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.