News | Sept. 10, 2018

First American to escape al-Qaida captivity to speak at HQC’s 9/11 observance

By Beth Reece

The first American to escape al-Qaida captivity will share the story of his capture, torture and escape during a 9/11 remembrance ceremony at 9:45 a.m. Sept. 11 in the McNamara Headquarters Complex auditorium.

Former freelance photographer Matthew Schrier made his way into Syria in late 2012 with help from the Free Syrian Army. He spent three dangerous weeks in the FSA’s care capturing the hollow faces and haunting scenes of war. Then while in a taxi heading toward Turkey, where he planned to cross the border and catch a plane home to New York, three armed men captured Schrier and threw him into the back of a Jeep Cherokee. A man with a black scarf wrapped around his face and an AK-47 in his hands climbed in behind Schrier.

“I looked deep into his soul through the slit in his scarf, and he stared back with hatred in his eyes, sweat beating around his brows even though it was a cold winter day. Then he pulled the ski cap I was wearing down over my eyes, leaned me forward and pressed the barrel of the rifle flush against my temple,” Schrier wrote in his memoir, “The Dawn Prayer (Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison).”

It was New Year’s Eve, day one of a seven-month abduction in which he was repeatedly beaten and starved. The men took Schrier, then 35, to a prison in the basement of a children’s hospital in Aleppo. An interrogation quickly ensued, run by men Schrier suspected to be al-Qaida.

“But I wasn’t sure, being that there were so many gangs and crooked FSA militias littered throughout the country, so to try to get an idea of who had me, I threw out a question that I knew would yield a clue,” he wrote.

Schrier asked for a cigarette and his captors replied sternly, “No, there is no smoking.” Their answer told Schrier he was with al-Qaida fanatics because they consider cigarette smoking a sin. His second clue: being reprimanded for cursing, also forbidden.

Schrier was accused of working for the CIA and tossed into a cell alone within range of his fellow inmates’ tormented screams. Figuring he could keep himself alive by making his enemies like him, Schrier used humor to build rapport and win smiles.

“You’ve got to stay as positive as possible. I know it sounds crazy, but I tried to keep my sense of humor, I tried to keep my mind clear,” he told Fox News soon after his escape. “The only thing almost as bad as getting your head cut off was sitting around waiting for it to happen, so I didn’t do that.”

One month into his imprisonment, Schrier’s captors forced him to hand over passwords to his online accounts. They racked up about $17,000 in purchases, buying everything from laptops and tablets to iTunes music and cologne. They also emailed his mom to send the appearance that although he hadn’t been in touch, he was well and working hard. To measure time, he forced himself to repeat the date in his head several times a day. And to hide his Jewish faith, he pretended to convert to Islam.

Schrier escaped through a window in what was his sixth prison in the early dawn hours July 29, 2013. He slid through the tight hole during Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer when he expected his captors would be resting. Free but with no money, passport, cell phone or contacts, he zigzagged through streets and alleys in search of someone who’d respond to his pleas for help while trying to avoid being followed by those who denied him aid.

“I was about to become arguably the most hunted man in one of the most dangerous cities in the world and the clock was ticking,” he wrote.

Frustrated after 40 minutes of racing through Aleppo seeking help, Schrier changed tactics and asked for the location of the Free Syrian Army. A man guided him to green metal door, and when a 20-something jihadi in a polo shirt and neatly trimmed beard opened the door Schrier dropped to his knees and begged for help. FSA members there fed him, cleaned him and drove him to the safety of the Turkish border. Two days later he was on a plane home.

Schrier has devoted himself to educating American troops and first responders on how to survive imprisonment by extremists. Using his experience to teach those who are on the frontlines of the war on terror is a service Schrier says he’s proud to perform, he wrote, describing how it felt to be greeted by soldiers after speaking at an Army antiterrorism conference.

“They all asked if I had ever served, and when I said I hadn’t they were shocked – most of the tactics I’d employed were taught in some of the military’s most physically and mentally challenging programs,” he added. “Being among these men and women who understood me, and being so appreciated by them was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Schrier has also spoken to Marines and the Los Angeles Police Department Counterterrorism Unit, and his story has been covered by 60 Minutes, The New York Times and CNN.

The 9/11 ceremony is open to all HQC employees and will include a moment of silence at 9:59 a.m., the moment the World Trade Center’s south tower collapsed during a terrorist attack on the United States by al-Qaida.