In the early morning hours of July 3, one of the two top commanders of Al Qaeda in Syria summoned me from my jail cell. For nearly two years, he had kept me locked in a series of prisons. That night, I was driven from a converted schoolroom outside the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, where I was being held, to an intersection of desert paths five minutes away. When I arrived, the commander got out of his Land Cruiser. Standing in the darkness amid a circle of men draped in Kalashnikovs, he smiled. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Certainly,” I said. I knew him because he visited me in my cell once, about eight months earlier, and lectured me about the West’s crimes against Islam. Mostly, however, I knew him by reputation. As a high commander of the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, he controlled the group’s cash and determined which buildings were blown up and which checkpoints attacked. He also decided which prisoners were executed and which were released.
He wanted to make sure I knew his name. I did, and I repeated it for him: Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. “You are our Man of Learning,” I added, using the term —sheikhna — that his soldiers used to refer to him.
“Good,” he said. “You know that ISIS has us surrounded?”
I did not know this.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Not to worry. They won’t get me. They won’t get you. Everywhere I go, you go. Understand?” I nodded.
We drove to a residential compound next to an oil field near the Euphrates. For the rest of the night, I watched as some 200 foot soldiers and 25 or so religious authorities and hangers-on from the Afghan jihad prepared for their journey.
There were bags of Syrian pounds to stuff into the cabs of Toyota Hiluxes, boxes of stolen M.R.E.s to load onto the truck beds and suitcases and water coolers to fit in beside them. And there was the weaponry: mortars, rockets, machine guns, feed bags filled with grenades and bullets, stacks of suicide belts.
By 4 in the morning, the packing was done. At dawn, the commander drove to the head of the column of Hiluxes and fired his handgun into the air. Within seconds we were gone, flying over the sand. There are roads in this part of Syria. We didn’t use them.
I was now 20 months into my life as a prisoner of the Nusra Front: the abrupt departures, the suicide belts, the mercurial behavior of the Man of Learning, the desert convoys, the way I might be shot or spared at any moment — this was my world. I was almost used to it.
In October 2012, however, when I was first kidnapped, I used to sit in my cell — a former consulting room in the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo — in a state of unremitting terror. In those first days, my captors laughed as they beat me. Sometimes they pushed me to the floor, seized hold of a pant leg or the scruff of my jacket and dragged me down the hospital corridor. If someone seemed to take an interest in the scene, I would scream: “Sa’adni!” (“Help me!”) The onlookers would smirk. Sometimes they called out a mocking reply in English: “Ooo, helb me! Ooo, my God, helb me!”
Because there was no bathroom in my cell, I had to knock on the heavy wooden door when I needed the toilet. Often, the guards wouldn’t come for hours. When they did, they would bang on the door themselves. “Shut up, you animal!” they would say.
The cruelty of my captors frightened me, but my bitterest moments in those early weeks came when I thought about who was most responsible for my kidnapping: me.
I believed I knew my way around the Arab world. In 2004, when the United States was mired in the war in Iraq, I decided to embark on a private experiment. I moved from Vermont to Sana, the Yemeni capital, to study Arabic and Islam. I was good with languages — I had a Ph.D. in comparative literature — and I was eager to understand a world where the West often seemed to lose its way. I began my studies in a neighborhood mosque, then enrolled in a religious school popular among those who dream of a “back to the days of the prophet” version of Islam. Later, I moved to Syria to study at a religious academy in Damascus. I began to write a book about my time in Yemen — about the mosques and the reading circles that formed after prayer and the dangerous religious feeling that sometimes grew around them.
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I wrote a few articles from Damascus, then returned to Vermont in the summer of 2012. Just as the Islamists were beginning to assert their authority in Syria, I began pitching articles to editors in London and New York about the religious issues underlying the conflict. By now, I could recite many important Quranic verses from memory, and I was fluent enough in Arabic to pass for a native. But these qualifications mattered little. The editors didn’t know me; few bothered to reply. Perhaps, I thought, if I wrote from Syria itself, or from a Turkish town on the border, I’d have better luck. On Oct. 2, 2012, I arrived in Antakya, Turkey, where I rented a modest room that I shared with a young Tunisian. I tried pitching the editors again. Still nothing. I began to despair of publishing anything and cast about for something else to do. Should I try teaching French? I wondered. Coaching tennis?
I spent my afternoons in Antakya walking up a mountain on the outskirts of the city and looking across into Syria. By this time, despite its aggressive bombing campaign against the opposition and the civilian population, President Bashar al-Assad’s military government was losing ground. The international community condemned Assad for his actions against civilians, but none that joined in the censure, including the United States, intervened militarily. On TV, Islamic preachers railed against the Syrian government: Those who helped it would have their flesh cut into bits, then fed to the dogs. The government, for its part, warned that in areas of the country under opposition control, fanatical Islamists, possibly in the pay of the Israelis, were sneaking in from Iraq and Libya. The main opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, founded by former Assad generals and considered moderate by many in the West, had taken over the two most important border crossings north of Aleppo.
