American Held Hostage in Syria: I've Seen Al-Qaida Initiating Next Generation of Killers

U.S. journalist Theo Padnos returns to Israel one year after his release by the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front into the hands of UN officials. He talks exclusively about Islam, Syria, torture, freedom – and pretty girls.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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U.S. journalist Theo Padnos at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. 'The law of the Koran held my life in its hands,' he says of his imprisonment.
U.S. journalist Theo Padnos at Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. 'The law of the Koran held my life in its hands,' he says of his imprisonment. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

It’s a sweltering summer morning in Tel Aviv, and the neighborhood hipsters are ordering up soy cappuccinos, rolling their cigarettes and rocking their infants at the outdoor corner café. Theo Padnos, 46, stopping by after a trip to the laundromat on Sheinkin, all wild curly blond-going-gray hair, flip-flops and red kabbala string, fits in. Sort of. But then again, not at all.

The first tip-off to something not-quite-like-the-others here is his T-shirt: yellow, red and green and extolling the virtues of Hezbollah. “The party of God will be triumphant,” reads the Arabic logo above the image of the assault rifle. Not your typical fashion choice for central Tel Aviv.

“Hey man, if you want to be cool, wear Che,” suggests a lanky Israeli as he sits down at the next table, wire-rimmed reading glasses, girlfriend and MacBook Air in hand. “Mao. Whatever. But this? Nah. Not cool. Those guys kill our friends and brothers.”

On the other side of the sunny patio, two buff 30-somethings with groomed lumberjack beards and tattoos look up from their shakshuka and shake their heads.

“I don’t mean to offend,” apologizes Padnos with a lopsided smile, scratching his stubble shyly. “All the rest of my T-shirts are getting washed,” he says, speaking softly. “And I’m not Israeli,” he adds. “But I like these Hezbollah guys because they hate my guys.”

“Huh?” The hipsters are confused. “Who are your guys?”

Like both Padnos’ story, and the Middle East story in general, it’s complicated. Questions of identity, who is against whom, and who stands for what – and why, and for how long – swirl around in the Mediterranean heat, with constantly shifting answers. Padnos orders an ice coffee, “with only one ice cube please,” and settles in to think about it all.

Dramatic entrance

A year ago, on a similarly sweltering summer day, Padnos entered Israel for the first time. He came over in a distinctly original way – neither through Ben-Gurion International Airport, nor overland via the border crossing from Jordan. Rather, he was handed over to the United Nations peacekeepers on the Golan Heights by the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaida. His body was weak and broken, his mind was jumbled and racing, but if anything in the world seemed clear at that moment, as he recalls it, it was that a miracle had just happened. He was alive.

An American writer and reporter who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Padnos, whose full name is Peter Theophilus Padnos, graduated from Middlebury College, got his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, taught poetry in a prison in Vermont – and wrote a book about it – and once worked as a bicycle mechanic.

In more recent years, Padnos, a Christian, became a student of the Arab Muslim world. He moved to Sana’a, Yemen in 2004, enrolling in an extremist religious school there and writing another book, “Undercover Muslim,” about those experiences. A few years later, he moved again, to the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he worked as a journalist. He studied Arabic, which he now speaks fluently – along with French, German and Russian – and he can still recite by heart some of his favorite phrases from the Koran.

The fall of 2012 found Padnos in Antakya, Turkey, renting a small apartment and pitching stories to various media organizations about the conflict raging across the border. He crossed into Syria in early October with three young men who claimed they were providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army. One moment, he recalls, he was interviewing these men in an abandoned house – the next, they were kicking him in the head and throwing him into a hole in the ground.

“At first I did not know the name of the group that had me, but it was clear to me that I had slipped through the looking glass,” says Padnos now. “I realized I was travelling to a country from which Americans did not return.”

“On one of the early days, in this bombed-out hospital basement [used as a prison] they brought me to, a grandfather gave me a green silky scarf. In the morning I would knock on the door of my prison cell and cover up my eves with this scarf, as instructed, and he would turn the key. On the way to the bathroom he would whisper, “Did you spy on us? We are going to barbecue your skin. Did you think you were clever?”

Padnos was too shocked to feel sorry for himself, he says. “All I could think of, at first, was that, before they killed me I would surely learn interesting things. ‘What a shame my life is over,’ I thought to myself. ‘I would have liked to have written about these men and their songs and the world they are building.’ I was beyond life. I was beyond worrying about myself.”

Padnos remained a prisoner of the Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, for almost two years, moving from one makeshift cell to the next, 13 in total: from the outskirts of Aleppo to Mayadin, which is next door to Deir al-Zour and the country’s lucrative oil fields, to the outskirts of Damascus and then across the desert toward Daraa. The rebels’ onetime Iraqi Al-Qaida allies – now rebranded as the Islamic State, and Nusra’s sworn enemies – were often right behind them, in pursuit. Meanwhile, Nusra’s other enemies, President Bashar Assad's forces, bombed them from the air.

