Theo Padnos ’91 spent nearly two years captive in an al-Qaeda prison in Syria. It was Vermont that saved him.
When he slept, he dreamt of Vermont. Snow falling through the birches. The weatherbeaten red barn. Family gathered around the fieldstone fireplace. Then he woke up to the hot furnace of a Syrian prison, a reality that seemed no less a dream. He’d been captive for months, starting with the day in October 2012 when he had run through an olive grove across the border from Turkey with three young Syrian men. They said they had worked as journalists and could introduce him to members of the Free Syrian Army.
Theo Padnos ’91, was 43 years old at the time, an aspiring journalist who had come to Syria hoping to sell articles about the country’s ongoing civil war. He sat down with the men on a mattress in a small house, asking one of them questions—What made him fight in the revolution? What was the happiest day of the war for him? The saddest? When the interview was over, the cameraman walked up to him, and kicked him hard in the face. One of the men held Padnos down while the others beat him. They put him in handcuffs, tied his legs, and told him, “We’re from al Qaeda. You are our prisoner now.”
That’s how it started, a two-year captivity by soldiers with the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s branch of al Qaeda. The details of his ordeal are captured in a documentary called Theo Who Lived, released this winter on Netflix. For the majority of the time, Padnos was confined to a small cell, and regularly beaten with steel cables and chains, and shocked into submission with a cattle prod. “You try and protect yourself with your hands, and then they start hitting your hands,” he says. “After awhile, your hands are bleeding and broken, so much you have to put them down.”
For all of the abuse he faced, Padnos comes across remarkably unscathed as he sits at a Harvard Square café in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A light rain falls outside the window on the trees in the square, as his bicycle leans against the window, unlocked, outside. His hair is a frizz of gray curls, and his eyes are bright, as he recounts his travails. “I didn’t feel traumatized by the experience,” he insists. “It was a positive tonic, like electroshock therapy. I was a bit down in the dumps, and I came back alert, awake, and happy.”
As a child, Padnos attended private school a few blocks from here at Cambridge’s prestigious Buckingham, Browne & Nichols. He lived in a nearby suburb, and by age 10 was riding the city bus by himself to school. “He went all over Boston by himself,” says his father, Michael Padnos, a former public interest lawyer for environmental and tenant rights. “People said, ‘Aren’t you worried?’ I said, ‘No, he’s got a lot of initiative and he’s very smart. I’m not worried about him.’”
By that time, Padnos was already learning Russian—demonstrating an early facility for languages; eventually he would be fluent in Russian, French, German, Italian, and Arabic. His mother, Nancy Curtis, worked as a writer for museums and arts organizations, and says Padnos was a charming child, with a ready smile and a full head of blond curls. “He was an exceptionally happy, sunny, good-natured boy, so much so that we had one friend who called him ‘Shiny,’” says Curtis, who still lives in Cambridge.
That shininess darkened at age 13 when his parents divorced and his father moved to France. Around the same time, he came to Vermont to attend boarding school at the Putney School, and took solace in the natural environment. “It seemed like everything that was beautiful and lovely existed there for me,” he says now. “Family, nature, beautiful colleges,” he laughs, “beautiful girls.” Padnos had been coming to Vermont since he was very young, when his parents purchased a ramshackle farmhouse in the woods at the end of a long road in Bridgewater. After he graduated from Putney, he headed just a couple of hours up the road to attend college at Middlebury. “Between the time I was 13 and 22 I went only to private schools in Vermont,” he says. “I was incredibly privileged.”
During college, he spent much of his time rock climbing and skiing cross-country in the surrounding hills, overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the Champlain Valley. He was less enamored with classes, becoming quickly restless to see the outside world. “Middlebury to me was like this little island of oblivion and happiness and cluelessness,” he says. For all of his criticisms, his professors remember him as an enthusiastic learner. “He was a very vital guy, who brought a lot of energy to class,” says English and environmental studies professor John Elder. “He really wanted to get his teeth into it.” Padnos developed a new interest in religion his senior year, taking courses all three terms with Jewish studies professor Robert Schine. “He had a very sensitive, inquiring mind,” remembers Schine. “It was clear he was somebody of deep idealism, and also flighty and a little off the wall. He would have these ideas and not shrink from them.”
Padnos was also responsible for bringing one of Middlebury’s leading lights to campus. During college, he read the essays in the New Yorker by writer Bill McKibben that were in 1989 turned into The End of Nature, one of the first books to address the threat of climate change. Discovering that McKibben was living in the Adirondacks at the time, Padnos wrote him a letter, telling him he was his biggest fan, and urging him to come to Middlebury. It was among the first times McKibben, then 28, had been invited to speak anywhere. Padnos and a group of friends held a private reception for him at a farmhouse they were renting out in Cornwall before McKibben’s talk to an overflow crowd at Dana Auditorium. “Ten thousand speeches later, I remember it well, mostly because of his enthusiasm,” says McKibben, now a scholar in residence in environmental studies. “That was my introduction to Middlebury, and I’ll always be grateful to him for it.”
