News / Middle East

US Journalist Held in Syria Freed

Journalist Peter Theo Curtis (al Jazeera)
Journalist Peter Theo Curtis (al Jazeera)
Victor Beattie

American freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis was freed Sunday by the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, who had held him captive for nearly two years in Syria. The release came five days after a video posted on the Internet showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of an Islamist State (IS) militant.

Curtis was handed over to U.N. peacekeepers in the village of Al-Rafid, in the Golan Heights, late Sunday and delivered to American representatives. U.S. officials say he is now out of Syria and will be reunited with his family soon.

Jonathan Adelman, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, said there are a couple of ways the Curtis release is tied to the August 19 video of Foley’s execution.

"One is that al-Nusra, which is more of a Syrian group, rather than a caliphate or international group, clearly wanted to demonstrate that, even though they’ve killed and tortured people before, that they’re not like ISIS. They’re trying to differentiate themselves [from IS]. Secondly, for Qatar, [the release is] very important because they just suffered in the Israeli-Hamas war a major setback several weeks ago when they and Turkey guaranteed a cease-fire and they and Turkey were going to deliver Hamas for the cease-fire, and they failed," said Adelman.

Middle East analyst Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco said the Curtis release may also be an attempt by al-Nusra to forestall any potential expansion of U.S. air strikes to Syria from northern Iraq.

"There is some suspicion that the United States and perhaps other countries will take their battle against ISIS that we have already seen develop in Iraq across the Syrian border, and I think the al-Nusra folks are trying to make it clear they are a separate grouping and don’t want to be on the receiving end of any U.S. military retaliation," said Zunes.

The Curtis family says the journalist was captured shortly after crossing into Syria in October 2012. Details of his release are unclear, but Curtis’s mother, Nancy, said 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.  She said her Cambridge, Massachusetts family is “eternally grateful” to all those who helped negotiate his release.

The White House said President Barack Obama “shares the joy and relief… now that Theo is out of Syria and safe.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement, said the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure the journalist’s release and that of any Americans held hostage in Syria.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. At least 70 have been killed in the past two years.  More than 80 have been kidnapped and about 20 are currently missing in Syria.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said last week it is “increasingly likely” the masked executioner of journalist James Foley was a British national.

Appearing on U.S. television Sunday, Britain's ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott, indicated intelligence agencies are close to identifying Foley’s executioner.

"I’ve been in touch, obviously, in the last day or two, with my colleagues at home.  We’re not yet in a position to say exactly who this is, but there is some very sophisticated voice-identification technology and other measures that we have got which should allow us to be very clear about who this person is before very long," said Westmacott.

Westmacott said there may be as many as 500 people from the United Kingdom who have gone to join the IS jihadists. 

Memorial services for Foley were held Sunday in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in his hometown of Rochester, New Hampshire. Members of the Kurdistan Journalist Syndicate, university students, lawmakers and diplomats, including the U.S. Consul General in Erbil, Joseph Pennington, were on hand for the service in Iraq.

"James Foley went to the darkest of places to shine the light of truth.  Today, our thoughts, our prayers go out to James Foley’s family, his friends and colleagues who are grieving his loss," said Pennington.

The memorial Mass at the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in New Hampshire was attended by Foley’s parents and hundreds of others and led by Bishop Peter Libasci.

"Since this moment in our lives is international in scope, crossing all boundaries, yet very personal, bound together by a deep sense of human compassion and heartfelt remorse.  I wish to extend to you, in the name of all people of good will, our deepest sympathy," said Libasci.

The bishop also read aloud a letter from Pope Francis extending his condolences.  A funeral for Foley is expected to be held on October 18th, on what would have been his 41st birthday.

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