It was supposed to be an ordinary photo op for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Late December 2017 was a slow time on the Hill, so Trudeau had a few minutes for the Boyles, a family of five who had just escaped years of captivity in Afghanistan.
Joshua Boyle; his wife, Caitlan Coleman; and their three kids were led in. Cameras clicked as daughter Ma’idah Grace, just over a year, bounced on the prime minister’s knee. Dhakwœn Noah, 2, stood nearby while Najæshi Jonah, 5, pushed furniture around. Trudeau nodded as Joshua talked of their imprisonment by the Haqqani network, a group of freelance for-profit kidnappers. Caitlan watched with what seemed like a disinterested look on her face.
Then Trudeau went on with the rest of his day. The Boyle family soon posted photos of their encounter on Twitter under the aptly named handle @BoylesVsWorld. Within hours, Trudeau haters were all over these pictures, pulling apart the family’s story. Strategists in the Prime Minister’s Office woke up to the idea that something had just gone wrong and started digging.
What they found was enough to make them wish Boyle had chosen some other leader to hit up for a photo op — maybe someone like President Donald Trump, who had already leveraged the family’s situation for his own purposes. Within days, things got much, much worse for Trudeau’s spinners when they learned Boyle was locked up at the Innes Road jail.
At first glance, Boyle seemed to be the right kind of guy for a prime ministerial encounter. They’re both Star Wars fans — Trudeau kept Star Wars books and action figures in his office before he became prime minister. But the backstory of the Boyles will keep any pictures from that photo op out of Trudeau’s re-election campaign ads.
Boyle’s father is retired tax court judge Patrick Boyle, and that’s about the end of anything resembling a normal life. The Boyles are devout Christians who home-schooled Joshua at their Smiths Falls home through the elementary grades before sending him to a private Christian high school in southwestern Ontario’s Mennonite country.
As a teenager, Boyle became a Wikipedia editor — part of the nerdy, often pretentious, male-dominated community that types in content for the world’s largest online encyclopedia. During that time, he was also drawn into online Islamic propaganda. The two interests meshed as Boyle spent thousands of hours of unpaid research and writing on Wikipedia as “Sherurcij.” He claimed to have written most of Wikipedia’s entries on Islamic-inspired terrorism. Friends said he did this research to learn more about what attracted people to extremism, but the interest seems to have seeped from his online life into the real world.
He told some friends he would someday like to be a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agent, a spoken fantasy that would someday blow back on him.
In 2002, Boyle was an 18-year-old kid living in a small Toronto apartment, spending his time online. According to the Ottawa Citizen, that’s where he met Caitlan Coleman, manager of a rural Pennsylvania Quiznos. They soon discovered they had common interests in bondage sex and backpacking. Coleman, who had also come from a devout Christian family and was home-schooled, hurried north to move in with Boyle.
The bubble soon burst. Rather than exploring the delights of Canada’s largest metropolis, Coleman found herself cleaning the teen grime from Boyle’s apartment to make it habitable. Boyle later said the bloom went off the rose when Coleman tried to push him into the subway. Whatever happened, Coleman was soon back in the United States and Boyle was between romantic opportunities.
This changed when he met the Khadrs. In 2006, police swept up the Toronto 18, a group of hapless would-be terrorists whose bizarre bombing and assassination plots were supposed to climax with the public beheading of the prime minister. Boyle, now Wikipedia’s self-styled authority on Islamic-themed terrorism, showed up at their court hearings. So did Zaynab Khadr and her mother, who were also agitating for the return of Omar Khadr, Zaynab’s younger brother.
Boyle was drawn to these celebrities. Zaynab Khadr, who had become a target of online hatred after she denounced Western morality on a CBC television interview, avoided Boyle because someone in their overlapping circle of friends had told her of Boyle’s fantasy of joining CSIS. But Boyle didn’t give up, and by 2008 they were engaged — and Boyle was acting as the spokesman for the Khadr family.
They tied the knot at Toronto City Hall in 2009. She was 29, he was 25, and this was her third marriage. Her marital life had had its ups and downs. Her first husband was on the run for bombing Egypt’s embassy in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was guest of honour at her second wedding, partly because Khadr’s father, who had been killed by Pakistani security forces in 2003, had been one of bin Laden’s most important bagmen.
After she met Boyle, Khadr continued to be a dial-a-quote for journalists looking for inflammatory copy. She obliged with tirades on the decadence of Western child-rearing and justified the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Boyle always stuck by his wife. “Are any of us honestly able to say that we have never uttered any phrases which, if they ran beside our name in the paper every month for five years, would paint an unflattering mental image in the public perception?” he asked, adding, “Let he without sin cast the first stone.”
Plenty of people seemed willing to do just that, both in the online world where Boyle spent most of his time and in real life.
Someone broke into Boyle’s parents’ house in Smiths Falls by busting through the front door. They rifled through documents and put several bullet holes in the windows. Boyle was sure the break-in was about him: the Khadrs had given him documents that were supposed to be used for a book about the family. These were gone, missing from his parents’ house, where he had stored them.
