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Journalist Theo Padnos Recounts Years as Syrian Prisoner in Documentary “Theo Who Lived”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos' story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region's language and culture

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In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016, Theo Padnos poses at the family's house in remote Reading, Vt. In 2012, journalist, Padnos slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch. Image source: VOA

reelance journalist Theo Padnos in 2012 slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch.

The group held the Massachusetts native for nearly two years before releasing him in August 2014 as they were convinced he was a CIA agent because he spoke Arabic.

Now, Padnos is retracing his journey in “Theo Who Lived,” a documentary being screened Sept. 30 in Cambridge. Its theatrical premiere is in New York City on Oct. 7, followed by a wider release.

Padnos, 47, who has been living in Paris and Vermont, tells the Associated Press he’s grateful to have survived.

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The ordeal not only changed his outlook on life but also gave him perspective on the Syrian conflict that he feels is important to share.

Padnos is working on a nonfiction book, a play and a novel drawing on his experience. He wrote about his captivity for the New York Times Magazine shortly after his release and is trying to continue writing about the region as a journalist.

” I had a real spiritual voyage, which was terrifying for me and my family at the time,” Padnos said from his family’s vacation home in Vermont. ” But looking back, this is what life gave me and I’d like to take what I learned and turn it into some positive benefit.”

The film follows Padnos as he returns to places in Turkey and Israel that figured prominently in his 22-month capture. The film crew never set foot in Syria. Padnos reflects on his captivity on sets emulating his tiny prison cell and the room where he was subjected to torture and beatings.

Along the Turkey-Syria border, he recalls the moment when his traveling companions instruct him to dash across the field and hop the razor wire fence separating them from Syria.

It’s a moment Padnos says he’d replay in his mind for months after.

The trio of men had claimed they were providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army and offered to take him across the border with them. But they were actually affiliated with al-Qaida. They staged a fake interview, beat him and took him hostage shortly after crossing the border.

” This is where I threw my life away. It’s like a precipice that I walked up to and I actually jumped,” Padnos says in the film. ” Now I’m back in a safe place and I’m thinking why did I ever jump?”

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Padnos also details a series of failed escapes, including one in which cellmate and American photojournalist Matthew Schrier managed to sneak out through a narrow prison window but Padnos could not.

Padnos’ mother, Nancy Curtis, who is interviewed in the documentary, says she still has mixed emotions about her son’s release. During the ordeal, she became close to the parents of other Americans kidnapped by extremists overseas. Many of them were not as fortunate as her family, she says.

Curtis and other family members, working with the U.S. and Qatari governments, successfully arranged for Padnos’ release just days after the Islamic State beheaded New Hampshire journalist James Foley in a video. The family maintains that no ransom was paid.

” I always clung to the hope that he’d come home,” Curtis said. ” But I also don’t feel great joy and happiness. Probably anyone who has had a solider in the war who came home but knows others that didn’t have similar emotions.”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos’ story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region’s language and culture.

Having spent years prior studying Arabic and Islam in Yemen and Syria, Padnos was able to build trust and friendships with some of his captors.

Near the end of his captivity, he was given greater freedoms and even traveled personally with the then-high commander of al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

“The real intimacy he developed with his captors was remarkable,” Schisgall said. ” It’s a very important message for Americans to see these people fighting as complicated individuals who are both very dangerous but also very human.” (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)