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Caitlin Coleman and Joshua BoyleCourtesy of the Coleman Family/The Associated Press

A former federal intelligence official argues that the Canadian government's no-ransoms-for-hostages stand is an outdated and even hypocritical posture that needs to be reconsidered for the sake of citizens held abroad.

Andy Ellis, a top Canadian Security Intelligence Service official until last year, makes this argument in a essay published Thursday in The Globe and Mail. He urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do more to facilitate the release of Joshua Boyle, a Canadian citizen held in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region since 2012, along with his American wife and their two sons, who were born in captivity.

Andrew Ellis: Canada must do more for the taken

Former federal officials rarely offer opinions on the government's often-murky role in such hostage negotiations, arguing that public discussion complicates cases. And like its closest allies in Britain and the United States, the Canadian government maintains that it never pays ransoms to terrorists, since doing so is a crime that could induce terrorists to capture more citizens in the future.

But Mr. Ellis, who has publicly advocated for several detained Canadians abroad since starting a private consultancy last year, says such logic is flawed. He challenges politicians, civil servants and federal security officials to think differently.

His essay goes so far as to allege that government officials often take better care of their colleagues in such circumstances, than ordinary citizens. "If it were the family of a federal minister or bureaucrat, however, a ransom would be paid," Mr. Ellis writes.

CSIS is Canada's lead counterterrorism agency and it has sent intelligence officers abroad in hopes of resolving such hostage situations. Mr. Ellis served as the agency's assistant director of operations and other senior roles that made him privy to clandestine activities.

He retired in early 2016 to co-found a private security firm known as the ICEN Group. He now says that when it comes to ransoms, it would be better if federal officials took their cues from a subtle 2015 shift in American policy.

That year, the U.S. Justice Department explicitly stated that American families who paid ransoms to terrorist groups abroad would no longer risk being prosecuted for running afoul of anti-terrorist financing laws. Canadian officials could similarly turn a blind eye, Mr. Ellis argues.

"The Boyles and families like them need to avail themselves of all the options at their disposal to protect their loved ones," he writes. "They must be free from the fear of prosecution hanging over their heads if they participate in the payment of a ransom."

Mr. Ellis's rise at CSIS coincided with a spate of high-profile international hostage crises that started about a decade ago. In that period, several Canadians citizens – including Mr. Boyle – were abducted by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Sahel region of Africa. This prompted federal diplomats, soldiers and intelligence officials to form ad hoc coalitions over what could be done in each case.

Many crises were resolved after Canadians walked free after spending months or years of captivity, for reasons that remain murky and officially unexplained. Since being elected in late 2015, the Liberal government has had a mixed record on freeing hostages.

Shortly after the party took power, the case of another Canadian held in Afghanistan was resolved. Colin Rutherford was freed from five years of Taliban captivity in December, 2015. A few months later, two Canadians were killed in the Philippines by a terrorist faction that had demanded payment for their release.

At that time of the Philippine killings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the government's position that "Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly."

This rule appears to have been broken at times, however.

Two former Canadian civil servants – including former deputy defence minister Robert Fowler – were doing work for the United Nations when they were abducted by an al-Qaeda-affiliated faction in Niger in 2008. Dozens of federal officials, including from CSIS, ventured to West Africa to try to free them, before that crisis suddenly ended six months later with their release.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper publicly denied facilitating the payment of any ransoms, but correspondence that later leaked asserted otherwise. U.S. diplomatic cables from Mali suggested American envoys were angered that Canada had paid a ransom. Letters later recovered from al-Qaeda leaders in Africa showed they were chagrined too – because their subordinates only extracted $1-million, thereby "trading the weightiest case (Canadian diplomats!!) for the most meagre price!!"

Mr. Ellis states in his essay that Mr. Boyle's captors are "the notorious, Taliban-aligned, Haqqani network." Though that group has not explicitly demanded a ransom, they last year threatened to kill Mr. Boyle and his family if demands went unmet. The boys were born after Mr. Boyle and his pregnant American wife, Caitlin Coleman, were captured in Afghanistan in 2012.

A year and a half earlier, Mr. Rutherford was taken in the same region. The two cases are similar in that both involve young 20-something men from Toronto who decided to vacation in an effective war zone along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When Mr. Rutherford was released in late 2015, the foreign affairs minister of the day, Stéphane Dion, thanked the Gulf nation of Qatar for intervening.

Hostage talks can involve a litany of officials from Western states, their regional allies, failed or failing states, and also terrorist groups. A U.S. soldier revealed a couple of years ago how he had been tasked with simultaneously negotiating the release of a captured American soldier as well as Mr. Rutherford, Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman, and an American civilian later killed accidentally in a U.S. drone strike.

While the captive soldier was freed in an apparent U.S. prisoner swap with the Taliban, the others were not. "The civilian hostages were forgotten during the negotiations with the Taliban. In that respect, I failed miserably," the negotiator, Lieutenant-Colonel Jason Amerine, later stated. Mr. Ellis argues the Canadian government can do better by the Boyle family.

Mr. Ellis describes the captive couple as "harmless hippies" who became parents in the worst circumstances imaginable. At the very least, he argues, Ottawa officials can turn a blind eye to any payment of any ransom that might be negotiated.

The former CSIS official writes that "the Canadian position on the prohibition of the payment of ransoms may appear laudable in some circumstances but it ties the bureaucracy in knots."

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