Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate on Sunday unexpectedly freed an American writer from nearly two years captivity after secret international negotiations for his release that were apparently led by Qatar.
The Nusra Front may have freed Peter Theo Curtis as a gesture to distinguish itself from its more reviled rival, the Islamic State, which declared a caliphate on the huge swaths of Syria and Iraq that it has overrun in offensives marked by mass executions and other atrocities.
Curtis’ release came five days after the Islamic State sparked international outrage by releasing a video showing the beheading of American freelance journalist James Foley and as the out-gunned Nusra Front has lost ground in Syria to its larger, better armed rival.
“They are going to have to differentiate themselves,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, who pointed out that the Nusra Front has been working to soften its public image among Syria’s Sunni Muslims while being “just as brutal and just as violent” as the Islamic State.
Representatives of the Nusra Front, one of an assortment of overwhelmingly Sunni insurgent groups fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, handed Curtis over to United Nations peacekeepers in the village of al Rafid in Syria’s southern Golan Heights, according to White House and U.N. statements.
Curtis, 45, who was born in Atlanta, Ga., and was a resident of Boston and Vermont, underwent a medical examination before being released to U.S. authorities, the U.N. statement said.
"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," Curtis' mother, Nancy Curtis, of Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement. "Please know that we will be eternally grateful."
“We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley,” she added.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that the United States had reached out to more than two dozen countries, "asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo's release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria."
Kerry didn’t disclose which countries helped mediate Curtis’ release. But Curtis’ mother, while stressing that she didn’t know the exact terms of the negotiations, said in her statement that the family was “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.”
Qatar has been a major supporter of Syrian rebel groups.
The family believes that Curtis was taken prisoner by the Nusra Front shortly after he crossed from Turkey into Syria in October 2012.
Curtis, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts and is fluent in French and Arabic, wrote freelance articles and two books. One published in 2011 – entitled “Undercover Muslim” – and written under the pen name “Theo Padnos,” described how he pretended to convert to Islam in order to infiltrate religious schools in Yemen and study the radicalization of foreigners.
He was one of an unknown number of journalists who were taken prisoner after crossing into Syria to document that nation’s more than three-year-old civil war. They include Austin Tice, of Houston, Tx., a freelancer who contributed articles to McClatchy and disappeared in August 2012.
In its statement, the White House expressed “joy and relief” at Curtis’ release.
"Notwithstanding today's welcome news, the events of the past week shocked the conscience of the world," National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in the statement, referring to Foley’s execution. "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."
The Islamic State said it killed Foley – whose executioner is believed to be one of some 400 British members of the group – in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against its fighters in northern Iraq.
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State both grew out of al Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate. But they fell out when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared they were merging in April 2013.
Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad Joulani rejected the declaration and the two began fighting after Baghdadi in February spurned an order to confined his operations to Iraq by al Qaida chief Ayman Zawahri, who certified the Nusra Front as al Qaida’s official Syria branch.
The Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis regard as more moderate than the Islamic State, has been dealt serious setbacks since the Islamic State transferred to its forces in Syria huge amounts of U.S.-made combat vehicles and heavy artillery it captured from the Iraqi army.
Maryland’s Smyth said that the precise reasons for Curtis’ release wasn’t “at all clear.”
But in freeing him, the group may not only have been trying to enhance a softer public persona among Sunni Muslims, but also was trying to avoid being hit by the kind of U.S. military operation that the Obama authorized in July in a failed attempt to rescue Foley and other U.S. captives held by the Islamic State.
“I would say that the raid most likely had some level of effect,” he said
Roy Gutman in Istanbul and Mitchell Prothero in Irbil, Iraq, also contributed to this story.