After Middlebury, Padnos earned his PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, at the same time teaching English part time at the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility in Vermont, a few miles down the street from the Bridgewater farmhouse. He wrote a self-deprecating memoir of the experience, called My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, published in 2004. By that point, Padnos had become restless once again. Disillusioned by the re-election of President George W. Bush, he decided to take the money he’d saved and move to the Middle East to try his hand at journalism. “I was like, I can’t deal with another four years of this nonsense, and I bought the plane ticket to Yemen.”
Despite the gathering presence of al Qaeda in Yemen, the capital city of Sana’a was still a bastion of stability, centered around a historic old city, full of multistory apartment houses with balconies and arches, that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “I had the most gorgeous apartment in the city for $300 a month,” says Padnos. “I could have lived there forever.” With his natural curiosity, Padnos set about learning Arabic and taking classes at a religious school that promoted an extremist view of Islam. Eventually he wrote a book about the experience, Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen. Widely praised by reviewers, it focuses on the stories of disaffected Muslim youth and their growing gulf with values of the West.
When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Padnos saw an opportunity to further investigate those themes, and began pitching articles to editors in New York and London. Without a solid track record, however, his pitches fell on deaf ears. He decided to get a leg up by reporting from the region, leaving in the fall of 2012 for Turkey. His father suggested he stop off in Paris on the way, but Padnos declined, saying he would only be gone a few weeks and would visit on his way back. At the time he was in almost daily contact with his mother, whom he was helping buy a new woodstove for the farmhouse in Vermont. When he stopped emailing suddenly, she grew alarmed.
A week later, she got a cryptic email from him, with the subject line “Hey” but no body text.
On Padnos’s first night in captivity, amazingly, he was able to wriggle out of his handcuffs and flee out the door of the house in which he was being held. He flagged down a passing minibus, screaming, “Take me to the Free Syrian Army!” The driver took him to an army post, where the soldiers served him tea and falafel. While he was waiting to make a phone call, his kidnappers arrived. The officers released him back into the arms of the men who had beaten him, who then turned him over to the al-Nusra Front, which was then making its headquarters in the city’s children’s hospital.
He was locked in a small hospital room, where he could hear the screams of prisoners being tortured. In his free moments, he turned his situation over and over in his mind, wondering how he could have been so stupid. Finally, it was his turn; one of his captors told him to prepare to be executed in five minutes; then led him down the hall into the torture room, strewn with steel cables and ropes. They put his head in a noose and stood him on a stepladder, with his hands tied behind his back. Then, his captors questioned him for 40 minutes, alternately trying to make him confess he was a CIA agent and grilling him about his sex life in Turkey and Syria. It was the first of many torture sessions Padnos underwent, each time wondering if it would be the last.
“During the torture sessions, you feel like they are in the act of killing you, and you imagine yourself dying,” says Padnos. “And they would do that constantly to me. But if you don’t actually die, you survive.”
Padnos persevered by analyzing his situation, trying to understand what the terrorists were trying to accomplish. From his studies in Islam, he knew one of the central tenets of the faith was humility.
“I understood they were trying to have me acknowledge my own puniness in relation to the powers that rule the universe,” he says. “But what they really want is allegiance to the commanders. They want personal control over you.” From the beginning, they leveled accusations against him for America’s crimes, such as using the atom bomb against the Japanese in World War II, or persecuting Native Americans. “I said, ‘But of course, I know this better than you,’” Padnos says.
But then their narratives would veer off course, his captors telling him, for example, that archaeologists had found Muslim inscriptions in Native American burying grounds, proof that they were Muslims.
“When they talk like this, you know you’ve entered into someone else’s dream,” says Padnos. “And I was being held to account for that dream.” Still, he had empathy for his captors. “They believed I had come to destroy their families, to dismantle their religion, their mosques. So I tried to correct them and disabuse them of this notion,” he says. “But it is also true in a way; we have bombed mosques in Iraq and Afghanistan; we have invaded places they consider sacred.”
The one person during his ordeal he had trouble sympathizing with was an American photographer, Matt Schrier, who was put into the same cell after a few months. Padnos says they developed a dysfunctional relationship, with Schrier taking out his fear and frustrations by screaming in his face and cursing for hours on end. At the insistence of their guards, Schrier converted to Islam, after which, Padnos says, he received better treatment; Padnos was punished for refusing to convert. Finally, they were moved into another cell in the basement of the department of motor vehicles, where there was a window high up in the wall.