One day as I walked up the hill outside Antakya, an idea for an essay came to me. Anyone who has lived in Syria knows how bitter the divides are between the pious and the secular, the Assad loyalists and the dissidents, the well connected and those who struggle to get by. It would be impossible to plot these divisions on a map, because they often run through families, even individuals. Nevertheless, by the autumn of 2012, a traveler might have oriented himself by them: Most who lived east of the mountain chain that runs from the city of Homs toward the Turkish border were Sunni opponents of the government; most who lived in the mountains or to the west were Alawite supporters of Assad.
As I walked, I envisioned myself traveling along these fault lines. I would stop into villages and interview people, telling the story of a nation with many identities, dissatisfied with them all, in trouble, wanting help. In the background would be a narrator in a similar situation.
My experience in Arab countries ought to have given me pause. After I published my Yemen book, I changed my name from Theo Padnos to Peter Theo Curtis, worried that the book might make reporting from the Middle East difficult. I knew how Westerners were often viewed. But I had done all my studying under the eye of military governments, in places where the secret police listened to every word uttered in every mosque. I had never set foot in a region where only a militant Islam held sway. Things are different in such places. Almost immediately, I fell into a trap.
One afternoon in Antakya, I met three young Syrians. They seemed a bit shifty, but not, as far as I could tell, more militantly Islamic than anyone else. “Our job is to bring stuff from here to the Free Syrian Army,” they told me. They offered to take me with them. Thinking I’d be back in a few days, I told no one, not even my Tunisian roommate, where I was going.
We slipped through a barbed-wire fence in the middle of an olive grove. I looked back toward Turkey. So far, so good. My Syrian friends led me to an abandoned house that I could use as a kind of field office. The next morning, I helped the young men straighten up the place, cleaning the floors and arranging pillows in an orderly row on a rubber mattress. They sat me down in front of a video camera and asked me to interview one of them, Abu Osama. When we were done, the cameraman smiled, walked across the room and kicked me in the face. His friends held me down. Abu Osama stomped on my chest, then called out for handcuffs. Someone else bound my feet. The cameraman aimed a pistol at my head.
“We’re from Al Tanzeem Al Qaeda,” Abu Osama said, grinning. “You didn’t know?” He told me I would be killed within the week if my family didn’t provide the cash equivalent of a quarter kilogram of gold — which the kidnappers thought was about $400,000 but was actually closer to $10,000 — the sum to which he was entitled, he said, by the laws of Islam.
Despite the video and the ransom demands, these kidnappers were amateurs. That night, I slipped out of the handcuffs that attached me to one of the sleeping men. In the soft sunlight of the Syrian dawn, I sprinted past walls covered in graffiti, through a cemetery and over a median strip, then stopped a passing minibus. “Take me to the Free Syrian Army right away,” I said. “This is an emergency.”
When I arrived at the F.S.A. headquarters, I appealed to the officers in the most desperate terms. They argued a bit among themselves, then took me to an Islamic court, where a judge questioned me and remanded me to a cell that had been converted from a Turkish toilet. There were prisoners in the cells on either side of me. I poked my head through a food hatch. A 10-year-old boy did the same. “What did you do?” I said. He withdrew, and a middle-aged man, his father, I presumed, poked his head out. “What did you do?” I repeated.
A helpless grin appeared on his face. “We’re Shia,” he said.
“I see,” I said.
Ten minutes later, the F.S.A. officers returned, accompanied by my kidnappers, and I was trundled into a car and taken to an F.S.A. safe house. There I was placed in a hole in the ground. Was I six feet below the surface? Only three? I didn’t know. Officers threw dirt on me, laughing and shouting insults. Someone jumped down and landed on my chest. Someone else beat me with the butt of his Kalashnikov. One officer insisted that I reply to his questions by yelling out, “I am filth, sir!”
A few days later, the F.S.A. transferred me to a group of Islamists, and I had my first lesson in how to distinguish Islamist fighters from the Free Syrian Army: The fundamentalists think of themselves as the vanguard of an emergent Islamic state. They torture you more slowly, with purpose-specific instruments. You never address them as “sir,” because this reminds everyone of the state’s secular military. When the Islamists torture you, they prefer to be addressed by a title that implies religious learning. For the younger fighters, “ya sheikhi!” (“o, my sheikh!”); for the older ones, “emir.”
