A puzzling YouTube clip has emerged of Austin Tice, the freelance journalist from Houston who has been missing in Syria since mid-August.
The 47-second cell phone clip, posted on September 26, provides the world’s first glimpse of Tice since he went missing reportedly near the Damascus suburb of Darayya.
The video—which appears to have been filmed with a cell phone by someone with an unsteady hand—opens with a shot of a ramshackle convoy of vehicles on a dirt road driving alongside brush-covered hills. Then, the footage cuts to a group of men clutching assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and shouting “Allahu Akbar” while hustling Tice up a hillside. Tice, wearing a black blindfold and a green shirt, appears distressed and is compelled to recite a prayer in Arabic before sighing and adding, in English, “Oh Jesus, oh, Jesus.”
Tice, an Eagle Scout and the eldest of seven children, grew up in Houston and attended the University of Houston for a year before transferring to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which he graduated from in 2002. He went on to join the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer, rising to the rank of captain and serving combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enrolled in Georgetown Law School, where he is now a third-year student. (Watch Tice talk about his service in this interview.)
This summer, rather than clerking at a law firm like many of his classmates, the 31-year-old flew to Turkey and trekked across the border in Syria without a visa (as is common practice for journalists covering the conflict), and spent his time filing dispatches and taking photos from behind rebel lines for McClatchy and the Washington Post.
Tice’s friends and family have not heard from him since mid-August, and, according to reports from Czech diplomats (the U.S., after shuttering its embassy in February, currently does not have a diplomatic presence in the country), Tice is in the custody of the Syrian government.
The new, undated video, uploaded on September 26 and titled “Austin Tice is Alive,” seems to suggest a different possibility, that perhaps Tice is in the custody of Islamic militants. Tice’s colleagues and family have verfied that he appears in the video. However, as the Washington Post‘s James Ball writes, “[e]xperts 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.”
First, the clothes aren’t right. Joseph Holliday, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on Syrian rebels, told the Post that the men in the video are wearing salwar-kameez, garments favored by Afghan men. “The video would mark the first time Syrian rebels have been seen wearing such clothes,” Ball wrote, citing Holliday.
Stylistic differences also exist between this clip and known jihadi videos, as Ball writes:
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.
And, at the New York Times, David D. Kirkpatrick notes that “the call-and-response of ‘God is great’ seems unpracticed and out of sync. … And it was unusual for Islamist militants to force Mr. Tice, a non-Muslim, to recite a Muslim prayer for a video.”
Instead, the video resembles “a caricature of a jihadi group,” Holliday told Bell. “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.
The State Department could not confirm any details about the video, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a briefing on Monday:
We’ve seen the video. We are not in a position to verify, (a) whether it’s him, (b) whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged. There’s a lot of reason for the Syrian Government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian Government custody.
Tice’s editors at the Post and McClatchy also did not rush to judgment over the clip, according to McClatchy’s Hannah Allam. “Tice’s editors stressed that there was too little information to draw any solid conclusion from the brief footage other than that he was captured alive – welcome news after so many weeks of silence,” she wrote.
And, in a statement to McClatchy, Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, reiterated their calls for their son’s safe return:
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. 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 FBI is now looking into his disappearance, Allam reported. For more details about Tice’s reporting from Syria and an interview with his translator, see Mike Giglio’s story in the Daily Beast.
On August 13, the last day Tice was in contact with his editors, KUHF aired an interview Ed Mayberry conducted with Tice via phone. Tice described watching street fighting where rebels used molotov cocktails and “any weapon you can basically imagine in an urban street fighting environment.”
“It was pretty exciting! But I was able to get some pretty good shots that way, and tell a pretty good story afterwards, that I think otherwise, you know, never would have gotten told,” he told Mayberry.
On his LinkedIn profile, Tice discusses his desire to become a journalist:
My background is an an infantry officer in the USMC. I also went to law school. I would prefer to be a journalist. To that end I went to Syria in the summer of 2012 to cover the war there. Had some decent professional success. I would prefer to work for one organization over freelancing. I can write, film, snap and speak, so if your organization is looking for an all-in-one crisis correspondent willing to get the stories others won’t, call me.
I speak passable Spanish and I’m slowly getting there with Arabic. I’m not so great behind a desk.
Tice goes on to list his “Skills & Expertise,” including “military leadership,” “weapons,” “digital photography,” “legal research,” and “jokes.”
After his disappearance, the Washington Post republished one of Tice’s Facebook posts from July in which he asks his family and friends to “quit telling him to be safe” and traveling to Syria to document the civil war as “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”