Padnos’ guards would slap and then whip him with thick cables, demanding he confess to being a spy. Even when he did confess, hoping the pain would end, the torture continued. They beat him with cattle prods, spat on him and called him a dog, a cockroach, filth. At times, they barely fed him. He had no contact at all with his family, who reportedly received various ransom requests for millions of dollars.

‘Precipice of the unknown’

But what was the hardest to bear, Padnos recalls, was the constant fear of death: “It felt like everything happening to me was just a prelude to being killed. You are on the precipice of the unknown. If only they would tell you, like they do at a doctor’s office, what to expect. But no. Here you are falling and hitting stuff along the way, but what you are really terrified of is what’s going to happen when you land.”

“Perhaps I will be killed this evening,’ I would think,” says Padnos. “And then that evening would pass. And then I would think, ‘Maybe in the morning.’ And then that morning would come and pass. Then I would think ‘Maybe Friday, after prayers.’ And during all these hours as I was waiting for them to kill me, I would be trembling.”

He spent long days with nothing to do in his cramped cell but stare at his hands, wondering if his heart might give out from the suffocating heat in the summer, and shivering from cold in the winter. The nights were darker than dark. On two occasions he escaped and sought refuge with the Syrian Free Army, only to be delivered back to his torturers.

Fellow prisoners were whipped and beaten to death as he listened in. If he tried to whisper words of comfort to them, his captors punished him. His cellmate for several long months – a young fellow American, a photojournalist named Matt Schrier, who converted to Islam during captivity – turned violent himself, says Padnos, raging and lashing out irrationally. The two Americans nonetheless coordinated an escape plan together – but only Schrier, standing on Padnos’ back and wriggling through a small window they'd pried open, managed to get away. Both free today, the men have not spoken.

Many of his guards where barely out of puberty, Padnos says. And none were educated.

“And it’s not only them,” he stresses. “Even the highest-level sheikhs in the Nusra outfit are uneducated. No one there has instruction in what we in the West would call the basic truths of science and history.” Sometimes, in between watching cartoons and playing with their guns, the young guards would ask him questions – mostly about girls. “Is it true you have nine girlfriends in America?” they asked. “Can you introduce us to single girls?” they wanted to know.

A year and a half after he was initially captured, when Padnos’ relations with his captors had softened somewhat, these same youths – or others who took their places after they were killed in the fighting – would ask him to snap photos of them on their mobile phones, so as to upload them to their social media profiles and “get chicks.”

“During Ramadan last year there was this one guy who was supposed to be preparing the meal for the break-fast and I was supposed to be helping him, and he said we have to go outside now. I said ‘Why?’ he said ‘Shhh, shhh.’ Turns out he wanted me to take a photo of him just as the sun was setting, so the golden light would light up his golden hair and he would look good on his profile for the chicks.” He was, adds Padnos, “a good-looking dude.”

“The reason Al-Qaida is inviting so many young people into their torture chambers and having them watch and participate in killings, is because violence changes a person. It is part of a ritual,” Padnos explains. “This is an initiation meant to shock kids out of their day-to-day life and 'align them' with a new dimension.” And it works, he points out: “The leaders are psychologically transforming their kids. Like any other society that prepares its young for the hunt of the buffalo or the lion. This is their initiation into the kill.”

Executed countrymen

“It’s okay to cry,” said the FBI agent who received him on the Golan Heights, after Padnos was turned over by UN officials and crossed into Israel last August. Details relating to the negotiations and circumstances of the release remain secret, but it seems that a number of factors worked in his favor – chief among them the critical intervention of the Qatari government on his behalf, at the behest of the United States government, the unrelenting efforts of his mother and her supporters back home, and the fact that, unlike Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Nusra Front is not known for executing its Western prisoners. Some reports maintain that ransom was paid, although if this is true, it was done in violation of strict U.S. policies.

Padnos’ release came less than a week after another high-profile U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria, James Foley, was killed by his ISIS captors: the video of that brutal decapitation – Foley in an orange jumpsuit, his executioner in black – was uploaded to YouTube for all the world to see. Padnos saw it, too; his guards were playing it over and again on their cell phones during his last week with them. “Would you like that to happen to you?” they asked him, laughing.

In the months to come other young American journalists and humanitarian-aid workers kidnapped in Syria by ISIS would all meet Foley’s same fate: Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, who were both executed, and Kayla Mueller, whose captors claim was killed by a Jordanian airstrike. The parents of these young Americans had all spearheaded similar, unrelenting efforts to secure the release of their children as efforts by Padnos’ mother had mounted. But in their cases, there had been no miracles.

