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Family of journalist Austin Tice struggles with silence on kidnapping

Austin Tice was kidnapped near Damascus in August. His family went to Beirut recently in hopes of extending their reach into Syria and finding out more about who might be holding him.

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Mr. and Mrs. Tice insist they know next to nothing about their son's current status, only that he is the latest in a string of American journalist kidnappings over the past few years. But the couple have worked to keep the pressure on the parties involved by raising sympathy and compassion in television interviews, including one with Russia's RT.TV Arabic service. They traveled to Beirut for a week in November in hopes that being in the region as they made their plea might prompt action.

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The tactic is not new, but it is effective, says the security contractor. Security firms are often brought in during cases like these to assist governments, families, and employers navigate the confusing, difficult scene.

"Using family members is good to portray the individual as a human being," he says. But he notes that the message that Tice was there for the people of Syria – something that both Tice and his family have said – may not go over as well as one might think.

"Stating that a captive was there for the people of Syria (let's say) creates unwanted attention and hatred with the local population," he says. "More than one person has stated on web pages, 'Why do we care about Tice when thousands are dying every day?'"

Hope from a YouTube video

The last communication Tice's family and employers received was a YouTube video released in September. Posted on a pro-Syrian government website, it seemed to be an attempt to implicate Islamist militants as Tice's captors. But inconsistencies resulted in a nearly unequivocal dismissal of that possibility.

"When the video of Austin came out, a lot of analysts had looked at the video, and it was clear this was kind of a mock-up of guys who were posing to be these Islamic extremists," says Dahlia El Zein, Middle East and North Africa researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.

“This would very much fit into the government line that these Islamic terrorists were causing all this havoc in the country. Based on the track record of information, it appears that it's likely that he would be held within Syrian custody," Ms. El Zein says.

Videos like that one are often the starting point for a search, says the security contractor.

"During many occasions, the only way to begin a search is from videos posted, or messages sought by the abductors. Intel plays a vital role. Where the video was shot, what accents were heard, what type of clothing the abductors wore, the terrain, how the victim is being treated, what the abductors' demands [are]. From gaining sound intel, information could be sought and then the search narrows down to a specific area, neighborhood." he says.

"In Tice's case, the search is cold," the contractor says.

When the government is a suspect

Tice is widely believed to be in custody of the Syrian government. The Czech ambassador to Syria, who represents the US there because its embassy in Damascus was shut down in 2011, said earlier this year that embassy sources say Tice is alive and in the regime's hands. Damascus has denied it.

"At this stage, I would suggest the regime has Tice," the contractor says, nothing that the capital and surrounding areas have a much stronger regime presence than a rebel one. "It would have been very difficult for any reporter to avoid imminent capture by the Assad regime. Is he alive? I would expect so. What would Assad gain from Tice being killed?"


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