One American who knows all too well about Al Qaeda’s influence in Syria is Matthew Schrier. The now 40-year-old photojournalist travelled to Aleppo in 2012 to cover the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) battle against the government forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. After witnessing his fair share of action, Schrier hopped in a taxi and headed for the Turkish border. Just 45 minutes from safety, several militants from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, stopped Schrier’s car. The jihadists abducted the American at gunpoint and took him into captivity.
The following seven months would be a living nightmare. He bounced between six different terrorist prisons—enduring regular beatings and torture—before managing to escape through a cell window’s shoddily welded bars. Schrier’s story is, at face value, a gripping tale of fortitude and resilience. He endured horrors at the hands of jihadists that captives do not typically live to write about. In fact, his tale is in one key respect unique: No other Westerner held by Al Qaeda has ever escaped captivity.
Schrier, kept his Jewish ancestry a secret. Tattooed on his back is a bearded Walt Whitman, an image that arouses suspicion because it loosely resembles a Hasidic Jew, at least to jihadists. Several weeks into captivity, the jihadists demand access to Schrier’s bank accounts. A security question on a bank website requests his mother’s maiden name: “Grossberg.” Schrier writes the name on a piece of paper, but none of his captors appear to notice its obvious ethnic connotation. And in a particularly frightful scene, Schrier is thrown into a cell with another American only to notice that his cellmate—Theo, a gentile—has etched a Star of David into the wall for no apparent reason. “Yeah, they don’t know what that is,” the hapless cellmate assures him, speaking of their captors. Schrier is less confident of this, to say the least.
Before meeting Schrier, Theo once managed to escape from an al-Nusra prison in Aleppo and reach a nearby FSA checkpoint, but the FSA fighters merely handed him back to al Qaeda. Then the FSA fighters joined al-Nusra in torturing Theo.
When Schrier himself escapes, he comes across a group of armed jihadists several blocks away from the al-Nusra prison. Unsure to which rebel group they belong, Schrier asks for a cigarette. When one of the jihadists produces a pack, it becomes apparent that they are not religious fanatics given that smoking is haram. They turn out to be FSA, but in the absence of a cigarette they are not easily distinguishable from other militants in terms of physical appearance, or of political ideology for that matter.
At one point, Schrier is temporarily transferred to an Ahrar al-Sham prison to be held on behalf of al-Nusra. Despite cooperating with al Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham receives support from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
Schrier’s depiction of the regime troops with whom he is imprisoned is telling. The Alawites—a minority Shia sect that has run Syria from the presidency down for decades—became Schrier’s closest friends during his time in captivity. Remarkably, he still keeps in touch with some of them.
Schrier was a prisoner in Syria for seven agonizing months but is now thankfully free. Some 18 million Syrians have been prisoners-of-sorts in their homeland for more than seven years. Sadly, they have no means of escape