Theo Padnos' Remarkable Account of Captivity and Torture

In the New York Times, Peter Theo Curtis, aka Theo Padnos, provides a detailed and fascinating account of his 2 years as an Al Nusra hostage in Syria. He is now home in Vermont, having been released in August, days after the James Foley execution, when Qatar finalized negotiations with al Nusra for his release, reportedly after Qatar paid a big ransom (which Qatar denies.) al Nusra is every bit as brutal as ISIS, and their only differences, according to Padnos, are over which one will control Syria's oil fields.

Padnos' account of his abuse and captivity is very compelling reading. So are his timeline and description of the Free Syrian Army "moderate rebels" and al Nusra's second in command, Abu Mariya (or Maria) al Qahtani, which is what I focus on below: [More...]

Padnos begins his account by saying the "emir" of al Nusrah, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, personally assumed control over Padnos at the end and told him he would be released. Then he goes back to the beginning, when he was captured, and tells his story in more or less chronological order.

Padnos was kidnapped in October, 2012 by men who told him they were with Tanzim al-Qaeda (which later became associated with Jabhat al Nusra.)

Initially he was held at the Children's Hospital in Aleppo. He tried to escape, and went to the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, the "moderate rebels" the U.S. was hoping to arm and train. He says the FSA jailed him, tortured him and turned him over to al Nusrah.

The F.S.A., it turned out, had given me to the Nusra Front, or Jebhat al Nusra, which was using the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo as a headquarters and a prison. The chief of the Children’s Hospital jail was a Turkish-speaking Kurd who liked to be called Sheikh Kawa,.

That's where James Foley was held for a while, before his captors teamed up with ISIS and moved him to Raqqa. Foley and Cantlie were kidnapped together near Idlib, Syria close to the Turkish border, in November, 2012.

For a time, Mr Foley and others were held in a basement beneath a children’s hospital in Aleppo, before their captors joined up with Isis and moved their hostages to Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as Isis calls itself.

But it doesn't seem like Padnos was there at the same time as Foley and Cantlie, or even held by the same group.

In early 2013, Padnos says he was moved around a lot.

We were held in a villa on the outskirts of Aleppo, in a shuttered grocery store, at a shipping warehouse and in the basement of a Department of Motor Vehicles branch.

In mid-2013, after another Western prisoner, Matthew Schrier escaped, Padnos was moved to Deir Ezzor, which is not far from Raqqa, but 6 hours from Aleppo. He says he stayed there a long time, and he then jumps to May, 2014, when he says although he didn't know it at the time, al Nusra was losing to ISIS:

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Nusra Front was losing its war with the Islamic State, the group often referred to as ISIS. From conversations with guards and other prisoners, I gleaned that the two organizations were about equal in strength and that under no circumstances would the Islamic State be allowed to touch the oil fields, the real prize in Syria’s east.

In June, 2014, al Nusra stopped construction on a prison next to where Padnos was being held and moved every prisoner except him.

Then, on July 3, al Qahtani tells him to start packing, they are going to the Golan Heights where he will be returned to his family. This is also the day he told Padnos they were surrounded by ISIS but he'd be safe as long as he was with him. Padnos writes:

In the early morning hours of July 3, one of the two top commanders of Al Qaeda in Syria summoned me from my jail cell....He wanted to make sure I knew his name. I did, and I repeated it for him: Abu Mariya al-Qahtani.....Good,” he said. “You know that ISIS has us surrounded?”
I did not know this.

...He shrugged his shoulders. “Not to worry. They won’t get me. They won’t get you. Everywhere I go, you go. Understand?” I nodded.

...That night, I was driven from a converted schoolroom outside the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where I was being held, to an intersection of desert paths five minutes away. We drove to a residential compound next to an oil field near the Euphrates. For the rest of the night, I watched as some 200 foot soldiers and 25 or so religious authorities and hangers-on from the Afghan jihad prepared for their journey.

They left at 4 am, apparently just before ISIS arrived to take the oil field.

July 3, 2014 was the day that ISIS captured the Al Omar oil fields, north of Mayadin, from al Nusra, saying in a video that al Nusra "fled like rats." News reports say there was no fighting.

The next day, July 4, ISIS took the al Tanak oil field on the Euphrates near Deir Ezzor from al Nusra. When ISIS arrived, as with al Omar, al Nusra had retreated and was nowhere in sight.

