American writer held by Syrian militants freed after nearly 2 years

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

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

Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here