In a New York Times magazine feature article, Theo Padnos is described as a journalist, but his form of inquiry has gone far beyond the terrains explored by conventional news gatherers.
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.
One of those articles was a fascinating piece that appeared in The New Republic in October 2011.
In the New York Times, Padnos now recounts the last two years in which he was held in captivity by Jabhat al-Nusra after being kidnapped in late 2012 shortly after returning to Syria. Towards the end of his article (read the whole piece), he writes:
Earlier, in March [this year], 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 [previously Padnos had been forbidden to speak to fellow captives], 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 [the leader of ISIS] and the Man of Learning [Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, a high commander in the Nusra Front] 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. [Continue reading…]