Former Al Qaeda Prisoner Speaks at Norwich

Former Al Qaeda Prisoner Speaks at Norwich

Photo caption: L-R: Student Adam Schmitz ’19 standing with guest speaker Theo Padnos

By Adam Schmitz ’19

No one can imagine the life that Theo Padnos has lived, and for most, they don’t want to. During his 20 months of captivity under Al Qaeda, Padnos has seen, endured, and experienced things that the average person cannot even fathom. From hearing his cell mates tortured with electrocution to escaping from prison twice only to be returned, he has been exposed to a side of the world and humanity that will remain a mystery for many.

During his September 26 visit to Norwich University, Padnos had the opportunity to describe the objects and images that remain the symbols of his imprisonment in Syria; handcuffs, a blindfold, and his jail-cell. These three objects, to him, symbolize the fear and confinement that he endured for so long.

What makes his unique story even more special, is the fact that prior to his capture and subsequent internment, Padnos was already a trained reporter who was fluent in Arabic, French, English, and German. This in turn, led to his ability to speak with his captors and guards during his confinement, from October 2012 to August 2014. Although various survivors of imprisonment by Al Qaeda have shared their stories, very few have been fluent in Arabic and had the ability to learn as much about the culture as Padnos.

He utilized his skills and actively tried learning about the backgrounds, motivations, and the morals of his Al Qaeda abductors. According to him, the “psychology of the people” is what still puzzles him to this day; these radical groups have figured out a way to convince entire cities to submit themselves to their rule without putting up a fight. He says that although their population finds themselves fearful of constant attacks by rival groups and foreign nations, “there is ecstasy in the streets as well.” Following drone strikes, the streets would light up with the people of the city, rejoicing and praying to God while grieving for those that were killed.

Padnos said that the common misconception is that Al Qaeda—and radical Islam as a whole—love death more than the Western World loves life, “if they loved death so much, they would jump off a bridge.” According to what he learned about their culture, he believes that if they had the opportunity a good amount of those who practice radical Islam would move away. Padnos states that his captors had requested him to “find [them] a girlfriend and a job at the UN in Turkey,” and that they would prefer that future to the future that most likely awaits them.

He believes that the current American policy in the Middle East, using drone strikes, is hurting our ability to positively influence the area and create a lasting peace. Because Al Qaeda consider no place secure or safe due to the constant surveillance, “they feel that they need to constantly scare us.” Padnos strongly believes that the American government should “protect our people first,” and that by focusing on attacking terrorist networks rather than protecting American citizens the “politicians failed us.”

After spending 20 months imprisoned with Al Qaeda, Theo Padnos has a very strong opinion on how to prevent this from happening in the future. To create a peace in the Middle East, we need to “offer better, realistic opportunity for the future” rather than continuing to attack a part of the world that is all too accustomed to war.