Al-Qaida's Syrian Affiliate Frees U.S. Journalist Held Since 2012

Aug 24, 2014
Originally published on August 24, 2014 5:13 pm

Updated at 5:05 p.m. ET

A week after the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants, another extremist group, the official al-Qaida affiliate operating in Syria, has quietly freed another U.S. journalist held for nearly two years.

Peter Theo Curtis, 45, originally from Boston, has been handed over to a United Nations representative. He was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in Oct. 2012 and held by Jabhat al-Nusra [the Nusra Front], which has broken with the more radical Islamic State, also known by as ISIS or ISIL, which killed Foley.

It was not immediately clear why he was released, but a note to correspondents issued by the United Nations confirmed the handover. It said Curtis "was handed over to UN peacekeepers in Al Rafid village, Quneitra, the Golan Heights, at 6:40 p.m. (local time) on 24 August 2014. After receiving a medical check-up, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government."

In a statement from the Curtis' parents, it said the freelance journalist used the pen name "Theo Padnos." The statement expressed gratitude to the United States and Qatar "and to many individuals, private and public, who helped negotiate the release of our son.

"We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley, at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS," Nancy Curtis said.

The statement said the family believed Curtis was captured shortly after crossing into Syria in Oct. 2012 and "has been held since then by the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra or by splinter groups allied with Jabhat al-Nusra."

Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement today, saying after the "unspeakable tragedy" of Foley's death, "we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home after so much time held in the clutches of Jabhat Al-Nusrah."

"Theo's mother, whom we've known from Massachusetts and with whom we've worked during this horrific period, simply refused to give up and has worked indefatigably to keep hope alive that this day could be a reality," Kerry said. "Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo's release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria."

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that "we join his family and loved ones in welcoming his freedom," but "hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria."

The Times says in a video made in June that was obtained by the newspaper "Mr. Curtis is seen looking disheveled, with long, unkempt hair. Speaking from a script, he says his captors had treated him well and that he 'had everything' he needed. 'Everything has been perfect: food, clothing, even friends,' he says in the video.

The Times reports:

"That description of his captivity is at odds with the accounts given by the American photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who escaped in July 2013 after being held for seven months, much of the time alongside Mr. Curtis in the same prison.

"Mr. Schrier described being tortured and starved by his masked jailers. In an interview soon after he regained his freedom, Mr. Schrier said his captors had forced a car tire over his knees, immobilized him with a wooden rod slid behind his legs, rolled him face down on a cement floor and beat the soles of his feet until he could not walk.

"Desperate to escape, Mr. Schrier said in the interview, he managed, while standing on his cellmate's back, to unravel some wires in an opening in the wall of their cell. That allowed him to wiggle through the opening, he said, but his cellmate, who was slightly heavier-set, became stuck and decided to stay in the cell, urging Mr. Schrier to go on without him.

"The cellmate was Mr. Curtis, who endured 13 more months in captivity before the announcement of his freedom on Sunday."

The Nusra Front has been active in the Syrian conflict for years. It was added to the U.S. State Department's terror list in December 2012. As we reported in May, an American recruit, known to the group as Abu Hurayra the American, carried out a suicide truck bombing on a Syrian military facility.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has also reported extensively on the al-Qaida affiliate:

-- A Chat With A Radical Fighter In Syria (March 9, 2013)

-- Jihadi Fighters Win Hearts And Minds By Easing Syria's Bread Crisis (January 16, 2013)

-- Jihadist Group Complicates Picture In Syria (May 10, 2012)

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