Composite Photo: Sean Prentiss talks to Theo Padnos

The author, journalist and former Al Qaeda hostage speaks with Norwich professors Sean Prentiss and Travis Morris about Al Qaeda, U.S. policy, and why the region's children will determine our safety.

BY SEAN MARKEY | NU Office of Communications

October 25, 2017

American journalist and author Theo Padnos was captured by Al Qaeda forces in Syria in 2012. A fluent Arabic speaker, he was tortured and imprisoned for two years. Following his unlikely release, Padnos recounted his experience for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and, later, in the 2016 documentary, Theo Who Lived.

Last month, the Paris-based writer visited the Norwich campus to kick off the 2017-18 Norwich University Writers Series. His appearance was cosponsored by the Department of English and the Peace and War Center (PAWC) at Norwich University. Between classroom visits and a public lecture, Padnos sat down with author and Associate Professor of English Sean Prentiss and PAWC director and terrorism scholar Prof. Travis Morris to share his insights and experience. Excerpts:

MORRIS: In class, you talked about how (Middle East) policy is affecting the view of America and how people interact with us.

PADNOS: I think the thing that (students) might not be getting from the general news media is that we have been on the wrong side of this war, at least in Syria. We have been kind of supporting the rebels. The rebels, they're not all that friendly. They can look like moderate guys. But inside, they're not that moderate. Some of the stuff I've been writing lately has been about (the fact that) after four years of bombing, even if a guy wants to be a moderate, he's not that moderate anymore. He wants revenge. His wife has been killed-and his kids. Or he's seen his neighbor's kids killed.

Do you have any insight into how to stop extremists in the region?

PADNOS: We need to persuade the civilian population from which the extremist groups draw their soldiers--the children. At the moment, they are indoctrinating and focused and just completely prepared. They have a solid, effective strategy for bringing eight-year-olds into the psychology of the Islamic State. It's their hearts and minds. I often felt all the (adults) are gone. We're not getting those people back. It's a competition for the next generation.

They know this too. They would often take me out of my cell and say … "We're doing this for little Ahmed here. He's six. See him with his little Kalashnikov over there? He's gonna build the next Islamic State. He'll be our future." So in a way we need to consider that this is a long-term engagement for us. If we wanna be safe, we cannot fund the rebels. We cannot arm the rebels. Because the arms that we send to the rebels end up in Ahmed's hands in 20 minutes.

PRENTISS: You see how we treat Islam here in America, and we don't always value or respect it.

PADNOS: Among all the Western countries that have significant Muslim populations, we have the least friction between that minority and the rest. Anyone who's not a Muslim can go into almost any mosque in this country, he's gonna be welcomed. That's not the case in France. That's not the case in England, even:

I think in general we do pretty well in the U.S. But they don't like us because of this drone thing. That's what they're most angry about-the drone attacks on weddings in Afghanistan. one drone attack can ruin all the good will that we accomplished by basically having relatively good relationships between the Muslim minority here and the wider population. However, we kill a … bride over there in Afghanistan, it screws up the PR.

MORRIS: What do you think about the rules of engagement for fighting extremists in Syria?

PADNOS: When I left my captors, al-Qaeda in Syria, the U.S. government was focused on a small number of the commanders within al-Qaeda in Syria who allegedly served in Afghanistan and had been with bin Laden. The U.S. government declared, "These are high value targets." I met some of these guys, and they didn't have enough money to put gas in their cars. They would have to come to the contemporary commanders, the guys with the big stacks of cash. "Hi, can we like drive to this town?" You know? They were like stars from yesteryear. Without cash, they had to ask the commanders on the ground, who had the money, for authority to do anything. The U.S. should have been targeting these guys with the cash. Instead they were targeting these nobodies.

What you're saying sounds so subtle and nuanced. That level of detail and knowledge seems totally absent from our political discourse here and what's even discussed in the news.

PADNOS: Our media has done a very poor job of communicating. The situation, for instance, in Syria now is that something like 16-17 million people live under the authority of a functioning government. It's not a democratic government. It's not like Switzerland. You cannot have a gay rights parade down the center of the avenue. They cannot start a newspaper and criticize the president. However, their universities function, the hospitals function-with 16 million people living under this regime. Now there's 2, maybe 3 million living under the rebels.

We as a government were trying to intervene on behalf of the 2 million to overturn the government of the 16 million. That just requires so much work. Even if all the 2 million guys were like angels and all the 16 million guys were really bad, it's a lot of heavy lifting. The easiest way to solve it, if you just want peace, would be to intervene on the behalf of the 16 million against the 2 million. Because it's easier to subdue 2 million than 16. Our media never reported to us the actual numbers involved. I think that most of the officials involved probably didn't realize that there's such a discrepancy.

Last year at this time there was a lot of discussion about Aleppo. Half of Aleppo was in the hands of the government. There was a lot of discussion in newspapers, "What if the rebel half falls? The government will come in and kill all the citizens, civilians here." The rebel half did fall. Most of the civilians ran away to the government side, and they weren't persecuted. Maybe they weren't given library cards. If you have a Kalashnikov in your basement, the government will put you in jail many years for this. That's what the government does, and they might torture you too. But if you play by their rules-no guns-they're basically going to leave you alone.

PRENTISS: The one thing I'm hearing is that if you want peace, it's not always a simple process.

PADNOS: When I was looking at these guys that were my captors, I was thinking, "I really don't care if you kill each other, if you blow yourself up. But if I was designing policy, I would want to figure out some way so that you are not able to blow up your wife and kids as well." These men have their wives and their children-anybody weaker than them-under their physical and psychological control. It's really an abusive situation. It's why so many civilians have died in this conflict. Because the men will not let the women run away.

Interview condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Upcoming Featured Events

Norwich University admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.

Norwich University collects personal data about visitors to our website in order to improve the user experience and provide visitors with personalized information about our programs and services. By using our site, you acknowledge that you accept the information policies and practices outlined in our Privacy Policy.