Imprisoned by al Qaeda, Saved by a Kitten

How I slipped my jihadi captors and escaped from Syria.

The young jihadi received me, glancing at his ledger. “Lindsey Snell!” he yelled. “Where are you from, and what is your job?”

I was an American journalist, I said. When I answered, he looked smug. For good reason: I was in an al Qaeda prison in Syria.

I had been kidnapped by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. As my captor led me down a corridor of tiny solitary confinement cells, my legs nearly gave out beneath me. I’d been chronicling the atrocities of the country’s civil war in Aleppo and the areas surrounding it, traveling back and forth from Turkey for the last two years. I’d always known that being an American while doing this work made me particularly vulnerable. I was a target for Islamist groups. It wouldn’t matter to them that I was a journalist. It wouldn’t even matter that I’m Muslim.

My captor led me into a cell barely large enough for a sleeping mat. Once the door closed, the dim LED lights on the ceiling illuminated writing on the walls. I leaned forward and saw that a previous tenant had counted each day inside the cell by drawing dozens of lines on the wall — in blood.

The next morning, I was taken to a large room in a different part of the prison to wait for a meeting. Eventually, a man referred to only as “Sheikh” entered, trailed by two translators. After asking some questions about my faith, one of the translators turned to me. “If we release you,” he asked slowly, “where will you go? What is your plan?”

I knew my only hope was to finagle my way into a less secure environment. I had many trusted contacts in Syria. If I could get into a more open place and get my hands on a phone, I felt confident I could attempt an escape. “With your permission, Sheikh,” I began, “I would like to stay in Syria. In Idlib.”

The men began to whisper furiously to one another. “You would give up your work in journalism to stay here with us? Because, you know, we do not allow women to work.”

“Yes,” I lied. More whispers. Sheikh was up now, pacing the room and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Minutes passed before the other translator addressed me.

“OK, we have an idea. A proposition for you. If you are Muslim as you say … do you want to help the mujahideen?” the translator asked, referring to JFS.

“You know, the mujahideen are poor,” the other translator chimed in. “They need money. You could let us, you know, kidnap you and tell the Americans. Then, once you are paid for, we can give you a portion of the money to live on here, and we will keep a portion of it. Do you agree?”

I paused and pretended to think about the merits of this proposal. I knew that the American government had never successfully rescued an American captive from Syria. The last time an American prisoner was caught by al Qaeda in Syria, he was held for almost two years before his ransom was paid. If I refused their “deal,” I would’ve likely remained a captive, anyway. But by agreeing to this scheme, I had a chance to leverage my cooperation into better conditions and a chance to escape.

“If my ransom is paid, I would have to cross the border to Turkey,” I said. “I wouldn’t be able to stay here.” The translators shook their heads.

“We actually just discussed this,” one translator said. “We have friends in Turkey who will immediately bring you back to us. It is not a problem.”

This was a scary concept. If I couldn’t escape, I might be stuck with them even after my ransom was paid. But with no other options, I swallowed my fear and accepted the offer.

Lindsey Snell conducts reporting in northern Syria prior to her abduction by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. (Photos by Mustafa Sultan)

By the time I began covering Syria two years ago, after the beheading of James Foley, nearly every foreign journalist had left, driven off by the high risk of death or kidnapping.

I understood the danger well. But I couldn’t ignore the atrocities taking place. Every day in opposition-held Syria, civilians were being slaughtered. I heard stories of hospitals and schools bombed with impunity; of widespread food and medical shortages; of horrors grossly under-covered. Someone needed to document this unfolding tragedy.

To prepare for my trips, I built up a solid network of friends on the ground in Syria.

In July 2016, I was ready to return to the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, areas I hadn’t been able to access since early 2015. At that time, JFS was merely a presence in the area — a year later, they virtually controlled it. I relied on my connections with Thuwar al-Sham, a faction closely allied with JFS, for security during my stay. As a precaution, they requested permission from JFS for me to enter these areas. According to Thuwar al-Sham, JFS agreed, which led me to feel cautiously optimistic about my trip.