They spent days bending back the grille, practicing climbing up to escape. Finally in the predawn hours during Ramadan, Padnos agreed to let Schrier climb up on his back, with the agreement that he would then turn around and pull Padnos up. Schrier had difficulty squeezing through the window, kicking his legs in a panic to get himself through.
“It was like rock climbing,” says Padnos. “You get to the point in the climb where you could fall at any moment, and when you get to that point, if you panic then you really fall.” After calming Schrier down, Padnos’s cell mate was able to wriggle through the window, and he turned to pull Padnos up. When Padnos was halfway through, however, Schrier panicked again, worried someone was coming. He ran away, promising to find help. When the guards returned, they beat Padnos so hard he couldn’t walk for several days. He waited three weeks in the same cell, waiting for someone to come. He would remain in captivity for more than another year.
The whole time that Padnos was held captive, his family was frantically trying to locate him. Since his father shared Padnos’s last name, which he had used to write his Undercover Muslim book, the family agreed he would take a backseat in the rescue efforts. His mother and several cousins reached out to everyone they could in government. According to Curtis, the FBI seemed genuinely concerned, though limited in its ability to intervene; the State Department, she says, was not helpful. “They were like, ‘Go away, don’t bother us. What do you expect us to do?’” Curtis says.
Ironically, when Schrier got out of the country with news of Padnos’s whereabouts, it made the family even more anxious. “If you don’t know anything, you live in a world of wishful thinking,” says Curtis. Knowing he was in the hands of terrorists, however, both of his parents fell into a prolonged depression.
“You can’t survive with a constant high level of anxiety,” says Curtis. “You have to shut down your emotions.” Even so, thoughts of her son constantly emerged. “Every time I was having a wonderful meal with a friend, I’d think to myself, Theo can’t do this,” says Curtis. “That’s when I’d get really sad.”
Solace came unexpectedly from one of the few people in the world who could relate. A month after Padnos was captured, another American journalist named James Foley was also kidnapped by al Qaeda in Syria. Curtis bonded with his mother, Diane, who inspired her with her tenacity. “If anyone was going to get out, it was going to be Jim. She was down in Washington all the time, talking with religious leaders and congresspeople,” she says. “She was just relentless.”
One of the people Foley sought out was David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media (publisher of the Atlantic magazine) who had helped free her son when he was previously captured in Libya. In May 2014, Bradley convened a meeting with Foley, Curtis, and parents of three other American hostages to help coordinate their efforts. It has long been official U.S. policy not to pay ransoms for hostages, though unofficially it has done so in the past (and in fact freed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in a prisoner swap that same month). Bradley began reaching out to officials in Washington, at the same time back-channeling negotiations through Qatar, a country in the Middle East that is friendly to the U.S. but retains ties with al-Qaeda leaders.
By this time, Padnos had been moved into a small, windowless cell in Deir ez-Zor, a city on the other side of the country close to Iraq. There, he spent 200 days in the stifling hot cell, not even large enough for him to stretch out to sleep. His guards slipped him some pieces of paper, and he began writing. As usual, his thoughts turned to the cool woods of Vermont as he began composing a story to explain his captivity to himself. In his story, a small Vermont town called Shepherd’s Crossing—suspiciously similar to the rundown milltown of Bridgewater—suddenly begins undergoing mysterious arson attacks that terrorize the populace. Eventually a cult leader named Hippie Jim comes down from his commune on the hill to help clean up the mess and help the residents.
“This is what happened in Syria in the beginning of the war, where things just began to blow up, and nobody knew who was responsible,” he says. Eventually Hippie Jim begins to garner a following among the disgruntled townsfolk, who look to the neighboring town of Shelton—a posh town of boutiques and tourist restaurants, much like Woodstock—with a mix of anger and envy. The Syrian region Padnos was now living in was rich in both natural resources and anti-government sentiment, not unlike many parts of the U.S. “People feel as though the resources have been stolen from them.”
Originally, Padnos was writing to pass the time, with no hope of anyone else reading the story. As the guards began becoming curious about what he was scribbling, however, he began like Scheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights to tell them the story, explaining his views on their situation, and indulging in their requests to get to the parts with sex and romance. They listened raptly to his tale, softening and asking questions as they did. “They were interested in what I thought of their revolution,” Padnos says. “‘It is good? Is it bad? What do you make of what is going on?’” Some of them became friendlier, giving him occasional prized gifts of oranges and tuna. And every so often, one of them would disappear, killed in the fighting.