The F.S.A., it turned out, had given me to the Nusra Front, or Jebhat al Nusra, which was using the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo as a headquarters and a prison. During my first days there, I couldn’t believe that what was happening to me was actually happening to me. My mind kept replaying the hours just before and after the young men I met in Turkey attacked me. It seemed to me that I had been walking calmly through an olive grove with Syrian friends, that a rent in the earth had opened, that I had fallen into the darkness and woken in a netherworld, the kind found in myths or nightmares. I knew there was a kind of logic to this place, and I could tell that my captors wanted me to learn it. But what exactly they wished to teach me, and why they couldn’t say it straight out but preferred to speak through their special language of pain, I couldn’t understand. When the emirs came to my cell, they often stood in a semicircle over my mattress, muttered among themselves, dropped a candy wrapper or a used tissue on the floor, spit and then left without saying a word.
One afternoon during the first week of my imprisonment, a group of younger fighters gathered in my cell. I was in handcuffs and lying with my face to the wall, as an interrogator had instructed. During the beating that followed, one fighter, apparently disturbed by the violence, asked, “Have there been orders to do this to the prisoner?” No one answered.
The leader — I’m not sure who it was, I couldn’t see — carried a heavy stick and a cattle prod. As I lay there, he hit me across the back of the head, then strolled around the room reciting prayers. When I heard his footsteps, I raised my hands to protect my head. In a deadened voice, he would say, “Bring your hands down.” I would remove my hands. He would thwack me across the back of the head. Instinctively, my hands would return to my head. He would shock me with the cattle prod. The electricity jerked my body about. My hands would end up on my chest. He would hit me again.
I’m not sure how long this beating lasted — perhaps an hour, perhaps only 20 minutes. Toward the end, I heard the leader approach and braced myself for another blow. It didn’t come. Instead, he knelt close to me and whispered in my ear: “I hate Americans. All of them. I hate you all.”
After this, I lost track of time. I dreamed that the fighters were rolling my body in a winding sheet and lashing my ankles together with golden straw. In the days after this dream, I thought, I have seen the winding sheet, so I must be quite far along in the killing process. But every time I asked myself if I was alive or dead, the answer came back, You are most certainly alive. I thought, The custom must be to wrap the corpses in the winding sheets before they are entirely dead. How peculiar. I didn’t know.
For several days, I lingered in this state. A pile of sandbags blocked the sun from the room’s only window. The electric light worked intermittently — a few hours here, a few hours there, then darkness. There were many mornings on which I woke unsure if it was day or night. I knew there was a point to my treatment, but I struggled to see what it was. Eventually, the logic became plain: Al Qaeda plays with its prisoners’ sleep because it wants to have a controlling presence in every second of their lives, even in the unconscious seconds — perhaps especially in those.
After a month or so, I realized that my captors did not mean to kill me, at least not right away. There was, however, no hint that the nightmare I was living in would end soon. When they spoke of my emerging from jail, it was as a crippled old man. When they brought me food — usually olives and a sweet sesame paste called halvah on a hospital tray — they threw it on the floor. “Eat, you swine,” they would say. Then they would slam the door. They slammed it with such force that after a month the door handle fell off.
The chief of the Children’s Hospital jail was a Turkish-speaking Kurd. He sometimes allowed a group of Turkish jihadis to lounge in the hallway outside my cell. Their job, as far as I could tell, was to call the dawn prayer and harass prisoners as the guards escorted them to the bathroom. Every morning, as I was led in a blindfold and cuffs to the toilet, they spat at me and slapped me across the head and shoulders.
One day, one of these Turks took a running start from the end of the corridor and landed a karate kick against my rib cage. Both of us ended up on the ground.
“I think they broke my rib,” I complained to a guard. “For no reason. I was blindfolded. This is not O.K.”
He reflected on this for a moment, then shrugged. “Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s fine.”
Something in this guard’s manner made me think I might be able to negotiate with him. He was in the habit of hitting me with a piece of PVC pipe every time he entered my cell. It stung, but it didn’t really injure me. “When you hear the sound of the key in the lock, you put your face to the wall,” he would say. I did as he asked. He hit me anyway.
One day, before he hit me, I made a point of expressing to him just how completely my face was pressed to the wall. “You’re going to hit me anyway?” I asked. “What are you doing, sheikh? Why?”
I peeked at him. He grinned. “I want to train your soul,” he said.
O.K., I thought. I must make him believe that my soul is receiving its training. After that, when he entered the cell, I would yell: “Sheikh! My face is to the wall!” Then I waited, peeked and inquired if he thought I was learning.
“A little bit, perhaps,” he would reply.
Soon he stopped hitting me. One evening, on delivering my tray of halvahand olives, he smiled at me. A few days later, after dinner, he brought me apples (it was late November in Aleppo) and tea. When he left, I thought, Apples, tea and no beating — progress.
But this guard was on duty only once every four days. Some of the other guards insisted on the face-to-the-wall routine. Some did not. None brought me tea or apples.
During much of the fall and winter of 2012, I felt I had fallen into the hands of a band of sadists. “You’re C.I.A. — they’re going to barbecue your skin,” the guards would whisper. Did this mean death by fire? During an interrogation session, the Kurd, who liked to be called Sheikh Kawa, nodded at a prisoner whose wrists were cuffed to a pipe just beneath the ceiling. His feet bicycled through the air. “You must let me down, for the sake of God! For the sake of Muhammad and God!” he screamed.
