontation.
"Today they are free," President Donald Trump said in a statement on Thursday, crediting the U.S.-Pakistani partnership for securing the release. Trump later praised Pakistan for its willingness to "do more to provide security in the region" and said the release suggests other "countries are starting to respect the United States of America once again."
"For five years, I have prayed and worked for the release of Caitlan, Josh and their children," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in a statement. "Both the Obama and Trump Administrations should be commended for their unwavering dedication to this mission."
The couple were kidnapped in October of 2012 while on a backpacking trip that took them to Russia, the countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan. Coleman was several months pregnant at the time, "naive," but also "adventuresome" with a humanitarian bent, her father James told The Associated Press in 2012.
The Pakistani military said early Thursday the family was "being repatriated to the country of their origin." But as of Thursday evening, it was not known when they would return to North America. Two Pakistani security officials said the family left by plane from Islamabad on Friday.
The Pakistani military said the family had been freed in "an intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops" after they'd crossed the border from Afghanistan.
Boyle and the High Commissioner for Pakistan to Canada described a scene in which gunshots rang out as Boyle, his wife and their children were intercepted by Pakistani forces while being transported in the trunk of their captors' car. Boyle told his parents there was a shoot-out and that the last words he'd heard from the kidnappers were, "kill the hostage," his father, Patrick told The Toronto Star after speaking with his son. Three intelligence officials said the confrontation happened near a road crossing in the Nawa Kili area of the district of Kohat in northwest Pakistan.
The high commissioner, Tariq Azim Khan, said, "We know there was a shootout and Pakistan commandos carried out an attack and rescued the hostages."
A U.S. military official said that a military hostage team had flown to Pakistan Wednesday, prepared to fly the family out. The team did a preliminary health assessment and had a transport plane ready to go. But sometime after daybreak there, as the family members were walking to the plane, Boyle said he did not want to board.
Another U.S. official said Boyle was nervous about being in "custody" given his family ties.
He was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a senior al-Qaida financier. Her father, the late Ahmed Said Khadr, and the family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy.
The Canadian-born Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured by U.S. troops following a firefight and was taken to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. His sister, Zaynab Khadr, who advocated for her brother's release, and her mother upset many Canadians by expressing pro-al-Qaida views. Officials had discounted any link between that background and Boyle's capture, with one official describing it in 2014 as a "horrible coincidence."
The U.S. Justice Department said neither Boyle nor Coleman are not wanted for any federal crime.
The Toronto Star reported that Boyle spoke to his parents after his release. "Josh said he was doing pretty well for someone who has spent the last five years in an underground prison," his father said.
Coleman's parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, meanwhile, posted a statement on the door of their Pennsylvania home expressing joy. Lyn Coleman said "I am in a state of euphoria, stunned and overjoyed," in an interview with ABC News.
The developments came rapidly Wednesday afternoon —nearly five years to the day after Coleman and Boyle lost touch with their families while traveling in a mountainous region near the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Coleman's parents last had a conversation with their son-in-law on Oct. 8, 2012, via an email sent from an internet cafe he'd described as being in an "unsafe" part of Afghanistan. From then on, there were only desperate, hostage videos released by their captors and hand-scrawled letters mailed home.
"I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing," read one letter the parents shared with the online Circa News service in July 2016, in which Coleman revealed she'd given birth to a second child in captivity. It's unclear whether they knew she'd had a third.
Boyle's parents say their son told them in a letter that he and his wife pretended to the children that their signs of captivity were part of a game being played with guards.
U.S. officials call the Haqqani group a terrorist organization and have targeted its leaders with drone strikes. But the group also operates like a criminal network. Unlike the Islamic State group, it does not typically execute Western hostages, preferring to ransom them for cash.
The Haqqani network had previously demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, a son of the founder of the group, in exchange for turning over the American-Canadian family. In one of the videos released by their captors, Boyle implored the Afghan government not to execute Taliban prisoners or he and his wife would be killed
The U.S. has long criticized Pakistan for failing to aggressively go after the Haqqanis. In recent remarks on his Afghanistan policy, Trump noted billions paid to Pakistan "at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately."
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her country was "greatly relieved" the family was safe, and she thanked the U.S., Afghan and Pakistani governments for their efforts.
U.S. officials have said that several other Americans are being held by militant groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
They include Kevin King, 60, a teacher at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul who was abducted in August 2016, and Paul Overby, an author in his 70s who had traveled to the region several times but disappeared in eastern Afghanistan in mid-2014.
King and Timothy Weeks, a citizen of Australia who also taught at the university, were kidnapped at gunpoint near the American University campus in the Afghan capital. The Taliban have released a video showing the two professors urging President Trump to work with the militant group to secure their release.