American writer held by Syrian militants freed after nearly 2 years

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WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate on Sun­day un­ex­pect­edly freed an Amer­i­can writer from nearly two years of cap­tiv­ity af­ter se­cret in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions for his re­lease that Qatar ap­par­ently led.

The Nusra Front might have freed Peter Theo Cur­tis as a ges­ture to dis­tin­guish it­self from its more re­viled ri­val, the Islamic State, which de­clared a ca­liph­ate on the huge parts of Syria and Iraq that it has over­run in of­fen­sives marked by mass ex­e­cu­tions and other atroc­i­ties.

Mr. Cur­tis’ re­lease came five days af­ter the Islamic State sparked in­ter­na­tional out­rage by re­leas­ing a video show­ing the be­head­ing of Amer­i­can free­lance jour­nal­ist James Fo­ley and as the out­gunned Nusra Front lost ground in Syria to its larger, bet­ter-armed ri­val.

“They are go­ing to have to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves,” said Phil­lip Smyth, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, who pointed out that the Nusra Front has been work­ing to soften its pub­lic im­age among Syria’s Sunni Muslims while be­ing “just as bru­tal and just as vi­o­lent” as the Islamic State.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Nusra Front, one of an as­sort­ment of over­whelm­ingly Sunni in­sur­gent groups fight­ing the forces of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, handed Mr. Cur­tis over to United Na­tions troops in the vil­lage of al Rafid in Syria’s south­ern Golan Heights, ac­cord­ing to White House and U.N. state­ments.

Mr. Cur­tis, 45, who was born in At­lanta and was a res­i­dent of Boston and Ver­mont, un­der­went a med­i­cal ex­ami­na­tion be­fore be­ing re­leased to U.S. au­thor­i­ties, the U.N. state­ment said.

“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,” Mr. Cur­tis’ mother, Nancy Cur­tis, of Cam­bridge, Mass., said in a state­ment. “Please know that we will be eter­nally grate­ful.”

“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,” she said.

Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry said in a state­ment that the United States had 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.”

Mr. Kerry didn’t dis­close which coun­tries helped me­di­ate Mr. Cur­tis’ re­lease.

But Mr. Cur­tis’ mother, while stress­ing that she didn’t know the ex­act terms of the ne­go­ti­a­tions, said in her state­ment that the fam­ily was “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.”

Qatar has been a ma­jor sup­porter of Syr­ian rebel groups.

The fam­ily be­lieves that Mr. Cur­tis was taken pris­oner by the Nusra Front shortly af­ter he crossed from Tur­key into Syria in Oc­to­ber 2012.

Mr. Cur­tis, who holds a doc­tor­ate in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture from the Univer­sity of Mas­sa­chu­setts and is flu­ent in French and Ar­a­bic, wrote free­lance ar­ti­cles and two books. One book pub­lished in 2011 — “Un­der­cover Muslim” — and writ­ten un­der the pen name Theo Pad­nos, de­scribed how he pre­tended to con­vert to Islam in or­der to in­fil­trate re­li­gious schools in Yemen and study the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of for­eign­ers.

He was one of an un­known num­ber of jour­nal­ists who were taken pris­oner af­ter cross­ing into Syria to doc­u­ment that na­tion’s more than 3-year-old civil war.

They in­clude Austin Tice of Hous­ton, a free­lancer who con­trib­uted ar­ti­cles to McClatchy and dis­ap­peared in Au­gust 2012.

In its state­ment, the White House ex­pressed “joy and re­lief” at Mr. Cur­tis’ re­lease.

“Not­with­stand­ing to­day’s wel­come news, the events of the past week shocked the con­science of the world,” Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Su­san Rice said in the state­ment, re­fer­ring to Mr. Fo­ley’s ex­e­cu­tion. “As Pres­i­dent Obama said, we have and will con­tinue to use all of the tools at our dis­posal to see that the re­main­ing Amer­i­can hos­tages are freed.”?

The Islamic State said it killed Mr. Fo­ley — whose ex­e­cu­tioner is be­lieved to be one of about 400 Brit­ish mem­bers of the group — in re­tal­i­a­tion for U.S. air­strikes against its fight­ers in north­ern Iraq.

The Nusra Front and the Islamic State grew out of al-Qaida’s Iraqi af­fil­i­ate, but they fell out when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Bagh­dadi de­clared they were merg­ing in April 2013.

Nusra Front leader Abu Mo­ham­mad Jou­lani re­jected the dec­la­ra­tion, and the two be­gan fight­ing af­ter Bagh­dadi in Feb­ru­ary spurned an or­der to con­fine his op­er­a­tions to Iraq by al-Qaida chief Ay­man Zawahri, who cer­ti­fied the Nusra Front as al-Qaida’s of­fi­cial Syria branch.

The Nusra Front, which many Syr­ian Sun­nis re­gard as more mod­er­ate than the Islamic State, has been dealt se­ri­ous set­backs since the Islamic State trans­ferred to its forces in Syria huge amounts of U.S.-made com­bat ve­hi­cles and heavy ar­til­lery it cap­tured from the Iraqi army.

Mary­land’s Mr. Smyth said that the pre­cise rea­sons for Mr. Cur­tis’ re­lease weren’t “at all clear.”

But in free­ing him, the group might not only have been try­ing to en­hance a softer pub­lic per­sona among Sunni Muslims but also try­ing to avoid be­ing hit by the kind of U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion that the Obama au­tho­rized in July in a failed at­tempt to res­cue Mr. Fo­ley and other U.S. cap­tives held by the Islamic State.

“I would say that the raid most likely had some level of ef­fect,” he said.

syria - united nations - United States - North America - Middle East - Barack Obama - Qatar - Susan Rice - Al-Qaida - Iraq - John Kerry - Bashar Assad - Roy Gutman - James Foley


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