“This is our music!” Kawa yelled at me. “Do you hear it?”
That night, Kawa tortured me and told me that if I didn’t confess to being a C.I.A. operative, he would kill me. I confessed to stop the pain. “If a single letter of what you’ve told us tonight is untrue,” Kawa said as he led me away, “we will put a bullet in your head.”
Kawa tortured me again, but as December turned into January, I began to think that some higher Qaeda authority wanted me to live. If I lived, I could say good things — about the Nusra Front and Islam. I was then, and remain now, more than willing to say good things about Islam.
When religious authorities or higher-ranking Nusra Front members — anyone with bodyguards — came by my cell, I sometimes recited verses from the Quran. These were verses that I loved, and the visitors seemed pleased. But the net result of these recitations was . . . nothing. Eventually, one of the more educated guards explained to me that as a Christian and an American, I was his enemy. Islam compelled him to hate me.
“Does it really?” I asked.
Yes, he said. America had killed at least one million Muslims in Iraq. Anyway, the Quran forbade amicable relations: “O you who believe!” this guard would recite. “Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. And whoso among you takes them for friends is indeed one of them.”
I kept track of time by marking off the passing days on a calendar I’d scratched into the prison wall. It was January 2013 when the prison administration began offering me the opportunity to convert to Islam. Every day, the guards preached to me and recited the Quran. In Arabic, you don’t convert to Islam, you “submit” to it. “Ya, Bitar” (“O, Peter”), the fighters would say, “why haven’t you submitted yet?” For a while, I thought that if I submitted, my life would improve, but I soon learned that even conversion would not help me.
In the third week of January, they put another American in my cell. He was an aspiring photojournalist from New York named Matthew Schrier. (When he arrived, I realized my makeshift calendar was 10 days behind.) At first, Matt refused to learn a word of Arabic, hoping his ignorance would make the interrogators less likely to think him a spy. Then, in early March, the commanders placed a third person, a Moroccan jihadi they suspected of spying, in our cell. The Moroccan spoke passable English and was a ferocious proselytizer. He soon persuaded Matt to submit to Islam.
Matt asked for an English-language Quran. A guard gave it to him. A few days later, Matt said the magic words — “I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his prophet” — in front of witnesses. When word got around that Matt had converted, the younger fighters would point at him and say, “You, good!” Then they would point at me and say, “You, bad!”
But the conversion did not get Matt better food, and it certainly did not get him home. Once, one of the more volatile guards slapped him as we were being taken to the bathroom. “You, bad!” he said to Matt. “You lie about religion.” The guard nodded at me. “You, you Christian,” he said. “You, good.”
I learned, eventually, to deflect the enthusiasm of the proselytizers. “Allah has created me a Christian,” I would say. “It’s not my fault.” They offered their counterarguments: “If you were to die as an unbeliever today, Allah would refuse to admit you into heaven.” Once each side had its say, we moved on to other things — the war in Syria, or politics, or their favorite topic, Western girlfriends. These sessions soon followed a typical pattern: My guards spent the first 10 minutes trying to get me to accept Islam. Then they gave up. Then they asked if I could introduce them to single women from a Western country.
During the spring and early summer of 2013, the Nusra Front moved Matt and me through a series of ad hoc prisons. We were held in a villa on the outskirts of Aleppo, in a shuttered grocery store, at a shipping warehouse and in the basement of a Department of Motor Vehicles branch. We had a rough idea of where we were, because the fighters who administered these jails sometimes arrested people from the neighborhood and put them in the cells with us.
Toward the end of July 2013, Matt and I devised a way to crawl out of a small window in our cell. As we planned our escape, we agreed that Matt would go first and, once in the open air, would help me wriggle though. On the morning of July 29, the first part of the operation went off without a hitch. But the second part did not go as planned. Matt managed to escape and eventually made it home. I remained behind.
After this, the Nusra Front was convinced that Matt and I were highly trained C.I.A. operatives. A highly trained C.I.A. operative in the hands of Al Qaeda is in deep trouble, the fighters explained. For much of the ordeal that followed, I was blindfolded; my feet and hands were bound for all of it. It lasted some 45 days. At the end of it, I found myself six hours by car from Aleppo, somewhere near the eastern city of Deir al-Zour.
In this new prison, I dedicated myself to making friends with the fighters who guarded me. As summer turned to fall, they began to give me adequate food, joke with me and take me outside to sit, in handcuffs and a blindfold, in the desert sun.
