An American freelance journalist held captive for nearly two years by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria was freed Sunday in a handover to U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.
The freelance journalist, Peter Theo Curtis, 45, from Boston, was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. He was held by the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, which has broken with the even more radical Islamic State. Another American journalist, James W. Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria the following month, was beheaded last week by the Islamic State, which posted the images of his death on YouTube.
The United Nations confirmed in a statement on its website that Curtis was transferred to the custody of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Al-Rafid village, in the disputed Golan Heights region straddling Syria and Israel, at 6:40 p.m. local time.
“After receiving a medical checkup, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government,” the statement said.
Curtis’ extended family released a statement thanking the governments of the United States and Qatar and “the many individuals, private and public, who helped negotiate the release of our son, brother and cousin.”
Nancy Curtis, the journalist’s mother, asserted in the statement that his release was secured without any ransom payment, one of the primary motivations for such abductions by the Nusra Front, the Islamic State and affiliated groups.
“While the family is not privy to the exact terms that were negotiated, 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,” Nancy Curtis said.
Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the news. “Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home,” he said in a statement. “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.”
In a video dated June 30 and obtained by The New York Times, Curtis is seen disheveled, with long unkempt hair and bound hands, with an armed man holding an automatic weapon at his side. Curtis begs for his life, saying: “I have three days left. Three days — please do something.” A second video, released just weeks later, has a different tone. 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 footage.
That description of his captivity is at odds with the accounts given by Matthew Schrier, an American photojournalist who escaped in July 2013 after being held for seven months, much of the time alongside Curtis in the same makeshift prison cell.
Schrier described how his captors had tortured and starved him. In an interview soon after he regained his freedom, 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 concrete floor and beat the soles of his feet until he could not walk.
Desperate to escape, Schrier managed, standing on his cellmate’s back, to unravel some wires in an opening in the wall of their cell, he said in the interview. 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 Schrier to go on without him.
The cellmate — only now revealed to be Curtis — endured 13 more months in captivity before the announcement of his freedom Sunday. At the request of his family, news organizations, including The New York Times, had agreed not to identify him in their earlier reports of Schrier’s experiences.
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The Nusra Front and the Islamic State were once a single organization, but the groups split over ideological and tactical differences, with the Islamic State going its own way and Nusra remaining loyal to al-Qaida’s central command. One of the issues that divided them was the acceptable level of brutality. Since the split, al-Qaida has criticized the unrestrained attacks by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State against Shiite Muslims, as well as their attacks on Christian villages.
Three Americans — two men and one woman — are still believed to be captives of the Islamic State. The group has threatened to behead one of them, the journalist Steven J. Sotloff, if the United States does not meet its demands, including stopping airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq.
Both the Islamic State and the Nusra Front use kidnappings to finance their operations, as other al-Qaida affiliates do. While the United States has refused to pay ransom, European nations have secretly funneled large sums to kidnapper cells to obtain the release of hostages, including four French citizens freed this year from the same Islamic State jail where Foley was believed held.
Al-Qaida’s direct affiliates are estimated to have reaped at least $125 million in ransom payments since 2008, most of it paid by European governments through intermediaries.