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 is 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 is 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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    This highlights (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Reconstructionist on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 09:42:42 AM EST
      the simple truth that from the Mediterranean to Pakistan there is literally no group (including governments)  with which we can "partner" on any principled  basis beyond temporal greater mutual antagonism to a different group.* Any and all "alliances" will have unintended, unpredictable and likely adverse consequences.

      This would be true even if the groups were relatively static as to internal membership and external relationships with other groups.

      As to Syria, the only one I see benefitting at all is Assad.

    * note I do not include access to oil a principled basis.

    Isolationism (none / 0) (#3)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 10:23:11 AM EST
    And it won't work in today's world.  Sorry, won't work.  It too will likely have unintended, unpredictable and likely adverse consequences.    We have grow up and show up and begin to communicate and debate, starting with human rights.  Too many people on the globe now to not have global discussions and debates.

    I didn't call for isolationism. (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Reconstructionist on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 10:31:43 AM EST
      I stated reality. You will note I did not claim the only response to this reality is for us to disengage from that region let alone the entire world.

      The point is the decisions we make must be grounded in reality. One can make "rational" decisions that are not principled and which we accept will have unintended, unpredictable  and likely adverse consequences.

      When we make decisions based on current conditions and  short-term interests, we need to reach those decisions through a process that weighs the reality I described against the perceived short-term interests advanced.


    Your reality is based on your (none / 0) (#5)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 10:48:58 AM EST
    Belief system and your hang ups, just as much as anyone else's and you are proposing an isolationism.

    The reality IS, the Arab Spring is still underway, it is in mid-season according to sociologists.

    There is always a backlash to social change.  Our involvement with individuals who have the ability to create a rule of law Middle East is not wasted energy or wasted involvement, our saying NO to turning a blind eye to genocide is not wasted energy or involvement..in fact that action and energy starts fresh discussions about human rights and preserving them, our attempt to seat regional powers all at the same table IS NOT wasted energy, attacking and killing the leadership of organizations planning attacks upon the United States and its citizens is hardly wasted energy.  And failed states in our age nurture terrorism....we all know that!

    Who promised you a rose garden?  Who promised you mankind wouldn't have to deal with such challenges?  Who promised you that members of your nation didn't have to GET ANY ON THEM?  It is a free country so you don't have to participate in any of this.  But many of us in acknowledging the future do not see any way we can get out of this by just sitting it out or not getting any on us.  Irrational extremist leaders and organizations are still going to target us.

    The days of governments and their leaders being able to just sit such things out are gone, at least for awhile.


    Reconstructionist did not... (none / 0) (#8)
    by unitron on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 05:36:24 PM EST
    ...call for isolationism, he or she just pointed out that the nature of the ME means we'll be better off with temporary "enemy of my enemy is useful at the moment" alliances which are subject to constant review and revision.

    Perhaps you did as I often do and read through too quickly.


    My take MT (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jack203 on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 07:27:39 PM EST
    "The reality IS, the Arab Spring is still underway, it is in mid-season according to sociologists."

    So far the Arab Winter has been terrible.  The only winners have been violent extremists.  
    It is such a shame as before Bush's misadventures in Iraq the moderates and Democracy proponents were gaining huge momentum in Iran. That came to a screeching halt with our hubris to think we can push Democracy by bombing them.

    Our culture can do more to influence the Middle East than our bombs can ever do.   The more we try with our military, the worse it gets.  We have to be very careful with applying our military power.  The results seem clear enough to me for every terrorist we kill, we create two or three more.

    The best thing we can do to influence is to ignore them.  If they didn't hate us for meddling them, the vast majority would choose our culture than the lunatics over at ISIS.  Instead we shoot ourselves in the foot over there by trying to persuade them by bombing them.

    "our saying NO to turning a blind eye to genocide is not wasted energy or involvement."

    I do agree with this.  I do think protecting the Kurds was one of the only justifications for interfering.  I am very fearful the neocons will come back to power and reverse everything Obama tried to untangle us from.

    "our attempt to seat regional powers all at the same table IS NOT wasted energy, "

    I agree.  I hope we are doing it with the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria.

    "And failed states in our age nurture terrorism....we all know that!"

    After 12 years of heavy involvement, there are more failed states and more hatred for us than ever.  At the rate we are going the whole middle east will be one giant failed state.  One more neocon president, and there is a good chance we can do it!


    Or, (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by lentinel on Sat Nov 01, 2014 at 07:31:11 AM EST
    it could all be about oil.

    Obama would like a new authorization (none / 0) (#12)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Nov 11, 2014 at 09:26:58 PM EST
    I read because he fears the next President abusing the power.  I suppose the chances of getting a new authorization with more limiting parameters is nil now.

    I haven't read any sociologists either (none / 0) (#13)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Nov 11, 2014 at 10:25:53 PM EST
    Who point to our "meddling" being a cause for any sort of Arab Spring failure either.  What seems to be the real problem? A lack of what the people want to evolve to.  All the uprisings were anger about and towards dictators, but at this time we have chaos and a majority of the people do not know what they want instead. The uprisings have still been significant though in that some sociologists think that as the people discover their power they will also discover where they socially want to go and what they want for themselves.

    I don't see that we caused "extremism" though, the whole globe seems to be dealing with a case of religious extremists. In the US we have had the rise of the Evangelicals, but being a nation of laws and freedom of religion to include freedom from religion thwarts their goals and desire for complete social dominance to include dominating our governing structure.


    I will refrain from stating more than (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Reconstructionist on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 10:57:31 AM EST

    Smart move n/t (none / 0) (#7)
    by NYShooter on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 12:26:01 PM EST
    I'm pretty sure that the Obama Administration (none / 0) (#1)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 08:52:48 AM EST
    Has always understood that there are factions within the FSA.  And their initial air strike in Syria hit/took out leaders of al-Nusra as well as the Khorasan Group and ISIL.  That was an enormous operation when you think about it.  They had one shot at the leaderships before everyone went deep underground and they took it.

    I don't think the President spends all day working on this.  He can't.  It is physically impossible.  He has to rely on advisors.

    I think those overseeing our hostage situations thought the prisoner situation was somewhat stable. I also think they knew ISIL was taking over the Nusra held oil fields and THEN they worried about the hostage situation and wanted to risk an operation to rescue them because they suspected that they were there.  But none of the hostages had been executed up to that point to my knowledge.  ISIL was killing everyone, but al-Nusra Front was working the system.  So what?  That is the way of fighting in the Middle East.  Taliban does it in the Af/Pak too....make a deal.  That means you can negotiate with them.

    I think all the intel work though being done was focusing on the various extremist groups and the threats they posed. Hostages were a secondary concern they would get to eventually because they thought that as long as Al-Nusra had the prisoners, the prisoners wouldn't be executed.

    U.S. Armed/Trained Syrian Rebels Surrender (none / 0) (#11)
    by Mr Natural on Sun Nov 02, 2014 at 05:35:12 PM EST
    to ISIS.

    On Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered military bases and weapons supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria stormed villages they controlled in northern Idlib province.