In this essay, I discuss curious case of journalist Theo Padnos, who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Syria in 2012 and held for 22 months before he was finally released. Having survived a kidnapping in Iraq myself, I have followed the case of Padnos, and those of other Western hostages taken during the Syrian conflict, with great interest. What is curious about Padnos’ case is that US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford knew where Padnos was being held captive, had the opportunity to try to save him, and yet appears to have been indifferent to doing so.
Padnos entered Syria in the fall of 2012 with what he thought were rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). Once inside Syria, the men revealed themselves to be members of al-Qaeda in Syria, known as the Nusra Front (hereafter, Nusra). Padnos was held captive for 22 months by Nusra. He managed to escape twice, seeking refuge with the FSA, only to have the FSA return him to his Nusra captors. FSA groups and the Nusra Front have collaborated closely throughout the Syria war. Padnos’ captors held him for a period in a children’s hospital in Aleppo and tortured Padnos at various times throughout his lengthy captivity. Padnos was finally freed in August 2014, through the efforts of the Qatari government, which is a strong backer of Nusra.
In an interview with the BBC in October 2015, ambassador Ford was asked about Padnos’ case. Ford admitted that he likely knew where Padnos was being held in Aleppo, but showed an odd disinterest in trying to help locate him. In the interview, Ford “recalled when two Americans, photographer Matthew Schrier and journalist Theo Padnos were held by a militant organisation, Nusra Front, in Aleppo. One morning in July 2013 Schrier escaped through a small window. Padnos didn’t. Schrier told US officials about the building and its location. The officials asked one of the opposition leaders to go to the building and wondered what would happen. ‘It’s not like he owed me anything,’ Ford said. He [Ford] never found out if the commander actually looked for Padnos.”
As it turns out, it was rather easy to locate where Padnos was being held captive. In May of 2013, wealthy entrepreneur and media mogul David Bradley took it upon himself to win the release of Padnos, as well as of four other American hostages being held in Syria, namely James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, and Peter James Kassig. In contrast to Padnos, the other four hostages were held by ISIS, and all were later murdered.
While working on Padnos’ case, Bradley discovered an American lawyer (referred to as Mary Hardy) who had spent time in Afghanistan researching the insurgency there. In an account of Bradley’s effort to help the five families locate their abducted children, the New Yorker reported that Hardy “learned that the people who had abducted Padnos and Matt Schrier were using Schrier’s PayPal account to order such items as sunglasses; the items were delivered to a shop owner on the Turkish border who was known for providing fake identifications. Hardy believed that a gang connected to the shop owner had abducted Padnos. She obtained photographs of the shop owner and the gang members and sent all this information to the F.B.I., along with images of a prison in Aleppo. She [Hardy] suspected—correctly—that Padnos had been held there.”
Strangely, rather than thanking Hardy for her efforts for locating a prison in Aleppo where it turns out Padnos had actually been held, and building upon them, the New Yorker notes that, “The F.B.I. ordered her to shut down her operation.”
Bradley was also able to arrange a meeting with the chief FBI hostage negotiator, who insisted the agency had jurisdiction over the Padnos’ kidnapping investigation, implying the agency wanted to take full responsibility for Padnos’ case and win his release. However, the FBI seemed to make little effort on Padnos’ behalf, failing even to track his iPhone, which his abductors continued to use, even though this can be done with basic technology familiar to most smart phone users.
Bradley also set up a meeting with Ambassador Ford, in which Ford agreed that the FBI indeed had jurisdiction. Significantly, Ford also told Bradley that unfortunately the CIA could not be of much help either because the agency “had no assets closer to Syria than Gaziantep, Turkey.”
It appears Ford was lying to Bradley because, as Ford admitted to the BBC a year later, US officials did indeed have a contact on the ground in Syria, namely the unnamed opposition rebel commander whom they had asked to check on Padnos’ location after Schrier escaped and provided it to them.
Yet more strange is that Ford himself had an excellent contact on the ground in Aleppo, the city where Padnos was being held, whom Ford could have asked for help in locating Padnos. Ford had close ties with Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, a prominent Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel commander. Al-Okaidi was the head of the US-backed Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, which council the Telegraph described as the “main recipient of the limited western aid to have reached Syria’s rebels.” National Public Radio (NPR) reports that Ford had personally met with al-Okaidi in May 2013 to coordinate efforts in Syria (two months before Schrier’s escape) after which al-Okaidi thanked Ford for aid shipments to the FSA. As a chief recipient of US aid, al-Okaidi would certainly have had close contact with CIA officials as well.
Further, it is likely al-Okaidi had close ties with the rebel group holding Padnos, namely the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. In an interview with an opposition media outlet, al-Okaidi claimed that the Nusra Front was actually part of the FSA he was commanding, stating that Nusra “constitute perhaps 10% of the FSA in the city of Aleppo and in Syria,” which means al-Okaidi must have had excellent contacts and relations with Nusra commanders in Aleppo. It is definitely known that al-Okaidi had close ties with Islamic State (ISIS) commanders in Aleppo. The New York Times reported that al-Okaidi and fighters under his command participated in the siege of the Menagh airbase in the summer of 2013 alongside ISIS battalions led by notable ISIS commanders Abu Jandal and Abu Omar al-Shishani. Video footage emerged of the same (discussed further below). Nusra and ISIS had only recently split into two separate organizations. Though they later fought one another, at that time in Aleppo, the two organizations were on friendly terms. Indeed all the rebel groups in Aleppo (Tawhid Brigade of the FSA, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS) had a good working relationship at that time.