This was a homey prison. It consisted of four cells, each the size of a narrow toilet stall, each equipped with a padlocked, home-welded steel door with a food hatch. I couldn’t see the other prisoners. The merest hint of conversation among us was punished with beatings. Nevertheless, when the guards were playing with their guns or busy watching cartoons, we sometimes whispered to one another. At times, I sang. The Nusra Front believes, as many Muslims do, that Allah made song unlawful for Muslims. Yet no one thinks this prohibition applies to Christians. So I sang, sometimes loud enough for the guards to hear. Often it was “Desperado”; there’s a popular Arabic version. Even the guards, I think, liked that one.
By May of this year, after 19 months in prison, I had almost come to terms with Qaeda reality. I got along adequately with the jail administration. I had enough food and water. It seemed to me that I might someday be released or I might someday be shot, but that I had no power to affect my fate. To keep my mind occupied, I decided to write a story, set in Vermont, on the pages of a calendar I’d found in a house where I had been imprisoned. It was about love, home and religious enthusiasm.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Nusra Front was losing its war with the Islamic State, the group often referred to as ISIS. From conversations with guards and other prisoners, I gleaned that the two organizations were about equal in strength and that under no circumstances would the Islamic State be allowed to touch the oil fields, the real prize in Syria’s east. But in mid-June, when I was allowed to watch TV for the first time since my capture, I saw a map covered in Islamic State logos. Soon, the Nusra Front stopped construction on a prison it was building next to my cellblock. “Why?” I asked a guard.
“You’ll see,” he said.
In early June, they took away all of the prisoners except me; I don’t know what happened to them.
June turned to July. Suddenly I found myself standing at the edge of the desert with the Man of Learning. He gave me a suit of jihadi clothing, told me to blend in with his fighters and promised me that once we got to Dara’a, a city near the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, he would send me back to my family.
We traveled in the same car. He talked to me about the difficulties of being amujahid, or Fighter on the Straight Path of God. One afternoon early in our voyage, he told me that the world misunderstood him. “It must be difficult when the whole world wants to kill you,” I said. “Plus all the problems now with ISIS. And Bashar al-Assad probably wants to kill you, too.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. But ISIS are the worst. They have made me very sad.”
He sighed. His mood was resigned. Over the following days, he often tried to cheer his lieutenants by recounting a funny story or embolden them by heaping contempt on enemy commanders or imams. With me, he talked about my future as a reporter: I would become a specialist on Al Qaeda. I would be the first reporter to tell the world the truth about the jihad in Syria. “Yes, of course,” I said.
After our first conversation, he made sure that I was either in the pickup’s cab with him or in the truck directly behind his. For the next 10 days, our caravan snaked its way through the dunes. We dodged the patrols of the Syrian Air Force, skirted the government’s outlying military bases, sneaked past hostile Druze villages. And then one night, after traveling several hundred miles, our train of pickups and Kia Rios arrived at a ridgeline bunker about 20 miles east of Damascus. A detachment of Free Syrian Army soldiers held the position. They welcomed us, but with no special warmth.
Within days, Syria’s air force had detected our presence. It bombed the bunker. It killed a Nusra Front fighter, destroyed six vehicles and then — for reasons I have yet to understand — left us in peace.
During this time, in the early mornings before my guards woke up, I walked on the ridgeline by myself. I would look for planes and think about what would happen if I tried to escape. One morning, I ran into four Free Syrian Army soldiers. How lucky, I thought. If I could get them to promise not to hurt me, if I could persuade them to place me beyond the range of the Nusra Front machine guns, I would be free.
Yet how was I to communicate with the F.S.A.? At the outset of our journey, the Man of Learning told me that I was never to talk to outsiders. That morning, I decided to take a risk.
The F.S.A. soldiers were heating up their tea. “Hey!” I said to them. “What’s your news? Peace be upon you.” They returned my salaams. One asked where I was from.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t talk to you.” They gave me a cup of tea, and the five of us drank in silence. Then another soldier repeated the question.
“From far away,” I replied. “How about you?” They were all from around Damascus.
“Have you come to Syria for the jihad?” someone asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m a civilian, a journalist.”
“How long have you been with Jebhat?” he asked.
“Almost two years,” I said.
The four fighters stared at me. They mumbled among themselves, and then the lieutenant in charge told me not to say anything else. He motioned to me to follow him to a place where we could speak in private. When we were out of his troops’ hearing, he fixed me with a serious stare.
“You are American?” he asked. Evidently a rumor had reached him.
“During these two years,” he said, “you have been able to speak to your family?”
“Not a word,” I said. He kept staring into my eyes and narrowing his own, as if he was reviewing some painful fact or memory. Did he suspect me of lying? Was he angry at the Nusra Front? I couldn’t tell.
“I studied Arabic for two years in Damascus,” I said. “I love the Syrian people.” He nodded. “And no,” I continued, “no talking to my family for a very long time.” He nodded again, then knit his hands together behind his back.
“May God open the way for you,” he mumbled and walked away.
I returned to the F.S.A. troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.
“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”
“Certainly, very,” he replied.
The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.
