There has only been one American to escape the clutches of a top Isis commander. Theo Padnos describes how he survived the terrifying torture of the commander behind the terror group’s attacks on the West. There were a few things he learned while he was locked away, and they weren’t always easy to share with new prisoners, sometimes he just kept the grisly facts to himself.
Padnos was an American journalist who had been captured and tortured by none other than the feared Isis mastermind Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who had been shot down in a plane last month.
‘He had a very distinctive speech pattern,’ Padnos revealed. ‘I could hear it outside the doorway. Every time I heard it I felt the fear of God. He’d open the door very quietly. And then the pain would begin.’
It started when Padnos was lured into Syria in Autumn 2012 by a group of young rebels who promised him access to the Free Syrian Army. Unfortunately, he was instead handed over to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group who accused him of being CIA spy.
Now, ahead of a documentary about the hellish months he spent in captivity. Padnos let us in on the little secret he learned in order to survive.
He reveals that:
‘Torture was the central fact of my consciousness,’ he said. ‘It was ever present in every facility in which I was held. After a while, they stopped. But then I was developing relationships with people who they were torturing and killing. You didn’t know what was coming through the door.’
On arrival, new prisoners would fearfully ask whether there was any torture in the prison. But, Padnos didn’t have the heart to tell them that there was, so he let them go on believing they were going to be okay, until of course, they were indeed tortured.
‘There was torture in every single prison that I inhabited, but I didn’t want to tell people that. I would lie to them. They would beat people to death.’
He said that when the guards tired of beatings, they’d use electricity or simply dunk their victim’s heads in buckets of water.
‘They poured water on me; maybe it was to make the electricity work better,’ he said. ‘By the time I came out of the torture room I was soaked.’
Although they had no evidence, his tormentors were convinced that he was working for the CIA.
‘They don’t do an interrogation without torture. There is no such thing as a conversation without hitting and electricity. I can say that with authority because I listened to a year and half of it. The purpose of the interrogation isn’t to elicit information, but to inflict pain. The sh** I told them, they didn’t even write it down.’
The key difference between Padnos and the other hostages was that he stayed in the hands of Jabhat AL-Nusra, rather than being taken to the Islamic State Group when the two groups had a dispute, splitting irrevocably in 2014.
Padnos was forced to go along on a ‘mystery tour’ throughout Syria.
Before the groups split, and also at the beginning of his abduction, Padnos was sure that his lead interrogator was Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the mercurial Syrian who went on to become Islamic State’s propagandist-in-chief – and who was killed in Aleppo last month.
Most of the time this poor man was blindfolded and became ever more attuned to the sound of his interrogator’s voice.
‘He had a very distinctive speech pattern,’ he said. One reason Padnos believes his captor was Adnani was his accent. Here was a Syrian charge of a group of Iraqis and Europeans, which was very rare. Most of the guards were Iraqi, and there were a few French and Brits too, ‘but their leader was clearly Syrian’.
He said the ISIS leaders voice would haunt him. ‘I could hear it outside the doorway,’ he said. ‘Every time I heard it, I felt the fear of God. He’d open the door very quietly. And then the pain would begin.’
Their prison reunion didn’t do much to endear the pair. His interrogator seemed convinced that he’d landed a high-value CIA spy; more electric shocks and beatings followed.
‘Thank God we have one of these guys alive,’ Padnos remembers him saying. Shortly afterward he found himself traveling in the same man’s SUV.
They used Padnos as a mascot, but he didn’t know that. All he knew was what he heard and that was the clicking of their guns. He was blindfolded with his hands and feet tied behind him, was packed neatly away in the luggage compartment.
He was positive that this was the end – he was going to be executed. Then he tried to brush his blindfold aside to get a better view.
‘I just wanted to see the landscape before I died,’ he recalled.
No sooner had he done so, the car screeched to a halt, and Padnos felt three hard kicks in the back, they didn’t want him to see where they were going.
For a while the interrogator stowed Padnos away in his private Islamist library and, in between beatings, would engage him in discussions about the theology behind Al-Qaeda.
Twenty months after his capture, Padnos was living more freely, and eventually sort of became ‘one of the gang’.
In a sick twisted way they liked him, someone even gave him an Islamist-style cassock and his own jihadi nickname: Abu Mustafa al-Irlandi.
When they encountered even more, extreme Islamists, Abu Mustafa said to keep his mouth shut and pretend he was seeking martyrdom.
When Padnos wasn’t avoiding another beating by passing himself off as a suicide bomber, he was in the front seat of a pick-up truck singing along to mournful Islamic anthems and discussing morbid religion.
Then he had an epiphany: that all this racing around in search of martyrdom was a kind of extreme sports for extremists.
He said that they ‘had to put tape over the dashboard displays and brake lights, that was how worried we were about being tracked.’
It is incredibly sad that this man had to endure such cruelty, yet he somehow managed to escape and let everyone know just what kind of sick twisted things go on in the everyday life of an ISIS extremist.
The last little piece of information that Padnos divulged was that:
‘Islamists want to control the cities and the countryside as they control their torture victims. So that when they appear in the room, the public trembles. That’s one of the reasons they’re terrorizing people. They want you to feel like you are in the presence of God.’
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