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Al Qaeda Claims Western Hostages Killed in U.S. Drone Strikes Converted to Islam

Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in a drone strike while held captive in Pakistan.

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Held captive for years, often tortured and isolated, Western hostages kidnapped by Muslim extremist groups have on occasion converted to Islam — likely in an attempt to secure better treatment, but perhaps in some cases also because of a genuine interest in the religion. Now, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims that the two Western hostages killed in a U.S. drone strike in January — Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto — had adopted the religion of their captors.

In a statement distributed Thursday, a spokesman for the group, Usama Mahmoud, said the fighters holding Weinstein captive had begun referring to him as “uncle” following his conversion, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi online statements. According to Mahmoud, Weinstein was no longer considered a prisoner after embracing the religion. Influenced by the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda-affiliated preacher killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, Weinstein wished to be swapped for Aafia Siddiqui, an al Qaeda militant imprisoned in the United States.

Following their conversions, Weinstein and Lo Porto took the names Ishaq and Muhammad, respectively, according to Mahmoud.

Thursday’s statement also included photographs of the two men, including two purportedly showing Weinstein at prayer. AQIS also released a photograph of Weinstein shortly after his death. That photograph bears a Jan. 14 time stamp.

Some of the photographs are interesting in that they appear to show Weinstein outside. When U.S. officials announced the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, who had been held at a secretive Pakistani facility, they said they had no idea the two men were at the targeted compound, despite intense aerial surveillance. U.S. officials realized there were more people in the compound than they had anticipated when six bodies were pulled from the destruction, and not the four they had counted entering it. The CIA said it never spotted Weinstein and Lo Porto, likely because they were kept indoors or perhaps underground. The photograph of Weinstein would appear to indicate that the men were likely not kept indoors at all times.

Though their conversion to Islam can’t be confirmed, it would be in line with reports of other Western hostages adopting the religion of their captors. James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State, reportedly embraced the religion and studied it intensely during his captivity. Foley reportedly adopted the name Abu Hamza. Peter Kassig, who took the name Abdul-Rahman, the former American soldier kidnapped by the Islamic State, also embraced the religion. John Cantlie, the British photojournalist being used as a propagandist for the Islamic State, has also reportedly converted. At least one hostage, Steven Sotloff, a practicing Jew, hid his religion from his captors.

Exactly why these hostages may have embraced Islam is impossible to say, and Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, angrily cast doubt Thursday evening on al Qaeda’s claim that he did.

“We do not believe anything al Qaeda is saying about Warren’s activities in captivity,” Elaine Weinstein said in a statement. “As a captive, he was not free to make decisions on his own…. Al Qaeda is a cowardly group, kidnapping old men who are helping others. They cynically photograph their captives while shirking responsibility for their safety.”

The extreme version of Islam practiced by Islamic State and al Qaeda militants justifies its violence in part through the disbelief of the individuals these groups mostly target. Violence directed at their fellow Muslims is sometimes justified on the grounds that their victims purported collaboration with what these groups view as heretical regimes or adherence to different interpretations of Islam. For these reasons, adopting Salafi beliefs and converting would appear to be a clear way for a hostage to win sympathy and better treatment from one’s jailors. In the misery of an Islamist jail cell in Syria or Pakistan, the teachings of Islam may also provide spiritual and psychological nourishment.

What little we do know of the religious experience of Western hostages is a study in the possibility of grace under extreme circumstances. “In terms of my faith, I pray every day, and I am not angry about my situation in that sense,” Kassig wrote in a letter to his parents. “I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.”

This story was updated Thursday night with a family statement from Elaine Weinstein.

Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@EliasGroll

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