“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”
Back at the Nusra Front’s camp, I spent most of my time lying on a blanket in the sand, surrounded by five fighters. We snacked on M.R.E. junk food, tossed our candy wrappers into the wind and waited for the Man of Learning to issue orders. The fighters hardly paid attention to me. They had been away from home for a week, an eternity for young Syrians, and were anxious to find out what was happening back in Deir al-Zour. They wandered along the ridgeline, searching for a cellphone signal. When they got one, we got news: We learned that the Islamic State assumed control of the city in the days after we abandoned it, staged a handful of Hilux-and-black-flag victory parades and confiscated a car belonging to the father of one of the Nusra Front fighters.
One evening, a foot soldier named Abu Farouk came by our blanket with a watermelon. The Islamic State, he said, had instituted a new law throughout Deir al-Zour province: Upon entering a mosque, all males over 13 were to repent. Good Muslims, the group decreed, should have battled the Nusra Front while it ruled the province. If the males of the province repented, they might carry on as before. But if they refused or if the Islamic State deemed their repentance insincere, they could be killed. Nusra Front fighters were to be shot on sight.
I was curious about the futures of the five people now responsible for looking after me. What if they retired from military life, I asked, went home and promised to obey the Islamic State in the future? Would the group still wish to kill them?
“Of course,” they said.
“Really?” I asked. “But why?”
“Because we are Jebhat al Nusra,” they replied.
I knew the answer to the next question but asked it anyway. “Your practice of Islam is exactly the same as ISIS — you admire the same scholars and interpret the Quran just as they do?”
“Yes,” they agreed. “All of this is true.”
“And it’s true,” I said, “that when you joined Al Qaeda, in the early goings of the revolution, ISIS did not exist?”
“Yes, this is so,” the fighters agreed.
“And now they’re hoping to kill you?” I asked.
They shrugged their shoulders. “Yes.”
“But the situation is absurd,” I said. “You’re like a guy on the street drinking a bottle of Pepsi. Along comes the Seven-Up salesman. ‘Wicked man!’ says the Seven-Up salesman. ‘How dare you drink Pepsi? You must die.’ Under the circumstances, it ought to be O.K. for you to reply: ‘I’m quite sorry, sir. But when I went into the store, there was only one brand of soft drink available. Pepsi. That’s what I bought. Where’s the problem?’ ” The foot soldiers, all in their 20s and early 30s, were regular cola drinkers and were happy I had put the matter in everyday commercial terms. Everyone laughed.
The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered. On the one hand, I was pleased by this. It made the men despise each other. Had their armies reconciled, I would have become the prisoner of a reunited fundamentalist organization under the command of the stronger of the leaders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State. Even before the recent beheadings, I was unenthusiastic about this prospect. On the other hand, the violence had taken a heavy toll. For six months, I watched the number of young fighters responsible for me dwindle. This one had taken a sniper’s bullet between the eyes. That one had vanished in a checkpoint suicide bombing. Another had stumbled into an Islamic State checkpoint and was shot on the spot. On and on, from week to week, the blood flowed. I knew exactly why these young men were dying: because the commanders said they must. In addition, the fighters told me, both sides believe that 50,000 years ago, Allah decreed that they should die in exactly this way, at exactly this instant in history.
For the moment, however, the Islamic State seemed to have the edge in the recruitment battle. Many of the Nusra Front soldiers told me that over the previous months, their siblings and cousins had been fighting for the Islamic State. The pay was better. And the Islamic State, a stronger army, had won victories across eastern Syria and Iraq. Once, during my time in Deir al-Zour, the commanders put me in a cell with five disfavored members of the Nusra Front. These prisoners were accused of having defected or wishing to defect to the Islamic State. They denied this, but when the guards were far away, they told me that any Nusra Front fighter wishing to become an Islamic State fighter had only to make a few phone calls. He would be required to whisper certain words about the greatness of Baghdadi. In that instant, the fighter’s history would be forgiven. The next day, he would meet his new commanding officer in a mosque or a restaurant. He would be given a new name and a new cellphone, and his life would begin again.
During most of the summer, the siren song wasn’t especially loud, but by the time we reached the outskirts of Damascus, it was becoming stronger. It was clear, even to the foot soldiers, that our voyage was no “glorious operation on the path of God.” Its purpose probably wasn’t to retake the Golan Heights either, though rumors to this effect had circulated through the caravan. It was nothing less than an abandonment of the oil fields, the military bases, the prisons and everything else the Nusra Front had worked to control for some two and a half years. We had made a dash for our lives.
That night as we finished Abu Farouk’s watermelon and were gazing up at the stars, I listened to the fighters musing about their futures. “Hey, Abu Petra,” they asked me, “what is Sweden like?” If they were to present themselves as Syrian dissidents to the authorities, what would happen next? Was I familiar with the procedures in Sweden for seeking political asylum? And what about Berlin, supposing they found their way to Germany? How long would it take for them to learn German?