Padnos spent less than 48 hours in Israel after his release – mainly being debriefed at the U.S. Embassy – before being flown home. But nonetheless, he smiles now, he managed to get in his first taste of this place. Once, years earlier, when he had tried to cross into Israel from Jordan, he had been turned back by the Israelis at passport control. He wasn’t too bothered. “I sort of imagined Israel like Florida, but without the Cubans and with more hummus,” he says.

On that first night of re-found freedom, Padnos ventured out of the hotel room in Tel Aviv that the American government had gotten for him, and went down to the beach.

“The guys looking after me said, ‘Meet us in the lobby at 8 tomorrow morning,’ and closed the door – but they did not lock it. And I was like, ‘I am so out of here,’” he recounts. Was he tired? Not at all. “I had slept so much in jail I did not want to sleep for the rest of my life.”

Padnos was ravenous for normalcy, as he tells it, but also freaked out, unable to believe he was truly safe. He remembers seeing a man selling trinkets on the beach and he started talking to him, but then quickly got scared.

“He was speaking in an Israeli accent, but it sounded French to me, and them I thought, ‘Maybe this guy is a French Arab, in which case maybe he is Al-Qaida. I better get away from him,’” he says. The night ended with his drinking beer with two Canadian tourists, telling them what surely they thought were fantastical tales.

A year later, Padnos is still telling those tales, only now, those listening are weighing them more seriously. He says his hope is that, as he makes sense of his time in captivity, and more broadly, of the goings-on in the Arab world today – he will be able to share that knowledge with anyone interested in making the Middle East a calmer, better place.

Now based between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Paris, France, where his father lives, Padnos has been working on several separate projects. His “baby” is a novel that he started about a year into his captivity, when his status improved and he was given a pen and an empty old diary. In that diary, in tiny neat script, he began writing a tale of an innocent, pretty high-school student, the “queen of the drama club,” who lived in a small town in Vermont – a town much like the one had lived in after college.

“I missed girls. And she was sexy, so that’s one reason I started writing about her,” he says. “But I realized I was also writing about her because I missed my old self. My self that would make its own choices. She was springtime. She was lovely and loved. I was not that person anymore. I was a jailed piece of meat.”

But although he perhaps meant, at first, to distract himself with make-believe stories of better times, the darkness he was living in soon took over: “The law of the Koran held my life in its hands. It decided when I could go to the bathroom. When I could eat. It would decide if I lived or died. I wanted to be in Vermont and have a girlfriend. That’s what I wanted to write at first. But the holy book took over my novel.”

In Padnos’ eventual story, which he is still working on, the heroine, named Gypsy, starts a romance with someone who is, unbeknownst to her, the son of a cult leader who has moved into the town – to horrific consequences. At the end of the tale, Gypsy is in the forest, blindfolded with a silky green scarf, being brutally beaten with a thick cable by two 11-year-old twins, on the orders of the cult leader. This is punishment, they explain, for her moral corruption, as defined by the cult’s laws. Gypsy, like Padnos, took a wrong turn and fell into a rabbit hole, as he puts it. And both of them realized – too late – he stresses, that the nightmarish world they fell into was being dominated by logic and laws neither could understand, change or escape.

Tel Aviv revisited

Another projet Padnos is involved in is a feature documentary about his life, directed by independent filmmaker/screenwriter David Schisgall. It’s this film – to be titled “Theo Who Lived” – that brought Padnos back to Israel this summer, film crew in tow, almost exactly a year after his release to the Golan and his first taste of freedom on the Tel Aviv beach.

Padnos during the shooting of the documentary about him, in the north of Israel.

It was meant to be a quick five-day shoot here, like similar shoots Schisgall had done throughout the year in Turkey, France and the United States. But it didn’t quite work out that way: Two days after the documentary crew arrived in June, severe back pain put Padnos in the hospital, where he underwent an emergency operation for a slipped disc.

Working on a tight schedule, the crew returned to the U.S., and filming was postponed for a month. Meanwhile, Padnos, who made a fast recovery, spent most of the interim kicking around this country, which, it turns out, was not quite as much like Florida as he had imagined. An old high-school friend from Cambridge who became religiously observant invited him to stay over in Jerusalem one Shabbat. The father of another high-school friend lent him an apartment in Tel Aviv. He played pick-up soccer games in the Yarkon Park. He got set up on a date. He had his bicycle sent over from Paris. He drank a lot of ice coffee.

