Within days of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, another American hostage in Syria won his freedom.
The release of freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis yesterday underscored the differing tactics used by rival terrorist groups operating in Syria.
Curtis, 45, was held in Syria for almost two years by the Jabhat al-Nusrah group, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, until he was released into the custody of the United Nations under circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.
“Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home after so much time held in the clutches of Jabhat al-Nusrah,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
Foley, whose beheading was shown in a grisly video released last week, was held since 2012 by Islamic State, a group that broke away from al-Qaeda and captured a large swath of northeast Syria and northern Iraq.
As the video makes clear, Islamic State has adopted more brutal tactics than al-Nusrah has shown so far in dealing with the U.S. In the same video, Islamic State threatens to kill another American reporter, Steven Sotloff, if U.S. airstrikes in Iraq continue.
In Foley’s case, President Barack Obama authorized a secret rescue mission earlier this summer after concluding that hostages held by Islamic State “were in danger with each passing day,” Lisa Monaco, the White House assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, said in a statement last week. The rescue mission by U.S. special operations forces failed when they discovered the hostages had been moved from where intelligence officials thought they would be.
The U.K. is close to identifying Foley’s executioner, who spoke with a British accent on the video and is believed to be a British citizen.
“I do know from my colleagues at home that we are close,” said Peter Westmacott, the U.K. ambassador to the U.S., on CNN’s “State of the Union” program yesterday.
In Curtis’s case, Obama administration officials confirmed his release without explaining how it was arranged or by whom.
The government of Qatar was the key negotiator, according to a statement from Curtis’s family.
“We were repeatedly told by representatives of the Qatari government that they were mediating for Theo’s release on a humanitarian basis without the payment of money,” Nancy Curtis, the journalist’s mother, said in the statement.
“My entire focus right now is on helping the other families of those still being held in Syria, and on taking care of my son,” she said.
Curtis was released to United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, according to a statement on the UN’s website. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. After a medical checkup, Curtis was released to U.S. government representatives, the UN statement said.
Both al-Nusrah and Islamic State have historic ties to al-Qaeda. While al-Nusrah is an affiliate that remains loyal to the core al-Qaeda command based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamic State broke away from that organization earlier this year.
Both groups hold hostages, although Islamic State’s tactics have been more brutal. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week called Islamic State an imminent threat, after it had beheaded Foley and secured a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Curtis worked as a journalist in Yemen before going to Syria, where he was captured in October 2012 and held by al-Nusrah or by splinter groups allied with it, according to the family’s statement.
Born Peter Theophilus Eaton Padnos in Atlanta, he changed his legal name to Peter Theo Curtis “to make it easier to travel in the Arab world,” the family’s statement said. He often wrote under the name of Theo Padnos, it said. He graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont and has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts.
“Theo has a deep concern and regard for the people of Syria, which is why he returned during the war,” his mother said in the statement. “He wanted to help others and to give meaning and to bear witness to their struggles.”
Curtis was held in Syria with U.S. photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who escaped in July 2013 after being held for seven months, according to the New York Times.
Schrier told the Times he escaped through an opening in his cell wall, which he reached by standing on Curtis’s back. While he then tried to help Curtis through the hole, Curtis became stuck and decided to stay in the prison, according to the Times’ account.
“Theo is now safe outside of Syria, and we expect he will be reunited with his family shortly,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement.
Obama, who was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, was briefed on Curtis’s release yesterday, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, in an e-mailed statement.
Islamic State militants may be holding two dozen or more hostages, including Sotloff, whom the group threatened to kill if U.S. airstrikes continue, intelligence officials have said.
“Notwithstanding today’s welcome news, the events of the past week shocked the conscience of the world,” Rice said. “As President Obama said, we have and will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed.”