“I’m sure I don’t have to speculate for you on the meaning of .22 calibre bullets fired from close range through residential windows following an unwarranted break-in by an intruder who left behind all the jewelry, cash and valuables in the house,” he wrote in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen. “Perhaps somebody is unhappy that the Boyles are highlighting to the public just how human the Khadrs really are.”
Despite the gallantry, this marriage quickly fell apart. In 2011, just a few months after his divorce from Khadr was granted, Boyle reunited with Caitlan Coleman. They spent a few months in the New Brunswick town of Perth-Andover, where Boyle worked in a call centre and studied Islam. They continued to have a rocky relationship.
Nevertheless, according to the Citizen, they tied the knot in Central America, then broke up, filed for divorce, reconciled, and left for Asia in 2012. When they left, Coleman was in her second trimester of pregnancy, but that didn’t stop the couple from going to one of the most dangerous regions on earth.
They travelled though Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. These are backwaters that few people visit. Boyle claimed he was there to write freelance travel articles for Western media. Coleman had agreed to go if Boyle promised not to go into Afghanistan.
They went to Afghanistan.
Boyle gives differing reasons for going. He says he wanted to do volunteer aid work yet claims in a court document to have been trying to break into journalism. In 2012, the Haqqani, a Taliban-allied group, snatched them from a cab in Kabul. Coleman was five months pregnant.
Their captivity was particularly odd. In sworn affidavits that are now part of a court record, Coleman accuses Boyle of being controlling, while Boyle says he worked hard and suffered much to ensure his family survived.
These kinds of court affidavits should be looked on with some skepticism. As court documents, they are protected from the laws of libel, which means angry litigants — and no litigants are angrier than family-law litigants — can say what they like without fear. But they can also be full of exaggeration, half-truths, and lies.
Boyle says Coleman was always unstable and accuses her of hoarding medicine, which she used in a suicide attempt. He claims she neglected their children; he, on the other hand, home-schooled the children, made a small garden, and gave up some of his food. He carved wooden toys for them and caught mice that the kids kept as pets.
According to Boyle, he did so much for them that his Taliban-allied captors said he was “both mother and father.” The Haqqanis did not mean this in an approving way.
The Haqqanis tried to trade the Boyles for the son of their leader, who had been picked up by the Afghan government. Those negotiations went nowhere — young Sirajuddin Haqqani was a far bigger prize to the Afghans — so the militants became more brutal. The Boyles’ first baby, Martyr, died because of ill treatment, and the kidnappers sexually assaulted Coleman. They forced her to have an abortion.
This cruelty lasted for the next five years in 19 hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the kidnappers tried to get Boyle to join them, he says he refused, having described them as “ghetto trash gangbangers.”
In court filings, Coleman says Boyle somehow blamed her for their grim situation, “depicting me as an enemy in his life.”
“The guards would separate us for a few days, weeks, or months at a time,” she says. “When we were returned together, J.B. [Boyle] would accuse me of betraying him by accepting niceties from the guards and not asking for him more often,” she says in her court filings.
In her affidavit, she strongly suggests Boyle and his captors were on the same wavelength and she didn’t share their radical ideology. “I would like to stress, most strongly, that for more than a decade, the respondent [Boyle] has had an interest in extremist ideologies and in the complete subservience of women.”
And, she notes, he had been married to Zaynab Khadr.
But both parents suffered during captivity. The Taliban’s propaganda arm released several photos and two videos of the family. Neither parent was healthy.
Boyle’s family in Canada was appalled by how he looked. His parents and sisters didn’t even know how many children the couple had. They heard mention of the “surviving” children and grieved.
One of Boyle’s sisters, who was still living at the family home in Smiths Falls, wrote to the Toronto Star about “the clanking of leg chains shackled around my brother in that December video … the terrifying, despairing blankness in his eyes during a previous video that I now think may have been connected to the fact they have the qualifier of ‘surviving’ children.”
Within a year of the release of the second video, the Boyle-Coleman family was rescued by Pakistani troops who had been tipped to the movements of their captors’ convoys by U.S. intelligence agents. Donald Trump told reporters the rescue of the Boyles by the Pakistanis, whose intelligence service very likely had sheltered bin Laden, was a sign of growing trust and co-operation between the two sort-of allies.
So a Trudeau photo op didn’t seem so out of line. Yet after the meeting on December 19, Trudeau was scolded online for doing a selfie with this mysterious family of dubious loyalties.
Then things got worse.
On December 30, 2017, Boyle was arrested for a half-dozen charges, including assault and trying to drug a victim with the antidepressant Trazodone. (The names of the alleged victims are shielded by a court order.) Boyle was released from jail in June 2018 and faces trial in March 2019.
In the end, the story of the Boyles and their years of captivity was written up on Wikipedia. Some of the writing was done by someone writing under the name “JoshuaBoyleIsAwesome.” Eventually, “TheCelluloidvoid” took over.
Like the Boyle story, the Wikipedia entry has morphed over the years. And, like the Wikipedia entry, the Boyle family story may always have serious holes in it.