One thing Padnos expected would happen during his time here – but didn’t – was that Israel’s security and intelligence agencies would show an interest in him. At one point, high on pain-killers in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer after his back operation, Padnos started talking to an Arab Israeli orderly, in Arabic, about Al-Qaida. The nervous worker apparently called the Shin Bet security service, who soon sent some officers around for a chat.

“They sent two junior dudes who were like, ‘What’s your name? What’s your date of birth? What were you doing in Syria? Good-bye,’” Padnos says.

But the real questions went unasked: “Israeli intelligence knows Al-Qaida is on the other side of the border, but they don’t know who is who, what the structure of the organization is, and what kind of culture they are building,” he says. “Whenever Al-Qaida people are interviewed they recite a whole load of baloney and it’s taken down by journalists and repeated, as if it’s important. But the facts about them are wrong.”

For example, says Padnos, the popular storyline, fed by Al-Qaida propaganda videos, that the rebels are creating mini-states in their regions – with fishing licensees, parking tickets and cleaning crews on the roads – is plain wrong.

“If you live there you see that there is no electricity, no schools, and no hospitals. All the professionals have fled. No one wants to go there. It’s one huge collapsed war zone, with sharia courts in charge. They might have a crew giving out parking tickets, but do they have plumbing or electricity, jobs or industry? No. The only people living there are those making money from the smuggling, and the Mujahideen, who go driving through the desert shooting guns playing with grenades and suicide belts, and think it’s all very fun.”

Presumably of even greater interest to any Israeli intelligence outfit is the fact that Padnos keeps in touch with some of those Mujahideen, as well as with several of the higher-ranking Nusra Front men he got to know during his captivity. They correspond mainly via private Twitter messages, but also talk from time to time. He does not say about what, but he does admit that, unsurprisingly, he does not tell him exactly where he is these days.

“If they ask, I might say ‘Palestine. I am in Palestine, my brother,’” he smiles.

“You know those medieval maps where there are dark areas, filled with sea monsters with five heads – well, that is Israel for them,” he says. “They approach life in a mythological way, not with real maps. And their psychological map reads: ‘An enemy-enemy-enemy will kill me soon – so I must kill them first.”

That said, Padnos found that while his captors proclaimed hatred for Israel and the Jews, that was nothing compared to their hatred for Assad and his supporters.

“They used to come into our cell sometimes, when there were Alawite officers with us, and they would turn on them: ‘You people are the lowest creations on God’s earth. Thank God, there is a seventh circle of hell for you – because you kill Muslims. You people are worse even than the Jews,’” Padnos recounts. “Go back to America,” they would then tell Padnos. “Tell them we have something worse than the Jews here.”

“They were always telling me, ‘We could attack Israel. We could take care of them now. But Israel is for later. We need to concentrate on Bashar.’ That, at least, is their official line,” Padnos explains, but as to what they really intend, he is less sure.

“One of the Syrian people’s big grievances against Assad is that he sold the Golan Heights to Israel for money to enrich his family,” he continues. “And one of the big Nusra chants is: ‘Why are you attacking the Muslims? It’s because you are afraid of going to the Golan! Put us in charge and we will go tomorrow.”

‘Ya Bashar’

Back in the Tel Aviv café, between the jumble of baby strollers and breakfast specials, Padnos begins to softly chant: “Ya Bashar, ya jabar, bidna n’ruch al Golan” (“Oh Bashar, oh you coward, we want to go to the Golan!”) Of course, Padnos notes, capturing the Golan, for Nusra Front, is just a start. “As they see it, this whole country, all the way to the sea, belongs to the Palestinians – the Arabs. Al-Qaida has a designated emir who will, in time, take what belongs to him.”

“You people,” he says, addressing those around him, “to their mind, are the temporary squatters.”

Padnos, getting back to his original point, explains he's a Hezbollah T-shirt wearer only because he happens to have a bigger, more personal and understandable gripe with another terror organization – namely, Nusra – which Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. And anyway, he asks no one in particular, “What’s so bad about Assad?”

His new Israeli friend sort of agrees. “That seems to be our position on Assad here these days, too,” the young man admits. “We don’t know what will come after, so we are stuck siding with him.” But, the Israeli adds, “This doesn’t mean we would go so far as to side with Hezbollah.”

“But wait, don’t the Shia think the Alawites are not proper Shia?” another cappuccino-sipper nearby pipes up.

“And what about the Druze, who also come from the prophet Ali. How do they fit in?” asks another.

“Okay, hallas (enough),” says Padnos, getting up. “I’m going to change my T-shirt.”

A few people around him nod in approval. Most, though, are too busy with the front pages of the morning papers – which tell of a local heartthrob who has come out of the closet – to care much one way or another. A woman, her collie at her side, flashes Padnos a sympathetic smile as he pedals off toward Sheinkin to check up on the laundry.

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