Crossing the border into Syria from Antakya, Turkey was harrowing but ultimately successful. I interviewed a doctor at Atareb Hospital, in the Aleppo countryside, as well as a young boy who had his right leg amputated after being struck for a second time by an airstrike. I embedded with a group of civilian rescuers called the White Helmets and huddled with a family in the town of Kafr Halab, praying the Russian cluster bombs raining down on the neighborhood wouldn’t strike the home we were in. Thankfully, they didn’t, but an 18-year-old boy next door was killed in the strike. I watched them bury him that night.

On my second day in the country, a militant handed me a kitten. I kept him in my room with me. I didn’t name it, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it.

But my presence in their territory made a small, powerful group of leaders in JFS eager to capture me, and the faction “protecting” me was in no position to stop them. At this point, JFS had become so strong that any faction with the slightest alliance to the group was forced to simply defer to it.

On the night of July 20, a fighter with Thuwar al-Sham breathlessly burst into the room of a home in Kafr Halab, in the western countryside of Aleppo. He told me JFS had arrested my fixer — and now, they were looking for me.

The fighter hid me in a house down the street. We couldn’t go any further than that, as JFS had placed checkpoints throughout the neighborhood. I hid my hard drives, memory cards, and the more expensive of my two cameras, knowing that they’d expect to see some equipment when they came for me. After about an hour, the fighter returned and drove me back to the house where I’d been staying. About a dozen men stood outside, many with guns.

An Iraqi leader nicknamed Abu Tarub seemed to be at the helm. “She is an American journalist working for American companies. Therefore, we cannot trust that she is Muslim, and we must investigate her as a spy,” he said through a translator. Thus, a bizarre, invasive “investigation” into my faith was launched.

JFS confiscated my phone, laptop, and one of my cameras. I was arrested and placed in a prison house in an isolated part of the western countryside of Aleppo, along with the kitten.

Over the next few days, the prison house became a revolving door of leaders coming to meet and interrogate me. I was held in an empty sitting room as they asked me about my conversion to Islam, and then derided me for “calling myself a Muslim” while working for American news outlets. But one Tunisian JFS leader had a particularly sunny outlook. “We let a Lebanese journalist film in Idlib, and she was a Christian! You are a Muslim,” he told me. “I’m sure we will release you soon.”

I didn’t share his optimism. I was in a state of near-constant panic — an American journalist can successfully be held for millions of dollars in ransom.

The house was small, and to adhere to Sharia, several guards camped outside, effectively trapping me inside alone. There were a couple sleeping mats, a makeshift kitchen, and a stockpile of rocket-propelled grenades. Once a day, they would offer me food. I was too distraught to eat.

After one week in the prison house, a gleaming white Ford pickup truck arrived at the house. I was ushered into the back of the cab, and the truck drove us deep into the Idlib countryside. After about an hour on the road, we pulled up to a massive rock formation protected by guard gates. Later, I’d have a chance to glimpse the extent of the impressive compound. There were living quarters, training grounds, and offices, all embedded within the rocks.

This compound was where I was held in the solitary confinement cell, and where Sheikh presented the offer to split my ransom.

I accepted the offer under one condition: that I be moved to a home with women. The men agreed. Quickly, the mood became jovial. One of the translators was pouring cups of fruit juice in apparent celebration. He placed a cup of juice on a table near me. “For you, sister,” he said in thickly accented English. I stifled a bitter laugh. Sister. Apparently, all it took for JFS to consider me a Muslim was complicity in their organized crime. As the men prepared to leave, I had one more question to ask.

The women’s house in which Lindsey Snell was imprisoned was home to five sisters from the western governorate of Hama, and anywhere from 10 to 15 children at any given time. (Photos by Lindsey Snell)

“Wait,” I said. “America doesn’t pay ransoms to al Qaeda. You know that, right?”

