U.S. Writer Held by Qaeda Affiliate in Syria Is Freed After Nearly 2 Years Peter Theo Curtis, Abducted in 2012, Is Released by Nusra Front
Held for nearly two years in a prison run by an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Syria, an American freelance writer was unexpectedly freed on Sunday, following extensive mediation by Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate and United States ally that has successfully negotiated the release of numerous Western hostages in exchange for multimillion-dollar ransoms.
Relatives of the freed hostage, Peter Theo Curtis, 45, said that while they were not privy to the exact terms, they were told that no ransom had been paid. Yet his surprise liberation by the Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, came less than a week after the decapitation of another American journalist, James Foley, held by a different and even more radical jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Curtis’s release was likely to raise further questions about what, if any, concessions should be made to militant groups holding Western nationals. The beheading of Mr. Foley, which shocked and enraged much of the world, also may have spurred Qatar to press more intensively for Mr. Curtis’s release.
Mr. Foley’s death, apparently at the hands of a masked ISIS guard believed to be British, which was filmed and uploaded on YouTube, came after European nations and organizations had negotiated the liberation of more than a dozen of their citizens held in the same cell as Mr. Foley for ransoms averaging more than $2.5 million, according to former hostages, their families, negotiators and officials involved in their releases.
News of Mr. Curtis’s release came as British officials
said they were close to identifying Mr. Foley’s suspected killer,
based on voice-recognition technology, eavesdropped phone recordings and other intelligence tools. If the suspect is identified, it could give officials insight into the ISIS captors, who are holding another American journalist, Steven J. Sotloff, and two other Americans.
Relatives of Mr. Curtis said in an interview that after numerous failed starts and after having received ransom demands ranging from $3 million to $25 million, the panicked family was introduced by Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, to her Qatari counterpart after learning that Qatar had successfully won the release of Europeans kidnapped by Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. As soon as Qatar became involved, the relatives said, they felt as if an avenue of communication had been opened. For the first time, they were able to send a proof-of-life question which only Mr. Curtis could have answered: What was the subject of your Ph.D. dissertation? (Answer: a museum started by the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope.)
“Our family wants to thank the country of Qatar in a big way,” said Amy Rosen, a cousin. “Every person that our family dealt with in Qatar said that under no circumstances would a ransom be paid — and that this was something the U.S. government had requested, and they had agreed to,” she said. “But at the same time, we don’t pretend to know everything that happened.”
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The United Nations said in a statement that Mr. Curtis had been handed over to United Nations peacekeepers in Al Rafid village, in the disputed Golan Heights region straddling Syria and Israel, at 6:40 p.m. local time. The family was told that an American doctor met him, and after a check-up had confirmed that he was healthy. He will be debriefed by the F.B.I. before he returns home.
Ms. Rosen and Viva Hardigg, another cousin, said they began hearing late Saturday night that Qatar’s efforts had succeeded, and that Mr. Curtis was soon going to be delivered to an appointed spot in the Golan Heights.
Neither Ms. Rosen, in her bedroom in New Jersey, nor Ms. Hardigg, in her home in Hanover, N.H., could fall asleep. All through Sunday morning they fretted, hearing from their interlocutor that if the handover did not happen before sundown Syria time — roughly seven hours ahead of the East Coast — the transfer might be called off. It was 11:43 a.m. when Ms. Hardigg got an email informing her of his release, she said, and her hands holding a cup of coffee began to shake. She caught herself on the wall, and slipped to the floor, tears streaming. At a farm outside New York, Ms. Rosen got the same news, and she, too, had to sit down.
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Mr. Curtis’s mother, Nancy, in Cambridge, Mass., took no time to celebrate, relatives said. Before telling her own family, she emailed the Foleys, writing that despite her relief, she could not rejoice, because she was still grieving for their loss.
The news was announced as Mr. Foley’s family attended a memorial Mass in his hometown of Rochester, N.H.
Mr. Curtis, the author of two books, is one of two siblings raised in the Boston area. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College, and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he moved to Vermont, where he taught poetry to young prisoners in a local jail, eventually parlaying the experience into his first book, titled from an Emily Dickinson poem, “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.” He later moved to Yemen, where he wrote under the name Theo Padnos.
Turning to freelance journalism in the fall of 2012, he traveled to Antakya, Turkey, near the Syria border, where the last email his mother received was dated Oct. 18, 2012.
An initial investigation by his family and colleagues appeared to indicate that he crossed into Syria with a guide who betrayed him, handing Mr. Curtis to an extremist group, Ahrar al-Sham, which later gave him to the Nusra Front.
For nine months the family had no news until July 29, 2013, when an American photojournalist, Matthew Schrier, escaped from the same makeshift cell where he had been held alongside Mr. Curtis. Soon after returning to the United States, Mr. Schrier described how he had succeeded in making an opening in the wall. Standing on his cellmate’s back, he wiggled through the opening but Mr. Curtis became stuck and after multiple attempts, fell back, Mr. Schrier said. He left alone to seek help.
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Mr. Schrier also described how he had been tortured, including beatings on the soles of his feet so severe that he had to be dragged back to his cell, unable to walk. The glut of information was followed by another five months of silence, until this January, when Ghanim al-Mteiri, a sheikh from Kuwait, approached an employee of The New York Times with a photograph of Mr. Curtis in captivity, and The Times arranged for the image to be sent to the Curtis family. The sheikh, a known fund-raiser for jihadi groups, said he could organize Mr. Curtis’s release, and Ms. Curtis agreed that same month to fly to Istanbul, meeting twice with the shadowy figure, who insisted on seeing her at night, relatives said.
He proposed a complicated prisoner swap, offering to release Mr. Curtis if his mother arranged for the government of Iraq to free two women — both wives of jihadists — held in prisons there. The proposal went nowhere.
At around the same time, Ms. Hardigg said that the family began receiving ransom demands by email and phone calls placed to a family representative in the United States. They started at around $3 million, then increased to a high of $25 million. It took the family a while to realize that this spring four French and three Spanish hostages, as well as at least a dozen others from European nations, were released one by one as either their governments, organizations or families paid a ransom.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that has strictly adhered to a no-ransom policy, refusing to make concessions of any kind to designated terrorist groups. This is in stark contrast to most European nations, who have now unintentionally become Al Qaeda’s largest fund-raiser, paying more than $125 million to the network’s direct affiliates to free European citizens just in the past five years, according to a monthslonginvestigation by The New York Times.
The policy of not paying ransoms has protected Americans by not making them desirable hostages — they represent only a small share of the total. But it has put Americans at a disproportionately high risk of execution if they are abducted. ISIS — which killed Mr. Foley, 40, after having demanded a 100 million euro ransom — has threatened to execute Mr. Sotloff.
American experts on ISIS and Middle East politics suggested that Qatar, which has supported some militant Islamic extremist groups in the past but is an important American ally, moved more aggressively to help secure Mr. Curtis’s freedom after Mr. Foley was killed, partly to emphatically send a message that it opposes groups like ISIS.
“I think what we’re seeing is a shift as the result of the Foley beheading,” said Rick Brennan, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “Qatar has an interest in making certain it is seen as an ally in the war on terror. And beheading Americans or Westerners is not in Qatar’s interest.”
Last month, the Curtis family received a video showing Mr. Curtis, hands bound, sitting below a man pointing an automatic weapon at his head. “My life is in very, very, very grave danger — I have three days — three days to live,” he said.
While the family members were beside themselves, there did not seem to be much of a shift in the Qatari-led mediation. Then last week, the Foley execution video hit YouTube.
Six days later, Mr. Curtis walked free, ending 22 months as a prisoner of al Qaeda.