Syria: The View From a Former Hostage

The journalist Theo Padnos describes his ordeal, and what the U.S. should do in the region.

Theo Padnos next to his mother, Nancy Curtis (Max Taylor)

Nancy Curtis found out her son was missing while she was trying to help him choose a wood stove for their house in Vermont. She and her son, a freelance reporter in Turkey trying to get into Syria for a few days, had a daily email exchange—“do we want the Defiant or do we want the whatever, and what color do we want?” she recalled. “And all of a sudden I didn’t hear from him.”

It was October 2012, and Padnos was traveling into Syria with two or three men he thought were fixers with the Free Syrian Army. Padnos had extensive experience in the region, having lived in Yemen for two years and written a book on Islam. His traveling companions were friendly; he spent the night in an abandoned house with them before interviewing them in the morning. “After about 15 minutes I ran out of questions,” he recalled at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday. “And I turned to them—there was three of them sitting in front of me, like this—I said ok ... I’m done with my questions. And they stood up and came at me. … Handcuffs, and they tied up my legs, and they said ‘We’re from the al-Qaeda organization, didn’t you know?’ And that’s how it began for me.”

“What was going through your mind?” The Atlantic’s James Bennet asked him.


Padnos described his nearly two-year captivity under Jabhat al-Nusra, which he has also written about in The New York Times, and which Lawrence Wright has detailed, along with the stories of four others who didn’t survive their captivity, in The New Yorker.

For months and months and months they were just beating me. … They would pretend that this was an interrogation, but they weren’t taking notes. …They were not after specific information. My feeling is that the function of the torture is for them—it’s an initiation ceremony that deepens the commitment of, especially the children, always the children were involved.

And it’s frightening for the children to participate in this, and it alters the psychology of the children. Listen, the entire environment is frightening, particularly when they’re bombing. And that bombing alters the psychology of the children. Then they bring them down into the basement, they supply the kids with the torture instruments, and they say, have at him. And the kids are like, ‘I don’t really want to.’ But they do, eventually. And that alters them, over time it alters them.

In my view all the outsiders, the midway Muslims, people who aren’t totally committed—they get committed through the violence. And so the more violence exists in this culture, the worse it is for us.

Given this story—given that Padnos, more than anyone else who recommended courses of action for the U.S. to pursue in Syria at the forum on Wednesday, has direct experience of the conflict there—his own recommendation for what the U.S. should do was striking.

“I think we should send them aid,” he said of his captors. “We should send them chocolates and blankets and—I think we have to be nicer to them. We can keep killing these people, but more will come. I remember Stanley McChrystal’s insurgent math—if you have 10, and you kill two, you don’t get eight, you get 20. This is truer in Syria. The bombs, I think, spread the hatred.”

As for her son’s recovery, Curtis said Padnos is doing fine now. “He has endured horrific experience, as have the other families, but I think it was helpful that he was a mature man. … He’s come out wise, and deeper, and whole.”

To which Padnos responded: “Thanks, mom.”