Matthew Schrier, 38, is an American photojournalist who was kidnapped by jihadi fighters at the Syrian border in December 2012. For seven months, Schrier was tortured and held prisoner by Islamist rebel groups who believed him to be an American spy until his eventual escape in July 2013. Schrier will speak at the University of Florida on February 21 at 6 p.m. in the Pugh Hall Ocora in affiliation with the Bob Graham Center, giving insight on his captivity and escape. Schrier is one of the few Westerners known to have escaped Al Qaeda, making his account particularly remarkable.
WUFT: What motivated you to want to come speak at the University of Florida?
MS: For the past year, I’ve been mostly focusing on military audiences, and I do a lot of good work with them and special forces. They are usually very young, in their early 20s and are very receptive to my speeches. So, in expanding my audience, I decided to start doing colleges as well.
WUFT: Tell me more about your claim of holding the title of “The first and only westerner to have ever escaped Al Qaeda?”
MS: It’s cool because I get to use it for good, in terms of what I’ve been doing for certain audiences and giving them a look into a world that you’ve never really seen before. Except, yes, journalists have interviewed Al Qaeda members, but it’s always under Al Qaeda’s terms. So, they bring you into their house and you see what they want, whereas I basically lived with them and saw everything and heard everything. Now that I’m sharing a lot of these observations and tactics and techniques with people who might one day go over there and fight them and, God forbid, get captured, if they can use what I’m doing or what I did to help themselves, you know it makes me feel, actually, pretty good.
WUFT: Tell me about the moment you knew you were being kidnapped. What was going through your mind?
MS: I was on my way home and a silver Jeep Cherokee cut across from the oncoming lane and forced us to a stop. The first thought that went through my head was, whoa, we almost just got into a really serious accident and I smiled. Then, the doors opened up and they got out–armed to the teeth–and I knew exactly what was going on. So I just kind of froze, because I had an AK-47 between my legs, it was the driver’s of the car I was in, so I didn’t want to provoke them. The thing that went through my head was, I didn’t say a word, I stayed calm, and I thought about what my next move was gonna be. And my next move was basically, what are you gonna say when you’re questioned and how are you going to handle the situation. And that was one of the thing that I did right, cause it ended up working.
WUFT: One of the strategies you used to stay alive during captivity was converting to Islam. Why did you decide to do that and how do you think it worked in your favor?
MS: Well, first of all, I’m Jewish. So, I wanted to keep as much attention away from that fact as I possibly could, and I started working on this whole feigning conversion thing my first week. They loved the fact that I converted. Another reason why I did it was I also wanted to create an opportunity to escape, because a lot of these mosques in the Muslim world, they have like 1,000 to 2,000 people praying on them on a daily basis. So, once I saw how receptive they were, which I wasn’t sure about, but it actually worked out, I started begging. I was like, take me to a mosque, let me pray in a mosque. My plan was, they take me to a mosque and hopefully I get to blend in with the crowd. That was one of the many angles that I thought of before the one that worked came to fruition.
WUFT: Tell me about your eventual escape.
MS: There were these wires, it’s hard to describe, but they were cemented to the foundation of this building. Instead of trying to pull them off, I just started staring at the wires and examining them. That’s when I figured it out, and I smiled and said, okay I did it. All I have to do is unwind the verticals and bend back the horizontals and create the opening. And that’s what we did. It took two attempts, the first time it didn’t work because, I’ll discuss this in my speaking engagement, we were too wide, so we had to alter the plan. That’s pretty much how we got to the escape.
WUFT: How did it feel when you escaped knowing you were leaving your cellmate (Peter Theo Curtis) behind?
MS: I felt really bad for about 24 hours, because I mean I hated his guts. I really did, and he was a backstabbing traitor and he worked with Al Qaeda prisoners against me, and he did anything he could to keep himself safe, but the thing that motivated me to bring him home were three points. Number one, upholding American values and principles is very important to me and we don’t leave our own behind. That’s not my decision, to just leave him behind. I didn’t want to be known as the American who left another American behind. Number two, I wanted him to be held accountable. Not by the law, but by his peers for all the things that he did and three, he had a 79 year old mother and she never did anything to me. If I can save her the anguish of seeing her son get his head cut off, I’m gonna do that.
WUFT: What did you do to stay positive in such a difficult situation?
MS: I did the best I could, but I mean I’m not gonna lie to you and say I didn’t have moments of weakness, because I did have moments of weakness. But I would always keep my mind as active as possible, like I never thought about getting killed because as a Jewish guy, the only thing worse than getting your head cut off is sitting around waiting for it to happen, so I made the decision not to do that. I would, like watch movies in my head, or just think about my wacky childhood, my teenage years were kind of wild, so I would think about that stuff. When you’re locked in the dark for 40 days, it’s not easy, but I would keep track of the dates. You could tell when it’s daylight by looking at the light from the crack under the door, you can kind of gauge the time of day by listening to the adhan, so I would pay attention to these things and it kept me sharp.
WUFT: Tell me about the moment you realized you were safe?
MS: It was a pretty awesome moment. You daydream about seeing those Turkish flags pretty much very day when you’re in the bad part… It was really overwhelming, like I didn’t cry or anything cause I was with FSA soldiers and a couple of humanitarians, they walked over there and basically told the Turks what happened. They took one look at me, and they were like holy shit, like this guy has been through hell, and they basically welcomed me across the border and I was just like alright. They put me in the back of a police car and drove me up through no-man’s land toward the police station, and that was the first sigh of relief that I had in 7 months when I was just like I did it, I did it. It was an amazing feeling.
WUFT: Why don’t you shoot photography anymore?
MS: Because after I came home, I thought journalists were going to be good people and actually do the right thing, and from dealing with the people at the New York Times, I met people who are just so disgusting and pathetic, despite the fact that they had Pulitzer prizes, they are just so desperate for that next story, that their character made me not want to be a part of that community anymore. I just got so fed up with it that I said I’m just going to write my book, tell my story and that’s that.