CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A U.S. journalist, speaking publicly for the first time since his release from a Syrian extremist group, said Wednesday that he was overwhelmed to learn that so many “brave, determined and big-hearted” people were behind efforts to secure his release.
But Peter Theo Curtis, who was freed Sunday after 22 months in captivity, declined to talk about his ordeal, saying in brief remarks that he needed time to reconnect with family after his return to the United States.
“I have learned, bit-by-bit, that there have been literally hundreds of people, brave determined and big-hearted people, all over the world working for my release,” he told reporters near his mother’s home, not far from Harvard University. “They’ve been working for two years on this. I had no idea when I was in prison. I had no idea that so much effort was being expended on my behalf.”
Curtis, 45, of Boston, was released by the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group that is fighting the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
His release came just days after another rival extremist group in Syria, the Islamic State, released an online video showing the beheading of another New England journalist. The Islamic State said they killed James Foley, 40, of Rochester, New Hampshire, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions in northern Iraq.
Curtis said Wednesday that he was grateful for the many people, including strangers, who have welcomed him back since his return.
“I suddenly remember how good the American people are and what kindness they have in their hearts,” he said.
Curtis promised reporters he would help them tell his story. “I have to bond with my mom and my family now,” he said, declining to take questions. “In the future, I promise I will be present and I will help you guys do your job. I’m one of you. … But I can’t do it now.”
Matt Schrier, an American photojournalist who escaped last year after being held captive in the same cell as Curtis, has said that the two had been tortured, including being subjected to severe beatings on the soles of their feet that left them unable to walk. He told “60 Minutes” that the captors had suspected Curtis was a CIA agent because he spoke Arabic well. On Tuesday, the CBS news magazine released clips of its November interview with Schrier, saying it had previously withheld them at the request of his family.
In a statement released Tuesday night, Curtis said he was “deeply indebted” to the U.S. officials who worked on his behalf, as well as the government of Qatar.
His family has said the Arab country’s involvement was crucial in securing his freedom and that they were told he was freed on a “humanitarian basis” with no ransom paid.
Curtis was released Sunday in the Golan Heights. He was reunited with his mother at Boston’s Logan Airport on Tuesday, according to his family.
Curtis’ family has said they believe he was initially captured in October 2012, shortly after crossing into Syria.
Curtis, under the Theo Padnos byline, has written for the New Republic and other publications.
He also wrote a 2011 book called “Undercover Muslim: A Journey Into Yemen,” which studied the radicalization of disaffected youths. His family says he changed his legal name to Peter Theo Curtis after the book’s publication to make it easier to travel in Arab countries.
Curtis’ mother, Nancy, said in a statement Tuesday she was “overwhelmed with relief” that her son had been returned to her.
“But this is a sober occasion because of the events of the past week,” she said. “My heart goes out to the other families who are suffering.”
U.S. freelance journalist, Austin Tice of Houston, disappeared in Syria in August 2012. He is believed to be held by the Syrian government. The Islamic State has also said it is holding American journalist Steven Sotloff captive and has warned that he would be killed if U.S. airstrikes continued.