Interview by Atmane Tazaghart
American journalist and essayist, Theo Padnos was abducted and imprisoned for 22 months by the jihadists of the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. During his captivity, he was subjected to various forms of torture, including waterboarding, as made famous by the CIA’s “intense interrogations” carried out in Guantanamo, and gruesome staged scenes aimed at making him believe that he would be hung or buried alive. Yet he remained hopeful, convinced that he would be freed: as he understood Arabic, he got into the habit of discreetly listening to his jailers’ conversations. He thus came to understand that his captors had previously concluded a secret agreement with the Qataris aimed at obtaining financing under the guise of getting Doha to pay a ransom for his release!
How did you become a hostage of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria?
I was abducted in October 2012. I was in Turkey reporting on the Syrian refugees. I then wanted to report on the foreign voluntary doctors helping the victims of the war on the other side of the border, in Syria. It was at that time, in Antakya, that I met three individuals who told me that they were prepared to help me organise a two or three-day trip to Aleppo and then Idleb, and finally returning to Turkey. However, as soon as we crossed the border, they beat me and put me in restraints and told me in Arabic: “We are from al-Qaeda and you are our prisoner”.
They held me for a further 24 hours before handing me over to Al-Nusra. It was a terrible day during which those three jailers subjected me to torture for the first time. They tied my hands to the ceiling and whipped me in the hope of making me confess that I was a spy. They kept asking me: “Who do you work for? Who trained you? Where did you learn to be a spy?”. Then they subjected me to waterboarding and laughed and said: “You see, it’s just like in Guantanamo”!
When did you first learn about a ransom for your freedom proposed by Qatar?
From the very first days of my detention, I heard that my abductors were in contact with a Qatari emissary. Little by little, through the fragments of conversations that I overheard, I finally understood that my abductors had been in cahoots with the Qatari from the very start, that they had agreed to take hostages in order to release them for a ransom. No-one told this to me explicitly, but I understood, little by little, that there was a secret deal with the Qataris; that these ransoms were a roundabout way for Doha to fund al-Nusra without being suspected of financing terrorism. I was convinced of this.
Did that help you to get through the ordeal of those long months of captivity?
Yes, it helped me to remain hopeful. However, my abductors took great pleasure in constantly letting me believe that they were going to kill me. On many occasions, they came to my cell and told me: “Get ready, we will be coming back in 5 minutes to execute you according to Sharia law”. Once, they led me to a torture chamber that they called the “chamber of death”, made me climb up on a scaffold and put a noose around my neck. Their Emir then walked towards me and said: “You are a spy, admit it. I know that American spies are trained not to admit anything, but you are going to die anyway, and it is better to confess before going to hell”.
Another time, they came to get me and led me to a nearby field where a grave had been dug beforehand. They started beating me and haranguing me, saying “You will die like an animal, we are going to bury you alive like an insect”. They then pushed me into the grave and they began covering me with earth. I struggled with all my strength, but my hands and feet were tied, and I could not get the earth out of my eyes and mouth. They then suddenly stopped and left, leaving me there for another two hours before telling me to get out of the grave and taking me back to my cell.
Have you been subjected to other forms of torture?
I was regularly beaten, whipped, starved, tortured with electricity. I spent the first 7 months of my captivity with the same clothes, I couldn’t even brush my teeth. I was infested with lice and in such a state of grime that I eventually came to wish my death …
Regarding your release and the ransom paid by Qatar, how did things go?
At that time, I was detained in Deraa, in southern Syria. One day, I was in my cell, when Abu Mariya came to see me and said: “Get ready, we will send you today to your mother’s house”! They put me in the back of a pickup and drove south to the Jordanian border. I thought for a moment that they were going to liberate me via Jordan, but then they crossed the border to the Golan and handed me over to the UN forces stationed on the Syrian-Israeli border.
When I went to Doha later, two months after my release, the Foreign Minister told me that Qatar demanded al-Nusra my release via Israel because it was afraid of me being kidnapped again by other jihadists, if I was released via Jordan.
Who did you meet during your stay in Qatar? And what did you talk about?
I first met the head of the secret services [Saâda al-Qobeissi], then the Minister of Foreign Affairs [Khalid al-Attiyah]. I wanted to explain them that al-Nusra and al-Qaeda were one and the same organization. I naively thought the Qatari minister probably didn’t know the whole truth about al-Nusra’s activities in Syria. I tried to explain him that it was a terrorist organization that was destroying the country and executing innocent people. I told the minister: “By cooperating with al-Nusra, you support terrorists and help to destroy Syria”!
What did he answer?
I was in his office at the ministry and our discussion was friendly. He gave me a polite and diplomatic answer. He told me that he knew the people of al-Nusra well and trusted them completely. “We are sure of our intermediaries,” he added, “and they have always assured us that al-Nusra members are honest and sincere people who defend the Syrian people and work for the good of Syria.” I then told the Qatari minister that the people of al-Nusra were singing every day: “Our leader is Bin Laden. We destroyed the United States with a civilian plane. We have reduced the World Trade Center to dust. I sang this song in front of him, in his ministry. And he exclaimed: “At this point! Seriously? that’s what they sing!”
And with the head of the Qatari secret service, Saada al-Qobeissi, what did you talk about?
He told me that an American emissary came to see him in Doha, with my photo and those of other American hostages held in Syria, asking him if he could interfere on our behalf. The head of the Qatari service told me that he had replied to the American envoy: “I can’t promise you anything about James Foley, Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig because they are in the hands of Daesh. But, for Theo Padnos, yes. I will make him free!
Did this statement confirm your doubts about the fact that your captors were in cahoots with the Qataris?