Militants linked to al-Qaida in Syria freed an U.S. writer missing since 2012 on Sunday, following what officials said were efforts by the Gulf Arab state of Qatar to win his release.
As the U.S. mourned the beheading of journalist James Foley by Islamic militants, the nation found something of a reprieve with the release of another freelance reporter in Syria. The release of Peter Theo Curtis, who wrote under the byline Theo Padnos, offered consolation to U.S. officials, the journalism community, and family members deeply unnerved by the grisly video of Foley’s beheading in a desolate desert landscape.
Curtis’ release appeared to have been aided by the oil-rich nation of Qatar, which said that it had “exerted relentless efforts” to win the American’s freedom. Qatar has also been involved in mediating past hostage releases.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Curtis had been held by Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked militant group fighting Assad’s government. Kerry said that over the past two years, Washington had reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for help in the release of Theo, as well as the release of other American hostages in Syria.
Family spokesperson Betsy Sullivan said intermediaries previously involved in negotiations threatened the family and made ransom demands of varying amounts. The family said that ultimately, however, they were assured by Qatari representatives that no money was paid for Curtis’ release.
The United Nations facilitated the handover of Curtis to U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. Following a medical check-up, he was met by U.S. government personnel who were transporting him to Tel Aviv. Curtis is currently safe outside of Syria and expected to be reunited with his family shortly.
“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. Please know that we will be eternally grateful.” – Theo’s mother, Nancy Curtis
His family said they believed Curtis was captured in October 2012, shortly after crossing into Syria. While there, he was hoping to write freelance news stories to help the Syrian people.
Another American, photographer Matt Schrier, who was held in the same cell as Curtis but escaped in 2013, said in a statement: “This day will go down as one of the happiest of my life. After living through the tragic events of this past week with the death of James Foley and hearing that the life of Theo Curtis has been spared, it gives me great hope for the safe return of all the other hostages.”
President Barack Obama was briefed on the release Sunday morning as he wrapped up a vacation in Massachusetts.
“The president shares in the joy and relief that we all feel now that Theo is out of Syria and safe, but we continue to hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria, and we will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed.” – White House spokesman Eric Schultz
Curtis was not believed to be among the hostages held by the Islamic State group that killed Foley. The Islamic State was formally disavowed by al-Qaida earlier this year after being deemed too brutal.
The Obama administration used Curtis’ release to insist that it was determined to find those responsible for Foley’s death and pursue the release of other hostages.
“Theo Curtis, Jim Foley and other journalists travelled to Syria to shed light on the unspeakable horrors being committed against innocents — only to become victims of brutal forces unleashed and abetted by the conflict,” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said in a statement. “So long as any American is held captive, the United States government will do everything in our power to bring them home safely.”
Curtis’ release is likely to renew questions about the intentions of different militant groups in Syria and Iraq, and how the U.S. should deal with hostage takers.
Curtis changed his name legally to Peter Theo Curtis after he published a memoir called “Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen.” The name change was to make it easier to travel in the Muslim world.
This report was compiled with information from Reuters and the Associated Press.