The men laughed. One of the translators drained his cup of juice and turned towards me.

“Of course we know that,” he said condescendingly. “Qatar will pay.”

True to his word, Sheikh arranged for me to leave the prison a couple hours after our conversation. I was driven in a Hyundai SUV with two other women wearing niqabs, abayas, and gloves. Each held a well-dressed child on her lap.

After about 20 minutes, we pulled up to a cluster of homes in front of an olive grove in the Idlib countryside. I followed the women into the house, which had barred windows and only one door. An electronic cash-counting machine sat on the floor in the corner of my new bedroom.

My new female captors were five sisters from the western governorate of Hama. They had come to Idlib to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s regime two years earlier. All of their brothers were militants, as were their husbands. There were also 10 to 15 children in the house at any given time. I’d brought the kitten with me, and the kids loved him.

Haifa, the woman in charge, spoke some English. Between that and my rudimentary Arabic, we struggled to communicate. After three days, one of the JFS men gave Haifa permission to use Google Translate with me on her phone.

The next day, Haifa showed me pictures of her village. Then, sheepishly, she pulled up a picture of Osama bin Laden. “Do you know who this man is?” she asked. I nodded. She opened Google Translate and quickly typed a message to me. “What was it like in America on eleven September?”

She handed me her phone.

Haifa and I were both 32 years old, just teenagers in 2001. I lived in central Florida and wept as I watched the Twin Towers fall. I thought for a minute, then began to type. “It was terrifying. The nation was paralyzed. I didn’t understand why it was happening, why anyone wanted to attack us.”

I showed her the Arabic translation and she nodded. Then I typed, “What was it like on that day in Hama?” and handed the phone back to her.

“Our village was celebrating in the streets. We were so happy, so glad. It is not that we hate the American people. Just we hate the American government. For Israel. For so many things.”

The days passed slowly. The women tried to teach me how to cook Syrian food, but I proved a poor pupil. I grew discouraged and depressed. Outside of asking about which of my family members JFS should contact, the women made very little mention of my situation. After much prodding, I got them to tell me how much ransom they would be demanding for me: $3 million.

I complained of boredom nonstop, and eventually Haifa let me use her phone to look at websites. The first time she handed it over, a jolt of excitement shook me. Finally, I had the tool I need to arrange my escape. But Haifa had app blockers preventing me from using messaging applications, and her GPS seemed to be permanently disabled. Internet wouldn’t be enough. I needed my phone, with its saved numbers and GPS access.

After a week with the women, I appealed to Haifa. “I have used your phone, and I have not tried to escape,” I told her. “So why can’t I have my phone back?”

The next day, to my delight, a box containing my computer, phone, and camera arrived at the house. There was a strip of white tape bearing the Arabic words for “American journalist” on each device.

I asked if I could to use my phone to read the news. She hesitated. “I will ask the mujahideen,” she replied. The next day, Haifa put the Wi-Fi password into my phone. “But you must not disrupt the plan,” she Google Translated after handing it back to me.

Google Map images sent to Lindsey Snell by a contact in Turkey describing her surroundings, as explained by a source in Syria. The maps show her how to avoid a nearby dog, so as not to wake her captors during her escape.

Within minutes, I had messaged a contact in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, on the Syrian border. He was originally from Idlib, and I thought he might know someone on the ground near my safe house. I sent him my GPS coordinates, then waited.

He responded immediately. His friend Samir, the pseudonym of a member of the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, was nearby, and he’d send him to explore and plan an escape route. By nighttime, I received maps showing me which way to run and where there were guard dogs I’d need to avoid. We decided that I would leave in the middle of the night. I’d get as far away from the houses as possible and then turn left to head towards the road. Samir would be waiting for me on his motorcycle.

The biggest challenge would be slipping out unnoticed. The front door was the only way in and out, and all the women and children slept on mats on the front porch at night. I’d opted to sleep in the house, which was sweltering, but private. To escape, I’d have to wade through all of them. For two nights, I laid awake and waited for my opportunity. It seemed like there was always something preventing me from leaving. The children would wake throughout the night, which meant there was always an adult up and about the house.

