First American to escape al-Qaida shares story of captivity

By Beth Reece

Matthew Schrier is a survivor, the first Westerner to escape from al-Qaida captivity. The freelance photographer from New York shared his story of imprisonment and shed light on the behavioral tendencies of Islamic extremists during a 9/11 remembrance event at the McNamara Headquarters Complex Sept. 11.

Schrier was in Syria on an 18-day photoshoot in late 2012 with help from the Free Syrian Army. While in a taxi heading toward the Turkish border, a silver Jeep Cherokee crossed over from the oncoming lane, cutting off his cab. A man covered in black climbed out and gently led Schrier to the back seat of the Jeep, pulled the ski cap he was wearing over his eyes, then placed the barrel of an AK-47 to his head.

“It probably took a minute tops. It was very professionally done,” he said.

The men took Schrier to a prison in the basement of a children’s hospital in Aleppo. He suspected he was in the hands of al-Qaida, but wasn’t sure because there were so many gangs and crooked FSA militias throughout the country.

“To try to figure out who had me I asked a question that I thought would yield a clue. I asked, ‘Anybody have a cigarette?’” One of his captors responded, “No, there is no smoking here.” A clear sign he was with al-Qaida, which considers smoking a sin.

Rather than panic, Schrier thought of ways to ward off the torture he assumed would be part of his imminent future.

“The conclusion I came to was I had to make them like me, because people don’t normally torture those they like,” he said. “I had to make them laugh.”

A captor who later introduced himself as Gen. Mohammad lifted Schrier’s ski cap, but Schrier squeezed his eyes shut so the man wouldn’t think he was peeking. Moments later, Schrier realized the man wanted him to look, so he slowly opened his eyes. Mohammad smiled.

“It wasn’t the type of smile that said, ‘Welcome.’ It was the type of smile that said, ‘I gotcha,’” Schrier said.

Mohammad seemed approachable, so Schrier asked for permission to talk. With approval, he asked, “Are you going to kill me?” Mohammad let a few seconds pass before replying, “Nah.” Schrier threw his fists into the air and screamed, “Woo-hoo! Happy New Year!” Mohammad laughed. It was New Year’s Eve, Day One of Schrier’s seven-month abduction.

An interrogation quickly ensued, and he cracked jokes to keep his captors laughing, hoping to win their favor. They tossed him into a cell alone within range of his fellow inmates’ tormented screams and the constant whack, whack, whack of someone being beaten as they begged for mercy.

“I kept pacing, waiting my turn, but it never came,” he said. “Instead, I was given hot food, the same food they cooked for themselves sometimes; extra blankets, eventually nine in total when everyone else only got one or two; extra light when Mohammad slid the door blocking my window open a few inches to illuminate the room; and a bottle to urinate in, which was against the rules.”

On Day Five, Schrier was moved to a cell with 18 soldiers so he’d have company, indicating he was liked by Mohammad, “a barbarous, murderous thug who ironically had a great sense of humor,” Schrier said.

“By introducing myself as this funny, wacky guy who wasn’t all that scared during interrogation, I formed kind of a bond with him and was able to earn his respect and his sympathy,” he said. “He put the word out that nobody was to touch me.”

No one laid a hand on Schrier during the first month and six days of his captivity. He was moved back to solitary confinement for a short time, then put into a cell with a fellow American with what he described as “no common sense or street smarts.” They frequently fought.

Fearing the brutal treatment his new cellmate might attract from their captors, Schrier began planning his first escape. He poked tiny holes around a narrow panel of the cell’s wooden door so it could be kicked out when there was an opportunity to flee. His cellmate thought a better plan was to perforate the thick part of the door around the knob, then punch it out and turn the key. It wouldn’t work, Schrier said.

“Even if we had a drill to perforate the wood they’re going to notice three dozen little holes surrounding the doorknob,” he said. His cellmate accused him of wanting to use his own plan or nothing at all. Schrier acquiesced, thinking the American would soon realize they couldn’t penetrate the thicker wood. But Mohammad noticed the damaged door. Both men were beaten and later led in handcuffs to a boiler room in the basement where al-Qaida did its dirtiest work. A guy hung from a pipe by handcuffs.

“They sat me down and forced a car tire around my knees, which were bent up to my chin. Then they slid a bar through the tire to lock it into place,” he said.

He was flipped over so his feet were in the air and his hands handcuffed behind his back. Defenseless, he took 115 licks. Hours later, he and the other American were moved to a new prison and locked in a cold, dark room for almost 40 days with little food and constant abuse. They were then transferred to a handful of other prisons in outlying areas before being thrown into a cell with a window covered in pencil-thin wires. He noticed some of them jiggled. A second escape plan emerged.

When his cellmate wasn’t sleeping – he usually spent 19-20 hours a day lying on the floor with his eyes closed – Schrier climbed on his cellmate’s back to pry the wires out. It took days of mental strategizing to figure out how to unweave the wires so they could be bent down to create an opening.

The next problem: when to go. They settled on 10 minutes before sunrise to avoid the intense night fighting and light of day. It was Ramadan, a time of fasting and prayer, and Schrier expected their captors would be sleeping during their escape. The first attempt failed. Schrier slid out with one arm over his head but was blocked by the arm of his other shoulder. Panicked, he put the wires back in place and vowed they'd try again later. On the second attempt, his cellmate threatened to bang on the door.

“If you touch that window I’m going to knock on the door and I’m going to tell on you,” his cellmate said.

“I was like, ‘You’re going to tell al-Qaida on me? What kind of American are you? What are you going to tell people when you go home? You’re endangering my life while I try to save yours,’” Schrier said.

His cellmate finally agreed to try again in three weeks, and Schrier encouraged him to test his strength and think about how he’d maneuver his body through the narrow window. Worried about fitting through, Schrier accumulated oil from the olives they were given for breakfast so they could lubricate their bodies. But his cellmate accused him of overthinking their escape plan and refused to use it.

“Eventually I gave up. He never did one thing to prep,” Schrier said.

When the morning came, Schrier climbed through with both hands above his head only to get stuck again, this time at the waist. He reached back in to loosen his pants, then slipped out the window in his underwear. His cellmate followed.

“He goes with one arm and his shirt on. I’m pulling him with my foot against the wall and I see his shoulder is in the way... This wastes about 30 seconds to a minute until finally I stop and I say, ‘Are you convinced you’re not fitting? Get in there, take off your shirt and go with two arms,’” he said.

They tried again, and Schrier pulled until he realized it was physically impossible for the guy to fit through. Still, he struggled another five minutes before admitting he couldn’t get his cellmate out.

“Eventually he told me to go,” he said.

Schrier took off, weaving through the backroads of Aleppo seeking help. Frustrated at being ignored, he changed tactics and asked for the location of the Free Syrian Army. A man guided him to the FSA’s door, where he dropped to his knees and begged for help. The 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.

Today, Schrier educates American troops and first responders on how to survive imprisonment by extremists. He teaches a Conduct after Capture Course for every Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Course taught at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. His memoir, “The Dawn Prayer (Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison),” was published this spring.