U.S. Journalist Held In Syria Since 2012 Is Freed

Peter Theo Curtis was released by Jabhat al-Nusra, known as the Nusra Front. Last week, American journalist James Foley was beheaded in Syria by the group which now calls itself the Islamic State.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's another way to think about ISIS - other radical Islamists consider them too extreme. One of those groups, Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front in Syria, was also holding an American journalist. Yesterday they let him go. His name is Peter Theo Curtis, and his family says he was held for almost two years. His release comes after we saw that footage last week of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by ISIS. NPR's Alice Fordham covers events in Syria and joins us on the line. Alice, good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So who is Peter Theo Curtis? What do we know right now about his whereabouts and his condition?

FORDHAM: Well, he's a freelance journalist whose family say he's been held in Syria for almost two years by the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra, as you say. They say that after negotiations with the Gulf State of Qatar as an intermediary, he was released, and the U.N. says yesterday he was handed over to their peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. And Israeli media now say that he's in Israel.

GREENE: I mean, such a positive ending to this story compared to all the news we heard about James Foley. I mean, can we talk about groups - like ISIS, like al-Nusra Front - two groups that came into being in the same country, became very powerful. How do they all fit into this picture?

FORDHAM: Well, I think to that answer that, I'm going to take you back a little bit. When the uprising began against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, it was met with force from Assad's army. In less than a year, an armed resistance was growing rapidly into the free Syrian army, among other things. And at that point, militant Islamic extremists, many of whom had fought with al-Qaida in Iraq, began to organize. They did want to get rid of Assad, but they didn't want a democracy. They wanted to set up an Islamic State or a caliphate. And they were organized, and they were disciplined. And reports at the time suggested that they had tried to learn their lesson from the brutality in Iraq - that they didn't do too many suicide bombings against civilians. And that group announced itself as Jabhat al-Nusra a long time, almost two and a half years ago.

GREENE: OK. Now, how does ISIS come into being as kind of a separate entity from them?

FORDHAM: Well, I think you could say that ISIS came out of a power struggle between the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Mohammad al Jolani, and another jihadi leader - Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Both had been significant during the insurgence in Iraq, and last year Baghdadi said his group and Jabhat al-Nusra had merged to create one big al-Qaida in the region. But that was rejected by al-Qaida's leadership and by most people in Jabhat al-Nusra. So Baghdadi's group went it alone, and that became what we now call the Islamic State.

GREENE: And all of this seems to help explain why a group like al-Nusra would be willing to negotiate, willing to release a journalist. Something we didn't see from ISIS of course.

FORDHAM: I think that you could argue that, yes. That Jabhat al-Nusra have from the outset shown themselves unwilling to incur international or even Syrian ill-will as far as possible. They do hold hostages. They do conduct suicide bombings, but on a smaller scale. And Jabhat al-Nusra have shown themselves willing in the past to negotiate with Qatar and as intermediary in the case of some nuns who were kidnapped inside Syria. And with American airstrikes now taking place against the Islamic State, it may be just that Jabhat al-Nusra don't want to run the risk of being mistaken for them.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to NPR's Alice Fordham, talking about the release of journalist Peter Theo Curtis. He was being held by the group al-Nusra Front in Syria. Alice, thanks a lot.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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