Padnos and al Qahtani must have been either at al Omar or al Tanak, hours before ISIS took it. (If Padnos' dates are correct, it was al Tanak.) It sounds like al Qahtani had a heads up.

Padnos writes:

For the next 10 days, our caravan snaked its way through the dunes. We dodged the patrols of the Syrian Air Force, skirted the government’s outlying military bases, sneaked past hostile Druze villages. And then one night, after traveling several hundred miles, our train of pickups and Kia Rios arrived at a ridgeline bunker about 20 miles east of Damascus.

Did al Qahtani pick the Golan Heights because he knew he'd be releasing Padnos there to the U.N.? Or was he fleeing ISIS?

Padnos writes:

It was nothing less than an abandonment of the oil fields, the military bases, the prisons and everything else the Nusra Front had worked to control for some two and a half years. We had made a dash for our lives.

While at the place near Damascus and the Golan Heights, Padnos had the chance to speak with some FSA rebels.

I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?” “Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

He also chatted with the al Nusra fighters.

“Your practice of Islam is exactly the same as ISIS — you admire the same scholars and interpret the Quran just as they do?” “Yes,” they agreed. “All of this is true.”

The differences between them, Padnos says, are over oil.

The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.

In mid-July, al Qahtani started promising Theo Padnos he'd be going home soon. Theo didn't believe him and tried to escape. He went to a hospital:

"By this point, I knew better than to seek refuge among the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army.

But the hospital was controlled by the FSA, and not surprisingly, they returned him to al Nusra and al Qahtani. Al Qahtani told him:

“You are a Nazarene liar and a sneak, Bitar,” he said. “This afternoon, I will execute you by my own hand.”

But he didn't kill him. It sounds like ransom negotiations with Qatar were already underway and he didn't want to kill his golden egg.

Curiously, while Theo writes that during this period at the place near Damascus and the Golan Heights, the Nusra fighters were discussing whether it was better to fight for ISIS, and how easy it was to switch, he doesn't mention that on July 31, al Nusra's #1 leader, al Jolani, fired al Qahtani, accusing him of causing defections to ISIS.

al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, dismissed his 2nd in command, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, saying he was behind the recent desertions of JaN fighters to the Islamic State.

Questions: After July 31, who was al Qahtani working for, if not al Nusra? Was he dismissed or just demoted or stripped of his command post at Deir Ezzor? Who made the final the deal with Qatar? Who received the ransom that Qatar reportedly paid?

Weeks pass, and Padnos up to mid August. He writes that al Nusra leaders had a meeting at the villa near the Golan Heights where he was being held. It has to be after August 19, because he says several had the James Foley execution video on their cells phone. He writes he responded that he had already seen it, but they kept trying to get him to watch it again.

On August 24, al Qhantani told him to pack his things, he was going home. He ordered some fighters to go to a store and buy Padnos a new track suit. He was then driven to a place where U.N. soldiers were waiting to take him the Golan Heights and freedom.

Going back to Padnos and al Qahtani's flight from the oil fields on July 3-4, I think it's interesting that July 4 was also the day the U.S. staged its raid near an oil refinery in Northern Syria to free James Foley. Here's an article from July 4 about it (use Google translate.) which describes the place as in the alakirshi (aka Ukayrishah) area near the training camp known as camp Sheikh "Osama bin Laden." This in Raqqa, near the al Tabaq air base. Here's an article on the raid written at the time it occurred. I wrote a long post on it here.

It seems like all three of these events were going on at the same time in the same general area: Padnos being moved from Deir Ezzor to the oil field near Raqqa, Padnos and al Nusra abandoning the oil field, and the U.S. staging an attack to free Foley near an oil field near Raqqa.

The U.S. says the raid failed because Foley had been moved. Many have criticized Obama for delaying the raid to save Foley by at least a month. After reading Padnos account, I wonder if Obama, who undoubtedly was aware of the Qatar negotiations to free Padnos, which presumably had begun in earnest before or during June, was concerned that one release effort might jeopardize the other, if they happened too close together and believing Padnos' release was imminent, as did al Qahtani, put a hold on the Foley rescue.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the timeline, or reading too much into it, in my attempt to connect some dots, but I do get the sense there's a larger picture here.

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