Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on April 4, 2022. Find that audio here.
In 2012, freelance journalist Theo Padnos was in a Turkish border town searching for a way into Syria to cover the civil war.
He found men who volunteered to guide him through the country — and soon found out they were not who they claimed they were.
Once over the border into Syria, the al-Qaida affiliates kidnaped Padnos, tortured him, moved him from prison to prison for two years, and threatened him with execution — but Padnos survived.
He recalls the harrowing experience in his new book, “Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment.”
Alone without support from a news organization, Padnos was unprepared to set foot in a war zone when he tried entering Syria nearly a decade ago. The freelance reporter says he didn’t realize the so-called guides, who belonged to al-Qaida affiliate group Jabhat al-Nusra, had grim ulterior motives until they held a gun to his head.
He underscores the point of his blindness within the pages of his memoir. Being physically blindfolded and living within a “period of extended terror” under the mercy of jihadists served as a “paradox of seeing in an Islamic State,” he says.
“Every citizen there, all the young recruits in the jihad, every normal average everyday citizen who submits to that kind of government and of course, the prisoners, you deprive yourself of your senses, your sense of orientation in the world, your own identity,” he says. “You lose all of that.”
After being tortured by al-Qaida or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), citizens and prisoners alike are supposed to “awaken with a deeper and truer, more profound, more moral orientation in life.” However for Padnos, he “woke up” to understand the rebels he once thought were potential forces for good were anything but.
But Padnos’ enlightenment isn’t shared by many in the Islamic State, he says. Even those who survive unthinkable abuse while imprisoned “wake up loving these guys,” he recalls.
The 8 million citizens of Iraq and Syria under control of Islamic State militant groups at the time weren’t all victims of Stockholm syndrome, he says, but rather brainwashed.
On being in prison
“I made a calendar on my wall, maybe in the first week or something. It was October of 2012. And I'm like, ‘why should I even bother with November? I’m going to be dead by then.’ So I didn't do a November, but then November came along and I'm like, ‘Alright I'll do it until Thanksgiving.’ The point of an Islamic prison in an Islamic State today is to make you leave the world of this life. So what they do is they subjected to a near-death experience in prison.”
On his al-Qaida affiliate kidnappers and the split between two groups seeking an Islamic State — ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra
“When I first arrived in Syria in October of 2012, there was one large resistance movement against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. There were many factions in this movement, and there were some that were like more Islamist flavored and some that said ‘we want a secular government over this country and people can choose their own religion.’
“Relatively early on, the fundamentalists — the people with the most moral authority on the ground in that country — they took power over everybody else. And within the rebellion, there was a split which occurred while I was in prison in which one-half of the fundamentalists called themselves the Islamic State. The other half said, ‘we're going to be Jabhat al-Nusra,’ which means ‘the Victory Front.’ One group of fundamentalists went one way. They called themselves ISIS. Another group went another way. They said, ‘we're going to call ourselves al-Qaida.’
“It was really a branding exercise. They believed in exactly the same things. There was no difference in aims or anything. They both dreamed of a beautiful Islamic golden time for Syria and then for the whole world. I was a prisoner of one half of this fundamentalist movement, and at one point the top guys in my group said, ‘let's go make war on the other group.’ And they fought each other for a little while and they're pretty much friends again.”
On considering God while in captivity
“In the beginning, I was terrified by ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.’ And I felt that it was a summons to the evil within these people around me. Friday afternoons, when they have their big prayer, it terrified me. I just felt that Islam was making life more dangerous for me because it was telling everybody to die. So you ask how I felt about God. I certainly didn't become religious, but I want peace for everybody. I have no resentment against Muslims. But I do think that religion can be ill-used against its own practitioners, the people for whom it normally brings comfort and solace, and it can quickly be corrupted and make them do crazy things.”
On how he made it out alive at a time when other journalists, such as James Foley, were being murdered
“I know why I made it out alive. What happened was when the ISIS men decided to form their own little group, they took their own prisoners from our prison and that was where James Foley and a few of the European hostages [went]. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida people, took their prisoners and went the other direction. They had a little divorce.
“And the reason why I survived is because Jabhat al-Nusra eventually lost a war that they were having with ISIS and they needed cash, so they bartered me for cash. ISIS at the time was flush with cash. They didn't need the money. They wanted a big media head. They were making these very captivating films and they were discovering what a drug social media can be. So the reason why I survived was because out of sheer luck, the commanders decided to give certain prisoners to al-Qaida and other prisoners went to ISIS.”
