Monday, 12 November 2012

What has Happened to Austin Tice? (Updated 13/11/2012)

UPDATED (13/11/2012 @ 12:40pm)

Bilal Hussein, Associated Press - Marc and Debra Tice spoke of their fears for their missing son at a press conference in Beirut last night.

Austin Tice's parents have appealed for information on their son's whereabouts at a press conference last night from the Lebanon.  Marc and Debra Tice stated that in correspondence with the Syrian government they have failed to gain any further information on the location of their son. After having sent a Twitter message to the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi, he responded "“If he is to be found inside Sy. I am def sure ur gov will B notified. R u sure he is inside Syria? Reports he entered illegally.”

When UN military observers went to Syria earlier this year, they were targeted by Syrian forces and were forced to withdraw. International coverage of the situation was stifled by pressure applied by the government to international envoys and foreign journalists who attempted to cover the events taking place. Tice's parents stated on their website that Austin travelled to Syria to report on the lives of civilians affected by the conflict: "It is our son’s love for the people, especially the children, of this region which compelled him to come here as a journalist."

Marc and Debra Tice described the absence of their 'cherished son and beloved brother' whose absence at this time of the year was especially difficult. Marc Tice asked that "whoever is holding Austin to please treat him well, keep him safe and return him to us as soon as you can".


Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist, former Marine and Georgetown University Law student, travelled to Syria this summer to cover the violent anti-Assad uprising and on-going civil war. He embedded with Syrian rebels and documented life in one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. His work gave an insight into the lives of rebels, the ordinary people of Syria and those whose lives have been changed irreversibly by revolution. The Syrian government is incredibly hostile to international journalists as it fears that a sympathetic international community would provide support by means of arming and financing the rebels, or that there would be a direct international militarised action against the state. For these reasons, Syria was an incredibly dangerous place for Austin Tice to be.

Austin Tice had been providing articles to McClatchey, CBS and the English version of Al-Jazeera with coverage from the front-lines of the conflict. Tice's last communication with the outside world occurred on the 13th of August in email correspondence with colleagues. Since his disappearance, it is believed that he has been kidnapped by government forces. The source of these beliefs come from a video uploaded to Youtube on the 26th of September by a user called Khalidfree75.

The video has come under widespread scrutiny, as it fails to fit with the common traits of other videos from the conflict. The Free Syrian Army, or Jabhat al Nusra is the strongest of the anti-government forces. They have produced their own videos which have a different style to that of the video of depicting Austin Tice. Open Briefing, the UK think tank/public intelligence agency have analysed the 'Austin Tice still alive' video and pointed out many of these flaws. They point out a number of discrepancies between the Khalidfree75 video and the usual jihadist videos:

  • The clothing of the soldiers appears freshly laundered or is new. They are also wearing Afghani/Pakistani pashtuns. Most videos from the conflict show men wearing tracksuits, t-shirts and a mix of combat fatigues.
  • None of the armed men are identifiable. In a significant proportion of videos from the conflict, rebels are clearly identifiable, talk to the camera and are willing to have their faces shown throughout. 
  • The user Khalidfree75 has uploaded only this video. Most users who upload footage from the conflict have uploaded several videos from several different engagements with Assad forces.
  • The video is short, has received no editing and does not display the prominent logos or prayers from the Qu'ran typical of Jabhat al Nusra videos.
The video below shows the stark contrast between the Khalidfree75 video and other footage from the conflict: (Be aware: this video contains graphic imagery of a man shot dead at 5:45)

Open Briefing have shown that the Khalidfree75 video was first shared on opposition Facebook pages before receiving widespread coverage in international media when it was shared on a pro-Assad Facebook page. Most intelligence analysts believe that the video was a ham-fisted attempt at portraying opposition rebels as the kidnappers and executors, which would portray them in a negative light internationally.

The most prominent fact of the situation is the logical reasoning behind the video. A journalist sympathetic to their cause would be of great benefit to the rebels. Austin Tice previously served with the United States Marine Corps as a forward air traffic controller. (Source: Austin Tice's Linkedin page). This duty entails directing close air-support from attack helicopters or low flying attack aircraft such as A-10's or AC-130's on to targets in close proximity to US ground troops. While the Syrian rebels would obviously lack this type of weaponry, Tice would have been able to provide support, advice and tactics to rebels and would have been considered a valuable asset to them. It just doesn't make sense to kidnap and execute the sympathetic, useful journalist who's covering your plight and who could provide you with military intelligence.

The McClatchey news website has reported that the Syrian government have since gone on to say through a Facebook post that Tice was believed to be a CIA/Mossad agent, who was involved in the killing of three Syrian pilots and had been captured by the Syrian military. The Syrian government deny that they know of Tice's whereabouts, but say that he is facing the death penalty for his involvement in the killings. They don't provide a link to this post though and no other news website has covered this statement.

Whatever has happened to Austin Tice, he has undoubtedly paid the most extreme price for travelling to Syria. His whereabouts are unknown, there is no prospect of his return and the situation in Syria continues to worsen. If he was a freelance journalist and not an agent of the CIA, he has attempted to provide an insight that so few are willing to provide. The reality of life in Syria must be documented. It is the duty of the international community to provide assistance to those who are persecuted, whose lives can be made better through the peaceful resolution of conflict. Failure by the West to address the situation in Syria in a meaningful way will only further radicalise a militarised population of young men, whose attention could soon be turned against those who chose to stand by.

 The inaction of those with the power to save life are a cause to the disservice of our shared humanity. 

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