Freed Journalists Tell Of Torture Under ISIS

Syrian journalists recount beatings and torture while captives of ISIS

Aug 13, 2015 at 6:12 AM ET

Moments after taking a seat at a coffee shop in Gaziantep, a Turkish city close to the border with Syria, Loay Abo al-Joud pulled out a piece of paper. Not saying a word, he began to scribble. Against the white paper he sketched a rough layout of the prison block and the cell in which he’d spent nearly two months as a captive of ISIS.

He pointed out the room where American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig had been held. “I never got a chance to speak to any of them, as we were all held in solitary confinement,” al-Joud told Vocativ.

Abo al-Joud, a Syrian journalist, was captured on November 28, 2013 by ISIS fighters in northern Syria and held in a prison there that had been named after the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Abo al-Joud had been reporting on the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack by the Syrian government on Aleppo for Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned television network at the time.

Vocativ also met with another local journalist, Ahmad Primo, who was taken several weeks before Abo al-Joud. Members of ISIS stormed his home and showed him a dossier of all the information they’d collected on him. His reports, his Facebook posts, and messages to his friends were all evidence, ISIS said.

“They accused me of being a spy for America and for (Syrian President Bashar) Assad,” Primo said. He was held at a hospital in the area that ISIS turned into a prison.

Both men told Vocativ they witnessed captives being tortured. Abo al-Joud recalls a man he said was called Nour, who was strung up by his feet, and his head covered with a sack. “They started hitting him with a blade, then they covered his wounds with alcohol,” Abo al-Joud said. “Then they put an electric cable inside each wound.” Fighters would come to Abo al-Joud, often holding a knife to his neck and telling him he would be slaughtered. “The pyschological torture was the worst,” Primo said.

Primo said the ISIS fighers came from different countries. He noticed Moroccans, Iraqis, Tunisians, Russians and Syrians among them. He found the Syrians to be the kindest in their treatment of him. The Russians and Tunisians, he said, were the worst. While Primo said he saw captives from other militant groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, he never once saw a soldier from Assad’s army.

On a day in January 2014, Ahmad noticed his captors behaving strangely. He heard fighting outside the prison. Some of the ISIS fighters grabbed around 50 prisoners to take outside with them, saying they would be released because the Free Syrian Army was attempting to overrun the prison. Fighting simmered for four days. Locked inside with no food, water, and no news on what was happening outside, the prisoners became restless and broke down the doors. The first thing they saw when they got outside were the bodies of the prisoners ISIS claimed were being freed. They had all been shot in the head. Despite his ordeal, Primo returned to work as a journalist.

“ISIS killed so many of my friends,” Abo al-Joud said. He too, was lucky. An ISIS court official visited him in prison several times and heard his story. Al-Joud was summoned to an ISIS court where a judge said he would be forgiven and allowed to leave as long as he quit working as a journalist.

Abo al-Joud agreed and returned home almost six months later. “I got a week of psychological treatment,” he said, “and then I went back to my work.”

His fellow prisoners weren’t so lucky. Foley and the other Americans were moved along with other foreigners from the children’s hospital to Raqqa, in eastern Syria, where Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were eventually killed.