If there was any silver lining in Padnos’s situation, it was that he remained in custody of al-Nusra, and not the Islamic State (ISIS), which splintered from al Qaeda in Syria in 2013. As tensions grew between these former allies, Padnos received personal attention from Abu Maria al-Qahtani, the new leader of al Qaeda in Syria, who took Padnos with him when he fled with several hundred fighters to Daraa in far southern Syria near Jordan. For the next several months, Padnos was constantly at his side, unshackled, listening to the sheik as he unburdened himself of his troubles fighting the Americans, the Syrian government, and increasingly his former allies in ISIS. At one point, Padnos again tried to escape, but was again recaptured. He was forced to make a video saying he would be executed in three days, but the blow never came.
James Foley was not so lucky. Unlike Padnos, he was transferred to the custody of ISIS. On August 19, 2014, the terrorists released a grisly YouTube video showing a black-clad jihadist beheading an American dressed in an orange jumpsuit out in the desert. It was Foley. Things began to move quickly after that. Despite the official policy not to ransom hostages, the State Department entered into negotiations through Qatar to get Padnos out. The first glimmer of hope that Curtis allowed herself was when an FBI agent called and asked for his shoe size.
A few days after Foley’s death, the terrorists drove Padnos to a meeting with two United Nations trucks. With little ceremony, they led him into one of them, which drove the three hours to Tel Aviv, Israel. Despite warnings from the FBI to stay in his hotel room that night, Padnos couldn’t contain himself. He left and started running down the beach, ecstatic at the feel of sand beneath his feet. “Suddenly I was aware of the vastness of the world,” he says. “It was mind-blowing.” He immediately began talking to everyone he could—befriending a couple of Canadian tourists and bringing them back to his hotel for late-night boozing.
On one level, he realized that such blind trust was what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. “But on the other, I was aware of the person I wanted to become again, someone who engaged with the world and had an open, loving relationship with people.”
When he flew back to the States, his mother met him at the airport, where the two exhaustedly embraced. Practically the first words out of his mouth were, “I wrote a novel. It’s good—and I can’t wait to get it published.” They spent their first weeks holed up in Curtis’s apartment in Cambridge, avoiding the press, and just reveling in the sudden truth of each other’s presence. Padnos’s captivity had affected the whole family. “It was suddenly as if an enormous stone had been lifted from my shoulders,” says his father. “I suddenly felt like I could stand again, I could smile, I could breathe.”
For the documentary about his ordeal, the filmmakers interviewed Curtis in her farmhouse in Vermont, and nearby they constructed the prison cells where Padnos lived during his captivity. He sits inside them, guilelessly narrating the details of his torture. For Padnos, the shoddiness of the film sets wasn’t wholly different from the experience of being in the cells themselves.
“When you arrive in these places, they are like, ‘This is our Islamic emirate,’ and you go, ‘This little flimsy nothingness? You mean the cosmic battle between Good and Evil is supposed to happen in this crappy little jail cell?’”
Shortly after his return, Padnos moved to Paris, where he rides his bike to visit his father several times a week. There he is working on editing his Vermont novel, hoping to get it published. At the same time, he has returned to journalism, with an article about Muslim youth in Paris set to come out in Rolling Stone this spring; and he is working on a multimedia theater performance about his captivity, which he hopes to get staged in Paris or Berlin.
For his part, Padnos is against U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. “As soon as we give weapons to Mr. Reasonable over here, 20 minutes later they end up in the hands of ISIS,” he says. While he allows that some particularly brutal terrorist commanders may need to be taken out, for the most part he sees bombing militants as only perpetuating the cycle of violence. “The reason the regime is bombing Aleppo is because we keep giving them missiles,” he says. “If we stopped giving them a target, then women and children would live. Right now 15 million people are living under Bashar al-Assad, and they are still going to university every day. It’s not great but it’s not the end of the world.”
Surprisingly, he is still in touch through Twitter with some of his captors, whom he is trying to convince to leave the jihad. “These guys have moms and kids and wives,” he says. “They want to leave, but they don’t have the money.” As outwardly unaffected as he seems from his experience, his parents do see a new cautiousness and maturity in his outlook; his actions are less headstrong, more thoughtful. “He has always been a risk-taker, but he is not going to endanger himself again,” says Curtis. “I am more worried about him riding his bike in Paris at this point.”
One thing that has not changed, however, is the impulse that brought him to Syria in the first place—a desire to understand a very complicated part of the world, and translate it into terms that the average American can understand. “I tell him he is the most important person in the world,” says his father. “He is the one person who has seen the belly of the beast, and knows what it’s like from the inside. He can speak to them in their language, and speak to us in our language. It’s what the world needs to hear.”