US journalist held by al-Qaeda group in Syria is freed after nearly two years

Peter Theo Curtis was held by al-Nusrah Front, which split from more militant Islamic State

Peter Theo Curtis:  in an undated still frame taken from video courtesy of Al Jazeera: he was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. Photograph: Reuters/Al Jazeera

Peter Theo Curtis: in an undated still frame taken from video courtesy of Al Jazeera: he was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. Photograph: Reuters/Al Jazeera


An American journalist held captive for nearly two years by al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria has been freed.

The journalist, Peter Theo Curtis, was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. He was held by the al-Nusrah Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which has broken with the more radical Islamic State. Another American journalist, James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria the following month, was beheaded last week by the Islamic State, which posted images of his execution on YouTube.

A family friend said Mr Curtis, originally from Boston, had been handed over to a UN representative. The family friend spoke on the condition of anonymity. In a video made in June and obtained by The New York Times, Mr Curtis was 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. That description of his captivity is at odds with the accounts given by the American photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who escaped in July last year after being held for seven months, much of the time alongside 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, immobilised 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. At the request of his family, news organizations, including The Times, agreed not to identify him in their reports of Schrier’s experiences, until now.

The al-Nusrah Front and the Islamic State were once a single organisation, but the two groups split over ideological and tactical differences, with the Islamic State going its own way and al-Nusrah remaining loyal to al-Qaeda’s central command. One of the issues that divided them was the acceptable level of brutality; since the split, al-Qaeda has criticised the unrestrained attacks by the fundamentalist Sunni militants of the Islamic State against Shia Muslims.

Three Americans – two men and one woman – are now believed to be captives of the Islamic State. The group has threatened to behead one of them, the journalist Steve Sotloff, if the US does not meet its demands, including stopping airstrikes.

Both the Islamic State and the al-Nusrah Front use kidnappings to finance their operations, as other al-Qaeda affiliates do. While the US has refused to pay ransom, European nations have secretly funneled large sums to terror cells to obtain the release of hostages, including four French citizens freed this year. Al-Qaeda’s direct affiliates are estimated to have reaped at least $125 million (€94 million) in ransom payments since 2008, most of it paid by European governments through intermediaries. – (New York Times service)