On being in prison and watching on TV as James Foley was beheaded by ISIS
“I looked at the [TV] crawl, and the crawl said ‘American journalists executed in Syria.’ I read that and I'm like, ‘wait, I'm the American journalist prisoner in Syria, what's going on?’ And I was not aware, of course, at the time that there were other American journalist prisoners in Syria. The first time I became aware of it was when I saw James Foley on TV. And there were a bunch of very crazy psychotic murderers and killers who had already killed tons of people for useless, stupid, idiotic reasons in the room behind me. I knew these people well, and I changed the channel. I'm like, ‘I don't want to give these lunatics bad ideas.’ But happily, by that time, the chief al-Qaida guy was already in touch with Qatar, who eventually ransomed me out of Syria.”
On his release and his undying will to live
“I'm delighted to be alive. I'm delighted that I have a beautiful place to live. I have a lovely partner. I have a beautiful dog and kitty cat and can ski and play tennis and hockey and live life. I'm happy to be alive, but to the extent that I am frustrated and bitter, which I am on behalf of the people of Syria and all my fellow prisoners who I feel have been so mistreated by the world, and I really would like to be able to give something back to those people who helped me so much in my hour of need. My fellow prisoners and their families — a lot of these people have disappeared and it would be nice if we could find some information about what happened to them.”
Book Excerpt: 'Blindfold'
By Theo Padnos
As I walked downward, into the center of Antakya, I turned into the narrow, darkened alleyway by which one entered the Ercan. Almost always, at every hour of the day, Syrians with whom I had a nodding acquaintance could be found milling about in front. On this evening, a café lounger who called himself Abu Firas happened to be smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table. During our first meeting, I had told him that I was a reporter who wished to travel into Syria. The moment I appeared in the street, when I was still fifty paces from him, he called out my name. I ambled to his table. He invited me to sit. There were no formalities. He proposed a trip into Syria. For $100 in cash, up front, he would take me to any village I wished to visit in Idlib Province. He had grown up in the province. He knew everyone there. Okay? Was I in agreement? Okay?
“Idlib?” I said. “What’s in Idlib?”
“Okay,” he said. “Fine. Aleppo.”
Apparently, during our first café conversations I had related details of my life I don’t normally relate to strangers. Or had someone else related these on my behalf? Ashraf? Adnan and Gibriel? Anyway, Abu Firas knew my story: I was the American reporter who wanted to spend no money, was curious about religion in Syria, had once lived in a Damascus neighborhood called Sha’alan, and now lived in a hovel with Ashraf.
“You have memorized well,” I said. “You are spying for whom?”
He smiled. “Yes. Spying. Like you.”
I smiled back. I asked him how he proposed to take me to Syria.
“A car,” he said. “A Mercedes.”
“Right,” I said. “I should take you there in my private jet.” He did not smile. Anyway, I said, if I was going to pay $100, I wanted a proper guide, approved by the Syrian ministry of tourism, with degrees in Roman history, classical architecture, and Syrian politics. “What do you really have, Firas?” I asked. “A bicycle?”
I meant to tease him. Most of the Syrians in the area were more of a mind to blow the ministry of tourism in Syria into little bits than to apply to it for a certification. Firas was meant to chuckle at the mention of their certifications, and to scoff at the idea that anyone should want anything from them.
He stared at me. “You don’t like me?” he said.
I told him that I wanted a man of culture as a guide. He spoke a rural, hard-to-understand version of Syrian colloquial Arabic. “What have you studied, my Abu Firas?” I asked. “Anything at all?”
His face darkened. I waited a moment for him to smile. He stared at me, frowned, then turned away. I sighed. Why must I make smart-alecky remarks? I had wanted to be cute. For an instant, I regretted it. I needed to apologize. And then I caught myself. Was not every Syrian café lounger in Antakya on the make?
Perhaps some of the Western reporters in Antakya were easy marks. I wanted it to be known that I was no rube. During our first meetings, Abu Firas had come across as too forward, too aggressively friendly, almost angry. I had felt he was working an angle. I wanted him to take his line of patter elsewhere. So it was okay to have crossed a line with him. I didn’t regret putting him off.
Abu Firas, however, was not put off. It took him an instant to swallow his pride. He sucked on his cigarette, then ordered me a tea. We chatted a bit about conditions in Idlib—such government troops as had not yet been killed or kidnapped, he said, were besieged on every side. Sooner or later, they would die. The people would rule. The government would be gone. He sighed. He took another drag on his cigarette. Would I object if he made a phone call?
When his correspondent picked up, Abu Firas stepped away from the table. He began one of those warmhearted conversations, full of Syrian formulae for good wishes, followed by doublings and tripling of the wishes, that affirm membership in a venerable brotherhood. He chatted for a moment under his breath, then returned to the table, the sour mood I had provoked in him earlier vanished. He suppressed a grin.
“I have excellent news for you,” he said. The friends he had just now spoken with were journalists themselves. They were Syrians, friendly to the opposition, who would be returning to Syria soon.
“Yes?” I said. “Journalists? Who do they work for?”