I listened to their woolgathering for a while, and then some artillery rumbled in the distance. A silence settled over the group. As the fighters around me breathed their first sleep-breaths, I couldn’t help feeling that soon a commander would look at them and nod in the direction of incoming fire, and they would toss away their lives as casually as they tossed their M.R.E. trash into the wind. I worried, too, about this: What if the Man of Learning were to nod at me? I knew a lot of the Nusra Front’s operational details. I knew many of the more important fighters. I knew what went on in their jails. What if the Man of Learning were to decide that I knew too much? What if someone were to send him an email informing him that Abu Petra was actually Theo, and that Theo had studied in Yemeni mosques and written about the experience, like a secret observer? What would I do then?
In mid-July, the Nusra Front caravan finally arrived at a villa in Saida, a suburb of Dara’a. Every day, the Man of Learning told me he would send me home soon. “It will happen next Tuesday,” he told me. Tuesday came and went. The fiction I now maintained with the Man of Learning was that I was a journalist again, that he would explain himself to the West in an on-camera interview and send me back with the video on a flash drive. At night, when he returned from his daily travels, I would smile and say, “When, sheikh, is it going to happen?” He would grin. “Soon, soon,” he would say.
One morning in August, when the fighters guarding me were asleep, I took a bag of trash into a courtyard as I normally did. As I slipped out, a fighter, his voice thick with sleep, murmured, “When you come back in, close the door.” I did, and waited for him to lose consciousness. A half-hour later, having stuffed the Vermont manuscript deep into my jihadi trousers, I tiptoed out.
By this point, I knew better than to seek refuge among the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army. I asked a passing motorcyclist to take me to a hospital. At the hospital, a dour-looking man greeted me. “I am a journalist,” I said. “From Ireland. Please, you must help me. I love the Syrian people.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I am the F.S.A.” He admitted me to an inner room. “No one comes in here without my leave,” he said. “You can relax. You are safe.” I asked if I could contact my family. “Of course,” he said. The easiest way, he said, was for me to send an email. But the man with the computer’s password was away. It would take just a few minutes for him to get to the hospital. Did I need tea? Medical attention?
The F.S.A. soldier stepped out. Ten minutes later, he returned, beckoning me with the index finger of his right hand. He seemed to do it in slow motion, as a jailer might summon an innocent prisoner to his execution.
In the front hallway of the hospital stood a group of about 15 Nusra Front fighters, Kalashnikovs dangling from their right hands. No one spoke. A few seconds passed, and then someone said in a barely audible voice, “Come, American.”
They drove me back to the villa. They hit me a bit in the car, and then, on arriving in the living room where the guards had been dozing an hour before, they flung me onto the carpet. The Man of Learning sat cross-legged on a sofa. “Who has handcuffs?” he asked. Someone cuffed my hands. The Man of Learning grinned. “You are a Nazarene liar and a sneak, Bitar,” he said. “This afternoon, I will execute you by my own hand.”
I spent much of the following weeks locked inside a bedroom in the villa. The Man of Learning did not allow the guards to seek their revenge; he fired them and appointed more competent but kinder guards. As I waited for something to happen, I sat by a window and worked on my Vermont novel. Every once in a while, I watched Assad’s airplanes bomb our neighborhood. My mind kept circling back, as it still does, to the endlessness of the violence in the country.
Earlier, in March, the Nusra Front commanders in Deir al-Zour put a pair of Islamic State commanders in the cells on either side of mine. Because their religious learning was beyond question, the jail administrators allowed us to speak, provided it was about Islam. During this period, I occasionally brought up the “You killed my men, I must kill yours” logic in which the Muslims of the region seemed trapped. My cell neighbors were well placed to have an opinion. Abu Dhar, on my left, previously of Al Qaeda in Iraq, subsequently of the Nusra Front, lately of the Islamic State, had been a weapons trafficker. Abu Amran, on my right, had the same credentials and bragged of having been responsible for explosions that killed dozens — perhaps hundreds — of Syrians and Iraqis.
“But surely,” I said, “this violence is not good for Islam.” They temporized. In their view, the fight between Baghdadi and the Man of Learning amounted to mere childishness. Abu Dhar and Abu Amran were almost too embarrassed to speak of it. Yet the explosions and sniper killings that both groups espoused were justifiable — even wise. Assad was bound to slink away into the undergrowth. The battle against his forces was just a skirmish in the great global combat to come, in which the believers would prevail against the unbelievers.
“After we conquer Jerusalem, we will conquer Rome,” Abu Amran told me.
“No one is trying to conquer you,” I said. “Why do you want to conquer everybody?”
The conquerors had come to Syria in the past, Abu Amran answered. “They are sure to come again.” He spoke of the oil fields over which the West slavered, the archaeological treasures and the rise of Islam, which the world’s governments — all of them unbelievers, especially the Middle Eastern ones — could not abide.
