Theo Padnos, formally Peter Theo Curtis, was taken hostage in September 2012 and held primarily in Syria by Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda branch. He was freed in August of this year, and in a new piece for The New York Times Magazine, Padnos tells the story of his kidnapping, life in captivity, and eventual release.
Fluent in Arabic and a student of Islam, Padnos was familiar with living in the Middle East. He had moved to Sanaa, Yemen, in 2004, and later Damascus to pursue religious education. He briefly returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2012, before ending up in Antakya, Turkey shortly before his capture that year. A freelance journalist, he pitched a number of stories about "religious issues underlying the conflict" from both the U.S. and Turkey, and came up with the idea to write about how "bitter the divides are between the pious and the secular, the Assad loyalists and the dissidents, the well connected and those who struggle to get by" in Syria. Writing such a piece would require travel through violent, difficult-to-navigate areas: "Almost immediately, I fell into a trap."
Padnos met three young Syrian men, who told him they had been with the Free Syrian Army, and offered to bring him along for a trip into Syria. He went with them and, because he was expecting to be back in a few days, did not tell anyone, not even his roommate, about his plans. These men were his first captors. Affiliates of al-Qaeda, they demanded a ransom, though he was able to escape under the cover of night. Padnos persuaded a passing bus driver to drop him off at a Free Syrian Army headquarters, but officers there did little to help: He was thrown in a cell and then transferred "to a group of Islamists," who ended up being part of Jabhat al-Nusra, another faction in the bloody Syrian civil war.
The militants held him in the Aleppo Children's Hospital, which had been repurposed as a prison. He was harassed by the guards, and denied basic human needs, like using the bathroom. They beat him, interrogated him, shocked him with a cattle prod. Though he was harshly mistreated, Padnos realized there were no immediate plans to kill him. One guard slowly stopped beating him and brought him apples, a rare pleasantry. The others, however, were convinced Padnos was affiliated with the CIA and continued to torture him.
In January 2013, the guards began urging Padnos to convert to Islam. Soon after, he was given a cellmate: the American journalist Matthew Schrier. Schrier converted to Islam, but his treatment did not improve in captivity. Meanwhile, Padnos described his daily conversations with guards: "My guards spent the first 10 minutes trying to get me to accept Islam. Then they gave up. Then they asked if I could introduce them to single women from a Western country."
By the summer 2013, Schrier and Padnos were moved "through a series of ad hoc prisons," and in July 2013, one of their cells had a small window, so they planned an escape. Schrier was able to make it out, and returned to the United States, but Padnos did not. Padnos was then transported to an area near Deir al-Zour—a new prison where the guards were not as harsh, but the prisoners were not allowed to interact with one another, and instead resorted to communicating through whispers.
Padnos also saw firsthand how ISIS came to be at war not just with the Syrian government, but also with other Islamic groups. In May 2014, he learned that Jabhat al-Nusra was losing its struggle with the Islamic State, and in June, guards allowed him to watch television, which showed a map covered in ISIS logos. Around this time, the other prisoners were removed from the jail, leaving only Padnos.
Just before Padnos was released, in July 2014, he was approached directly by Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, one of the highest commanders in al-Nusra. "As a high commander of the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, he controlled the group’s cash and determined which buildings were blown up and which checkpoints attacked. He also decided which prisoners were executed and which were released," wrote Padnos.
Though al-Qaeda was surrounded by ISIS, al-Qahtani seemed unconcerned about his life. He told Padnos, "ISIS are the worst. They have made me very sad." As al-Qahtani and Padnos traveled away from Deir al-Zour, ISIS took hold of the entire province and deemed al-Nusra the enemy, decreeing "fighters were to be shot on sight." When al-Nusra members visited the location where Padnos was held, they had recordings of James Foley's beheading on their phone, and asked it he wanted to see it. "You see what ISIS does to people? What if it happens to you? Would you like that?" they asked.
Americans are commodities for terrorist organizations: They can be killed for the public-shock factor, like Foley. They can be traded for prisoners, like Bowe Bergdahl. However, as these groups have learned, they cannot be easily ransomed. Unlike a number of European governments, the United States does not pay ransoms and families of hostages are pressured not to pay as well. As a result, negotiations for the release of these hostages are extremely delicate, relying heavily on personal and political connections. Padnos was eventually released with the aid of an FBI agent and the American businessman David Bradley, who enlisted the help of Qatari intelligence officials. (Bradley is the owner of Atlantic Media, which includes TheAtlantic.com.)
By the end of his 20-month ordeal, Padnos said he became "almost used to" his brutal situation and captive life. He attempted an escape to a hospital in August, but was brought back to where he was staying with al-Qahtani and his men. Finally, on August 24th, al-Qahtani led him to a truck that said "UN" on the side. His parting words were, "Don't say bad things about us in the press." "I'll just say what's true," Padnos replied.