After 48 hours, Samir was losing patience. A battle was raging in Aleppo; his leader wanted him to participate, fighting the regime. I had to get out, he told me, or he’d leave.

I spent that night pacing, praying for an opportunity to flee. At 5 a.m., I texted Samir, and put on my shoes and picked up the kitten. I walked outside, stepping over sleeping bodies as quietly as I could. Then I tossed the cat off the porch. As the cat mewed in protest, one of the little boys woke up. I jumped over the railing and quickly descended the stairs. “Kitty,” I cried, pretending to search for the poor creature.

When I was far enough from the home, I started to run through the olive trees. My lungs burned as I scrambled toward the road. After what felt like an eternity, it appeared beyond the trees. Samir was there, waiting. I gracelessly leapt onto his bike and gripped him tightly as he sped away. My imprisonment at the hands of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had lasted slightly over two weeks.

That night, Samir brought me to his home, where his wife fed me, washed my clothes, and let me lie down in her bed. I stayed in their home for two days, hiding in their pantry whenever a neighbor or friend visited. I wasn’t quite ready to leave — I was afraid to travel, because I knew JFS was looking for me — but Samir could no longer ignore his leader’s demand that he go to Aleppo to fight.

His wife gave me all new clothes, including a niqab and gloves, in the hopes that JFS wouldn’t be able to identify me. Samir donned fatigues, strapped his AK-47 to his back, and climbed onto his motorcycle. I slid on behind him, and he drove me to a home where I would wait for a smuggler to pick me up.

We needed to pass through a number of JFS checkpoints to reach the smuggler’s home. I dug my fingernails into my gloved hands and prayed as we passed through each one. As a woman, the fighters manning the checkpoints did not acknowledge my presence. We arrived at the smuggler’s home near Latakia just before nightfall.

I messaged my husband, who was working from the United States with the FBI to try to help me. Apparently, after I’d already escaped JFS, U.S. special operations forces sent two helicopters to southern Turkey, to prepare to extract me from Syria if necessary. An FBI special agent talked to me on my husband’s WhatsApp account. She told me that, were I to cross to Turkey with the assistance of the U.S. government, the Turkish authorities would not arrest or deport me.

I agreed, and set out on foot toward the border. U.S. special operations forces stayed on the phone with me and tried to pinpoint my exact location. Finally, Turkish border guards crossed into Syria and walked me back across the border. But the moment I crossed the border, the Turkish Gendarmerie apprehended me and ordered the American officials waiting there to leave. I was officially charged with crossing into a forbidden military zone, and the Turkish press began labeling me a CIA agent.

I spent two months in Turkish maximum-security prisons before being released. However, my horrific ordeal pales in comparison to that of an average civilian living in opposition-held Syria, where daily bombings are a reality of life. I’m in New York City now. I’ve just started a new job that will take me back to the Middle East regularly — though obviously not to Turkey or Syria.

On my last trip to Syria, one of the medical doctors with whom I spoke outlined his struggles. Doctors make the same salary as the delivery drivers. Though the patients he treats are 95 percent civilian, the nongovernmental organizations which support the hospital are reluctant to offer medical equipment for adults, afraid they will be used to treat militants. As a result, the doctor said, he has four sonogram machines — but no X-ray machine.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering,” he said. “Journalists don’t come here anymore, but when they did, I gave more interviews than I can count. And nothing changed. After this interview I do with you, what will change?”

I shook my head. “Absolutely nothing,” I said. “But we have to keep trying.”

Top photo credit: Mustafa Sultan/Getty Images/Lindsey Snell/Foreign Policy illustration

Lindsey Snell is an award-winning journalist covering conflicts and crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has appeared on MSNBC, Vice, ABC News, Discovery Digital Networks, Amnesty International, and more.