Further evidence that Ford and al-Okaidi had close ties comes from McClatchy, which described how Ford called al-Okaidi directly to complain to him about the public relations nightmare the Obama administration had to deal with after the video emerged of al-Okaidi standing shoulder to shoulder with ISIS commanders at the Menagh airbase. McClatchy writes that:
“We were furious,” recalled Ford. “I called Oqaidi myself.” Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al Oqaidi, then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield. Although Oqaidi’s men were among several Syrian factions besieging the base, the suicide bombers were foreign fighters and the shock troops came from a contingent of Russian-speaking jihadists from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus. Their leader, known as Omar Shishani, was part of the al Qaida offshoot known at the time as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; today he’s believed to be the military commander for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Even though administration officials had been worried for months about the metastasizing jihadist presence among the rebels, Ford said, the Menagh incident was the Obama administration’s wake-up call that the extremists had become the backbone of the anti-Assad forces, the go-to guys for when the less-trained, poorly equipped Free Syrian Army units couldn’t carry out attacks alone. Frustrated by the turn of events and under pressure for an explanation, Ford called Oqaidi for what he called “a very unhappy phone conversation.” “I said, ‘This is extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful.’ And he said, ‘You gave us nothing to fight with,’” Ford recalled. “All I could say to him is: when you do stuff like that, you make it even harder. And he said, ‘Mr. Ambassador we have a war to fight.’”
Receiving no help from Ford, in May 2014 Bradley turned to Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American and former FBI agent who had become famous for interrogating al-Qaeda members after 9/11, and who now ran his own consulting firm. Soufan immediately suggested meeting with the head of Qatar’s intelligence service, Ghanem Khalifa al-Kubaisi. This is unsurprising given Qatar’s links to Nusra and other extremist groups in Syria. Recently, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani hinted that Qatar provided support to extremist rebels in Syria, including Nusra, in coordination with US officials. Qatari support for Nusra had been something of an open secret for years. In June 2014, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic reported that “Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra, to the point that a senior Qatari official told me he can identify al-Nusra commanders by the blocks they control in various Syrian cities.”
The New Yorker also notes that “Bradley knew that many rebel groups in Syria depend on Qatari support,” and that “Qatar provides an underground channel of communication between radical Islamists and the West,” as any close observer of the Syria conflict would know. Bradley and Soufan were finally able to meet al-Kubaisi on July 10, 2014 in Doha, Qatar. Bradley shared details of each of the five hostages. Al-Kubaisi quickly indicated he was not able to help with the captives held by ISIS, but indicated that he could indeed help in the case of Padnos (again because he was held by Nusra, which the Qatari government backed). Soon thereafter, on August 24, 2014, Padnos was freed when Nusra handed him over to FBI agents at a UN observer outpost in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
All of this raises several questions. If a US citizen was being held by a terrorist group supposedly hostile to the US, why were US officials able to ask an “opposition leader” to simply check out the building? Wouldn’t a military operation be required for a US ally to enter hostile territory controlled by an al-Qaeda affiliate? Since a military option was not required, does this mean that US officials were on friendly terms with opposition rebel commanders who were themselves on friendly terms with the Nusra militants holding Padnos hostage? This would not be surprising given that Ambassador Ford was on friendly terms (and was coordinating closely) with FSA commander al-Okaidi, who himself was on friendly terms with (and coordinating closely) with members of ISIS and Nusra.
Further, why didn’t Ford bother to follow up to see if the opposition leader had actually looked for Padnos? How much effort would that have taken? Why did Ford lie to Bradley and claim the CIA did not have contacts on the ground in Syria that could help, when in fact the CIA did have such contacts, one of whom Ford knew personally? Why didn’t Ford offer to enlist al-Okaidi to use his contacts within Nusra to locate Padnos? Was al-Okaidi the commander US officials asked to look for Padnos?
If working with someone from the Syrian opposition to find Padnos was for some reason not feasible, why didn’t US officials conduct a military raid to attempt to save Padnos given that his probable location was known to them at least two days after Schrier escaped? The US military conducted a military operation in July 2014 to try save James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Kayla Mueller, who were all held as hostages by ISIS. President Obama claimed that the US government devoted “enormous resources” to try to rescue them. Why didn’t they do the same for Padnos?
Why didn’t Ford and other US officials attempt to secure Padnos’ release through their partners in Qatari intelligence? Ford must have been just as aware as Bradley that Qatar, a close US-ally, had close ties with Nusra. What prevented Ford and other US officials from turning to their Qatari allies for help? Why were Ali Soufan and David Bradley able to win the release of Padnos, when the FBI, State Department and other US government agencies were not?
In short, of all the questions this curious case raises, the most important is certainly this: why didn’t Robert Ford bother to find “out if the commander actually looked for Padnos?”