Al Jazeera

US journalist Peter Theo Curtis freed in Syria after two years

Days after Foley beheading, American journalist kidnapped in Syria in 2012 is released to the UN

An American journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly two years ago was freed and handed over to U.N. representatives after Qatari mediation helped lead to his release from the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front.

Jabhat al-Nusra released Peter Theo Curtis, 45, on Sunday, after Curtis was abducted in October 2012 in Antakya, Turkey, where he planned to enter Syria. Peter Theo Curtis had changed his name from Theo Padnos, the name under which he continued to write, to make it easier for him travel in the Arab world, according to a statement from the Curtis family.

Curtis' abduction had not been previously advertised. But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that he was safe outside Syria and will be reunited with his family soon. Curtis' release comes just days after the beheading of journalist James Foley, who was captured in Syria in 2012. 

Kerry said in a statement, "Every waking hour, our thoughts and our faith remain with the Americans still held hostage and with their families, and we continue to use every diplomatic, intelligence, and military tool at our disposal to find them and bring our fellow citizens home."

The U.N. said Curtis was handed over to peacekeepers in Al Rafid in the Israeli-held Golan Heights in southwest Syria.

“My heart is full at the extraordinary, dedicated, incredible people, too many to name individually, who have become my friends and have tirelessly helped us over these many months,” said Curtis' mother, Nancy Curtis, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Please know that we will be eternally grateful.”

She added, “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."

Curtis’ mother said while the family does not know the exact terms that were negotiated between the U.S., Qatar and her son's captors, “we were repeatedly told by representatives of the Qatari government that they were mediating for Theo’s release on a humanitarian basis without the payment of money.”

Footage of the American was released on June 30, showing a disheveled Curtis with long hair and beard, but appearing to be in good health.

Speaking in a video obtained by Al Jazeera, Curtis read from a prepared script stating his name and profession, saying he was a journalist from Boston, Massachusetts.

Commenting on his treatment, Curtis said he "had everything" he needed and "everything has been perfect, food, clothing, even friends now."

But in another video obtained by The New York Times, Curtis is seen with both hands bound, begging for his life while a man armed with an automatic weapon stands next to him, the newspaper said. “I have three days left. Three days — please do something,” Curtis begged, according to The Times.

The New York Times said that Curtis had reportedly been imprisoned in the same cell with Matthew Schrier, an American photojournalist who escaped in June 2013. Schrier told The New York Times that his captors starved and tortured him, beating the soles of his feet until he could not longer walk.

Schrier escaped their cell by standing on Curtis’ back and wriggling through an opening in the wall after unraveling some wires, the newspaper reported. Curtis was heavier-set and became stuck trying to crawl through the opening and urged Schrierto go on without him, according to The New York Times. At the request of Curtis’ family, the newspaper agreed not to reveal his identity in its reports of Schrier’s story.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 67 journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the uprising, highlighting the risks of reporting from the country.

Dozens of journalists covering the civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011, with many others still missing.

Who is Peter Theo Curtis?

Curtis spent years studying Islam in mosques in Yemen to observe what he said was the radicalization of young Westerners there.

Curtis, who has a Ph.D in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts, wrote his first book about his experiences teaching poetry to young prisoners at the Woodstock Correctional Facility in Vermont, according to his publisher, the Random House Group.

Seeking a new adventure on the heels of writing the book, he moved to Yemen in 2004 and began working at the Yemen Observer, the GlobalPost reported in 2010.

He soon began studying Islam, and converted to the religion in 2005. Curtis has said that he professed faith in Islam only to infiltrate Yemeni mosques and observe the radicalization of Western men, according to the GlobalPost article, after becoming intrigued by “legions of bearded young Western men wearing Middle Eastern robes and studying the Quran.”

He told GlobalPost that he began studying the Quran and lived in the same dorm at the Masjid Shari Qain mosque in Sanaa as Carlos Bledsoe, the American-born covert to Islam known as Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad who in 2009 went on to kill a soldier at an Arkansas military recruiting center.

He even traveled to the countryside and spent five weeks at Dar al Hadith, the mosque where American John Walker Lindh, a member of the Taliban, is alleged to have studied.

Curtis is "phenomenally courageous, and I think he’s apt to bring back a lot of info that the West has never had before,” Michael Padnos, Curtis' father, a lawyer who now lives in Paris, is quoted as saying in 2010. “Theo decided to go beyond the barriers, and is coming back from Arabia with incredible tales of what’s going on there.”

Curtis’ experiences as false convert became the basis for his 2011 book, “Undercover Muslim." Curtis also wrote articles for the The New Republic and The London Review of Books.

His undercover work and his articles may have made traveling under his given name dangerous. In email correspondence with an employee of the security company Stratfor that was published by WikiLeaks, Curtis expressed concern about a Mareb Press article written in Arabic. A Stratfor employee warned Curtis that the newspaper revealed he had infiltrated several mosques in Yemen and accused him of “falsely converting to Islam.”

“That’ll certainly put you on a few hit lists,” the Stratfor employee wrote. “Watch your back.” 

A Twitter feed that appears to be Curtis’ contains one tweet from his time in captivity. After nearly 8 months of silence, someone posted from his account a link to a W.S. Merwin poem, “To luck,” containing lines about whether one should trust in fortune:

"because in the end there was nothing   

else we could do   

but not to believe in you"

Al Jazeera. Rula Amin and Marisa Taylor contributed reporting.

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