When I first met Abu Abdullah (not his real name), it was during the early days of the war in Syria. Abu Abdullah was the commander of one of the many small militias. The “revolution” was still a somewhat innocent uprising of ordinary Syrians against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. There were no known kidnappings, an un-experienced reporter like myself could still go to the conflict zone with only a few contacts.
A trusted source introduced me to Abu Abdullah. The plan was to cover his militia for a week, but we decided to do a day trip first. After hearing that I had never been to a conflict zone, he wanted to see how I’d react. The source said he’s good, so we decided to leave the Turkish border city of Antakya for Syria the next day.
We took a bus from Antakya to another border town, Kilis with Abu Abdullah and his Libyan friend whom I’ll call Ayman. There was no ISIS in early 2012 (at least none that had declared itself in country), and a Libyan going to fight in Syria didn’t sound as sinister as it does now. There was no translator or common language, but we managed to communicate. The Libyan was showing me the wars he fought in by pointing to Libya and Chechnya on a map printed on the back of a bus ticket.
We crossed the border by paying a $6 bribe to a Turkish soldier and jumping over barbed wire. To my surprise, we hitchhiked to our destination, Azaz, a Syrian town just destroyed by regime bombings. At some point, Abu Abdullah offered to take me to Aleppo. There was a fierce battle going on there and I was not prepared. Due to lack of a translator I answered “Aleppo Boom! Boom!” then pointed at myself and said, “Kebab, Kebab.”
Abu Abdullah invited me to spend 10 days with his battalion, Ahfad Osman Sabri (Grandsons of Osman Sabri), but after the hitchhiking incident I declined. I still trusted him, just not the battalion’s fighting abilities.
Three years later, in 2015, both Abu Abdullah and Ayman the Libyan have moved far from the small militia they were in. Ayman is apparently a dissatisfied emir (commander) in ISIS and Abu Abdullah is the middleman in hostage negations between Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian brach of al-Qaeda) and Western governments, among other things.
One of the first things Abu Abdullah changed during his transformation from moderate rebel to jihadist hostage negotiator was the name of his battalion. From the secular name, Grandsons of Osman Sabri (Osman Sabri is an early 20th-century Kurdish poet) to the more Islamic sounding Ettihad Dera el Muslim (United Shield Of Muslims). He says they took the Islamic name because they thought that way it would be easier to get support from countries like Qatar or Turkey, which tended to help Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups at the time.
Corruption in the Free Syran Army, the umbrella group they were a part of, was bothering him. Abu Abdullah says, “FSA leaders were stealing money and moving to Europe with it. Jabhat al-Nusra was honest.”
His original battalion was poor, around 60 fighters, lots of them not Syrian. They had 14 guns and were forced to share. They’d take turns firing them during battles. Abu Abdullah remembers not getting any help from the moderate Syrian Military Council, who had weapons but chose to sell them. Abu Abdullah did not have the money to buy any.
Finally, in 2013, after a battle against the regime and Kurdish militia YPG in Ras al-Ayn, some of his fighters decided to join the more powerful al-Nusra. Abu Abdullah fought in a few more battles with his FSA faction, but he was moving steadily toward defecting to al-Nusra himself.
In June 2013, he learned that Ayman the Libyan had joined ISIS. He would have to fight him with his new allies, something he wanted to avoid.
He arranged a meeting with the al-Nusra commander Abu Maria in Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s eastern province. Exhausted from all the fighting, Abu Abdullah told Abu Maria that he wanted to quit. He was ready to turn over all his remaining men and weapons to al-Nusra, but he wanted to move to Turkey and help wounded fighters.
Abu Maria had a different plan for him. He offered Abu Abdullah to be the jihadist group’s hostage negotiator with the West. Abu Abdullah recalls Abu Maria saying, “You don’t look like us, you look like a gentleman. You can talk to embassies.” Seeing this as “humanitarian work,” Abu Abdullah accepted.
His first “humanitarian project” was to negotiate the case—and fate—of an American hostage, freelance writer Peter Theo Curtis.
By the time Abu Abdullah was involved, Curtis had been held by al-Nusra for more than a year. He managed to reach Curtis’s mother, Nancy, through some contacts in Syrian NGOs. He remembers her crying during their first conversation, as a friend of the Curtis family translated.
Abu Abdullah says he told Abu Maria to release Theo without a ransom, after realizing the family didn’t have the funds. Abu Maria declined, saying it is the U.S. government they wanted to pay.
After months of negotiations, Theo Curtis was released in August 2014, shortly after a less fortunate American hostage, James Foley, was horrifically beheaded by rival jihadists in ISIS.
Nancy Curtis remembers the ordeal she underwent quite differently. She recalls talking to three different people in al-Nusra. In one of the earliest conversations, the kidnappers refused to talk to her. “We all have mothers,” they said, demanding to deal with the U.S. government directly.
The months-long process involved exchanging videos, with Nancy’s showing her pleading for the release of her son, and the kidnappers’ relaying proof of life albeit with Theo shown in horrible conditions. Nancy says that she was lucky to be protected from viewing the videos by the FBI. “I didn’t want my son like that in my memory,” she tells The Daily Beast.
She hardly classifies the process by which she obtained Theo’s release as a negotiation. She remembers ransom demands constantly changing, sometimes going up to 10 times more than the original. Sometimes millions of U.S. dollars, sometimes euro.
Abu Abdullah, however, insists that he’s doing “humanitarian work.” His interventions, he says, have helped halve ransom figures.
He tells The Daily Beast that he has also been involved in freeing Yazidi women from ISIS captivity, where they’ve been held as sex slaves. Working via a network of smugglers, Abu Abdullah says the freeing of Yezidis has cost him $7,000 of his own money, and that he’s had no financial return. He shows pictures of families smiling next to him, on his iPhone 6. He claims they are the families he helped reunite.
Another project Abu Abdullah works on is smuggling dissatisfied ISIS jihadists into Turkey. He considers this “humanitarian work,” too, as he believes that he is saving people from the hands of a barbarous group. While recounting his story to The Daily Beast, Abu Abdullah says: “ I wish there was an international organization supporting me with saving Yazidi women and the ISIS jihadists. We could do great work.”
Does Abu Abdullah now regret hostage-taking? No. He says it’s the only real means of income for Jabhat al-Nusra. He also says that the the Syrian war would be much different, and much shorter, if the al-Qaeda affiliate was given anti-aircraft missiles by the U.S. With such weaponry, he maintains, al-Nusra would destroy ISIS, the Assad regime, and the Russians easily.
When asked what would happen if ransoms are not paid, Abu Abdullah says that this isn’t really a consideration—al-Nusra knows that someone will always come along to pay. Also, unlike ISIS, he swears, al-Nusra always treats its hostages with dignity and respect. Theo Curtis was treated more as a guest than a captive. “I dare you to call him, he will tell you he misses al-Nusra,” Abu Abdullah says.