Abu Firas wasn’t sure. Anyway, his friends were constantly occupied with work. Probably they had many employers. They were in demand because they knew every back road in Idlib Province. They knew the main roads, too. Basically, they were travelers. One day, they were here; the next day, they were elsewhere. As chance would have it, this evening they would be at the hotel above the central taxi stand in Antakya, just around the corner from the Ercan.
“They want money,” I told Abu Firas.
Abu Firas shrugged. “Maybe they want free,” he said. “Ask them.”
“Free, free?” I asked. “Or free now and pay later?”
He shrugged again. He didn’t know. “Possibly free, free. Maybe a few liras.” I could find out the details myself, since the two people in question would be upstairs, in the first-floor hotel lobby of the Hotel Antakya, that evening at 7:00 pm.
At that hour, a breeze was rolling through a wall of floor-length curtains. Otherwise, the lobby was dead. I examined the reception desk, peered down an empty hallway, then stepped through the curtains. I met my kidnappers out there, on the balcony, in a haze of soft evening light. It cast a coppery glow over their jeans, their baseball caps, and their white basketball sneakers. They had propped their feet on the balustrade. They turned their heads but did not remove their feet. Probably this was a bad sign.
Eventually, Abu Firas stood. He smiled in surprise and awkwardness, then abruptly stopped smiling. He offered me his hand. “This is the American journalist,” he said into the slanting rays. I was the one who wanted to visit Syria, the one who spoke Arabic, the one who used to live in Damascus. The kidnappers offered me their hands.
The kidnapper closest to me wore a red baseball cap. His tresses glowed in the evening light. His eyes twinkled. He could have been a model in a magazine advertisement. “Welcome, my brother,” he said. “Welcome, my American friend!” He offered me a cigarette. I declined.
He put a glass of tea in my hand.
His name, he said, was Mohammed. He was Syrian, lived in Syria now, and planned to return there soon. He grinned his Cheshire cat grin. I like this person, I thought. I liked the way he tipped backward in his chair, his tea perched high above the Antakya din, and his blue-jeans-and-baseball-cap ensemble. I had to restrain myself from peppering him with questions.
“Speak English?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I told him in English.
“My language speaking very well,” he said. “I am study. English, if you please.”
He switched to Arabic. In Arabic he said that he had had to abandon his university course but carried on now as best he could, by studying the grammar on his own, reading stories, and of course watching American movies.
In the midst of these declarations, Abu Firas announced, out of nowhere, implausibly, as if he’d been struck by a bolt from the heavens, that he had left his phone in his hotel room. He apologized. “You’ll be fine by yourselves?” he asked. He is giving us space to discuss money, I told myself. So Abu Firas, despite my earlier rudeness, was being polite.
“Going?” I said to him. “Stay. Drink tea.” This, too, was a politeness.
“I have things to do,” he said. He offered me his hand. “Anything I can do for you?”
“Anything I can do for you?” I replied. These were formulaic, situation-appropriate
courtesies, but Abu Firas had gone out of his way to do me an act of generosity. He couldn’t have known what his good turn meant to me, and I had no way to express my gratitude. Still, I felt it. He had introduced me to an ideal traveling companion: the Syrian citizen-journalist. I despised all other kinds of reporters. The citizen-journalist, however, I liked. I liked the idea of the citizen-journalist and didn’t care about the details. I would learn the details along the way. I wished I had some truer way to thank Abu Firas. In the event, the only thing that came to mind was: “God be with you, brother. A thousand thank-yous!”
Hours later, it occurred to me that Abu Firas probably wouldn’t have sought out my kidnappers for me if, earlier in the evening, I hadn’t made condescending remarks about his accent, his sophistication, and his car. One oughtn’t to tell strangers in Antakya that one is an American.
This, too, had been a mistake. Perhaps he genuinely believed me to be scouting around on the CIA’s behalf. I oughtn’t to have joked with him about the possibility. Hours later, when I was trying to retrace my steps, in my mind, to the library of a house in which I was being tortured I kept seeing Abu Firas’s half smile in the evening light. I saw his uneasiness, and his urge to slip away. Perhaps the kidnappers had been telling him, before I arrived, of their feelings that Americans deserved to be shot wherever they could be found. I came to know those kidnappers. Declarations of this nature would have been quite in line with their true feelings. Perhaps he had misgivings about sentencing me to a voyage with such friends. Perhaps he half-agreed that Americans should be shot when possible but didn’t feel like carrying out the shooting himself, so made an excuse about his cell phone, then slipped through a dusty, diaphanous curtain, and so out of the plot he had set in motion.
In the fall of 2012, he was a common sight at the coffee tables in the Arabic-speaking section of Antakya. His phone number is in my iCloud account. He doesn’t answer it now. I never saw him again. Where have you gone, Abu Firas, you travel agent of death?
Excerpted from "BLINDFOLD: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment" by Theo Padnos. Copyright © 2021 by Theo Padnos. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This segment aired on February 16, 2021.