How about al Qaeda?
It was not long ago (on the calendar, at least) that either name could summon, if not profound discomfort, at least a hint of the queasiness that swept over Theo Padnos as he sat in front of a TV in southwestern Syria the morning of Aug. 20, 2014. At the time, Padnos was a prisoner of al Qaeda, the terrorist group that commanded the attention of the entire world back when a radical religious ideology was considered the major threat to life as we know it. But that morning, Padnos watched in real time as Osama bin Laden’s creation lost top billing.
In his new book Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment, the writer sets the scene: After almost two years in tiny cells, with occasional breaks for torture, the American journalist is enjoying a measure of freedom. Padnos had just spent days in in a Toyota Hilux with the burly head of al Qaeda in Syria, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, driving across the country at the head of a 60-vehicle convoy. Behind them were the oil fields al Qaeda had just lost to a rival millennialist terror group that had not even existed when Padnos was first taken captive: ISIS, or the Islamic State. Ahead of them was Syria’s border with Israel, where Padnos is to be set free. A Gulf State had promised to pay a huge ransom—Padnos says he was told 11 million Euros—in exchange for the American, and Abu Maria planned to be there. On the drive, the emir would stop to hand commanders fistfuls of cash from the shopping bag under Padnos’ jump seat.
“He had sold me through Qatar, and he wanted to deliver the goods,” Padnos says by phone from his home in Vermont. “An honorable businessman. They paid, and he wanted to make sure that the product was delivered on time and in good condition.”
In a villa near the border, Padnos finds himself holding the TV remote in a room where a half dozen Al Qaeda commanders are looking at their phones, idling the morning away playing video games. Only Padnos watches the big screen, and what he sees gives him pause. A young American man wearing orange is kneeling in the sand beside a man dressed like a ninja. The man holds a knife. “American journalist James Foley killed in Syria,” the screen reads.
Padnos changes the channel. Then changes it again. No luck. It’s on every station, and soon on the phones of his own captors, who spend the rest of the day alternately admiring the execution video and murmuring glumly among themselves. “The world, they felt, had passed them by,” Padnos writes. “Their old colleagues…had made a hit video. It had transfixed the world.”
Released as promised four days later, Padnos numbers himself among the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives were transformed by the Global War on Terror, which al Qaeda provoked with the attacks of 9/11. If it’s like has not been seen again, just wait, Padnos advises: “They are adept, the terrorists are adept at coming up with some kind of performance, some kind of drama which will bring up our conflict with Islam.”
“The underlying anxiety between the two cultures is still there. We still don’t understand them and they still don’t understand us,” he warns.
Padnos would know. Now 53, he has spent sizable chunks of his adult life not only in the Muslim world, but among young Arab men in thrall of conflict. His first book, Undercover Muslim, recounts his time in Yemen, where he learned Arabic amid disaffected young men preparing for jihad. As he recounts both in Blindfold and, in Theo Who Lived, the surprisingly light-spirited documentary about his captivity, he came to know his subjects a little too well. In one of the makeshift prisons where he was held, his neighbors were captured ISIS fighters. Other jails he shared with civilians who got crossways with the powers that be. One night he listened to a friendly old man slowly die alone in the next cell after a bout of torture.
Padnos understood his captors as thugs who believed they were something exalted. “Our terror is a sacred thing,” goes one of the hymns sung by fighters who told themselves that harsh enforcement of simple rules would hasten an apocalyptic confrontation with the West. The fighters drifted from group to group, which were headed by old friends: The al Qaeda chief who gave Padnos a lift across Syria had gone to school with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who founded ISIS and dubbed the territory it controlled a “caliphate,” or Sunni Muslim religious state. Padnos explains that labels mean little: “Long before they declared a caliphate [in June 2014], long before Baghdadi got on the Internet and they overran Mosul, there was a functioning caliphate in the northwest corner of Syria. Already in 2012, people were living as if Baghdadi was the caliph. It’s like an invisible thing, it’s psychological. There are no signs, there are no borders. No, you’re coming into a state of mind. All the locals kind of know it’s there. But I didn’t.”
Padnos’ account of his capture may be the most excruciating reading in a book with a fair amount of torture. Intent on getting something published but disdainful of the journalistic pack clustered in a Turkish border town, he fell in with a couple of young Syrians who airily offered to take him into their country for a couple of days at no charge. Padnos was looking not for news but to see enough for “a literary travelogue, a bit like Rebecca West in Yugoslavia, a bit like George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London. This,” he writes, “was the butterfly I had chased over the precipice.”
At some cellular level, he knew he was placing his trust in the wrong people. As they stood facing the border they would sprint across, Padnos describes how “a dread more powerful than any I had encountered during all previous voyages to Syria washed over me. I ignored it…” A few hours later, his new friends slapped handcuffs on him, and the beatings began.
The al Qaeda affiliate that held him, known as the al-Nusra Front, was the only “Islamic army” in Syria at the time, and was mostly focused on fighting the Syrian regime. One proof: It possessed only one orange jumpsuit (the uniform infamously worn by prisoners the U.S. held at Guantanamo), so when it came time to make hostage videos, Padnos and his fellow prisoners had to take turns climbing in and out of it.
What the al-Nusra Front did have was ties to Qatar, an immensely rich Gulf kingdom that, crucially, also plays host to a massive U.S. air base. On one level, that duality reflects the abiding tensions within many Muslim nations. On a more practical level, it gave Qatar incentive to cut a hostage deal that benefited both al Qaeda and at least one American family. The U.S. citizens known to held by ISIS—journalists Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig—all met brutal ends. In fact, Foley spent time in the same cell Padnos had occupied “maybe a month or so” earlier, he realized, after comparing notes with Foley’s roommate there, the French journalist Nicolas Henin.
If—or, as Padnos assures us, when—Islamist terror makes its spectacular return, Blindfold will be a handy reference. A lot of it reads kind of like the literary travelogue he thought he might manage in a two-day jaunt across the border. Padnos is an engaging personality. At a key crossroads on the convoy across Syria, the prisoner was designated as traffic cop, and embraced the part to the honks and waves of the passing parade; when they weren’t beating him, even the jihadis seemed to like him.
“I have discovered tranquil domesticity,” the former hostage reports. “It ain’t bad in Vermont with bike and dog and lovely Significant Other. I cook. I ride. I am finishing the novel I wrote in jail about a crazy right wing insurgency in America.”