“If Obama bombs the believers here, we will bomb you there,” Abu Amran told me. We have our Tomahawk missiles too, they said, referring to human beings. Over the last 22 months, I had stopped being surprised when Nusra Front commanders introduced their 8-year-old sons to me by saying, “He will be a suicide martyr someday, by the will of God.” The children participated in the torture sessions. Around the prisons, they wore large pouches with red wires sticking out of them — apparently suicide belts — and sang their “destroy the Jews, death to America” anthems in the hallways. It would be a mistake to assume that only Syrians are educating their children in this manner. The Nusra Front higher-ups were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers — they didn’t — but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway station back home. They want these Westerners to train their 8-year-olds to do the same. Over time, they said, the jihadists would carve mini-Islamic emirates out of the Western countries, as the Islamic State had done in Syria and Iraq. There, Western Muslims would at last live with dignity, under a true Quranic dispensation.
During my discussions with senior Nusra Front fighters, I would force them to confront the infinity of violence that this dream implied. “O.K., perhaps you have a point,” they would say. “Anyway, we only want to dispense with Bashar. We must build our caliphate here first. Provided the West doesn’t kill us, we won’t kill you.”
“Will your caliphate have schools?” I would ask. “Hospitals? Roads?”
“Yes, of course.” But not one of them seemed interested in repairing the mile after mile of destroyed cityscape encountered during any voyage in Syria. Not one seemed interested in recruiting teachers and doctors — or at least the kinds of teachers and doctors whose reading ventured beyond the Quran. They wanted bigger, more spectacular explosions. They wanted fleets of Humvees. Humvees don’t need roads.
One day in August, a guard told me about a picnic he recently had with his family in the Golan Heights. “The U.N. soldiers,” he said, “were close enough to reach out and touch.” During the following days, small groups of Nusra Front fighters, most of whom I recognized from my time in Deir al-Zour, carried away items from a pile of munitions — artillery shells, sacks of bullets, launching tubes for rocket-propelled grenades — that had been left on a concrete slab. In the evenings, I was sometimes invited to lounge near the weapons with visiting emirs. The United Nations’ role in the Golan Heights was occasionally discussed in predictable terms: The U.N. was an instrument by which world powers oppressed the Muslims of Syria. It was a tool of the Jews. I yawned during these discussions. Why must they always recite Qaeda company policy at me? I thought.
Not long after, a half-dozen top-level Nusra Front members arrived for a meeting. Most had the James Foley execution video on their cellphones. Did you see it? they asked me, laughing and waving their phones. Did I want to see it again? They were in a buoyant mood. “Hey, Bitar, you American!” they called to me. “You see what ISIS does to people? What if it happens to you? Would you like that?”
A few days later, on the afternoon of Aug. 24, the Man of Learning made an unexpected visit. “Get your things,” he told me. “We’re going to send you to your mama now.” I had long ago said goodbye to my mother in private nighttime telepathic conversations. I didn’t believe — I didn’t allow myself to believe — that I would see her again.
In my bedroom-cell, an attendant who had been kind to me helped me get ready. I stuffed my Vermont novel into my clothing and got into a Hilux with several fighters. A few miles from the villa, the Man of Learning directed my driver to stop. Buy Bitar a new tracksuit and a pair of shoes, he said. This seemed like a good sign. Would he be buying me new clothes if he meant to kill me? Later, as the Golan Heights rose up before the Hilux’s windshield, a fighter named Abu Muthana asked me to say goodbye to Nusra Front fighters in a video he’d record on his cellphone. I did so without bitterness. Abu Muthana’s friend Mohammed had made jokes about his inability to find a wife during the jihad. Abu Jebel had brought me extra dates during the winter.
We stopped under a bank of trees near the Syrian town of Quneitra. To my surprise, two heavy white trucks with the letters “U.N.” marked in black on their sides stood idling in the shade. “Get out,” the driver said to me. “Take your things.”
The Man of Learning asked me to approach the truck he was driving. “Hey Bitar,” he said. “Don’t say bad things about us in the press.”
“I’ll just say what’s true,” I said.
“Very good,” he said. “That is fine.”
At the U.N. base in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria, an Indian doctor had me sit on a table. He asked the attendants to leave the room. He had me remove my trousers. With the gentlest, most silent, most breathtaking courtesy, he examined my body. That broke my heart. A representative of the United States government greeted me on the far side of the Israeli border. In the back seat of an immaculate dark-blue S.U.V., she put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s O.K. to cry,” she said.
I later learned that the Qataris helped engineer my release, as they have for others kidnapped in the region. But in those first moments, it felt to me that I had escaped from Al Qaeda by an incalculable miracle. I allowed myself to think, at last, that everything was going to be all right. Several days later, I received word that the Nusra Front had attacked the U.N. base where I had been so gently examined.