Washington – The only thing as bad as being tortured for months as a captive of jihadists in Syria was dealing with the U.S. government afterward, according to one former American hostage.
Matt Schrier, 36, a freelance photographer held by extremists for seven months in 2013 until he escaped, has told McClatchy that the bureaucracy he endured upon his return home was a second kind of nightmare following the months of abuse he suffered while he was a hostage.
“I never thought it would get this bad,” Schrier said.
The FBI never told his father that he had been kidnapped. It waited six months into his capture to produce a wanted poster, and only after his mother prodded. It allowed jihadist forces to empty his bank account – $17,000 – with purchases on eBay, even as the government warned hostage families not to pay ransom so as not to run afoul of anti-terrorism laws.
After his escape, the government made him reimburse the State Department $1,605 for his ticket home just weeks after he arrived in the United States. The psychiatrist assigned to help him readjust canceled five appointments in the first two months. And when he had no means to rent an apartment, FBI victims services recommended New York City homeless shelters.
The FBI declined to comment on the specifics of Schrier’s complaints but said in a statement that “When an American is detained illegally overseas, the FBI’s top priority is ensuring the safe return of that individual.”
“To that end,” the statement said, “the FBI provides support services to victims and their families, to include help in meeting short-term exigent needs, and shares information about their loved ones that is timely and appropriate.”
There is no way to independently confirm Schrier’s version of events, and emails he shared with McClatchy make it clear that his relationship with his FBI handlers was, at best, acrimonious. But his telling of his experience is consistent with the the anger relatives of other hostages have expressed in interviews with McClatchy when speaking of their interactions with U.S. government officials.
“The next time the FBI calls me will be the first time,” said Schrier’s father, Jeffrey, 67, who lives in Coconut Creek, outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I thank God my son was able to escape, because if he was waiting for the government to spring him he would still be waiting in that hellhole.”
Spurred by the recent beheadings of three Americans who’d been held hostage in Syria by the Islamic State, the Obama administration earlier this month said it is reviewing the way government agencies handle hostages and their families.
But none of the families of those who’ve been killed or are still missing have been asked to be a part of the review, which White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week had begun in August. Schrier and another American who was released told McClatchy that they too have not been contacted. Some families said the administration has yet to reply to a weeklong request to give their input to the review.
“How can you change a policy where there is not one?” Jeffrey Schrier asked. “If there had been a policy, on what planet would you not notify the kidnapped person’s father?”
National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the White House would have no comment.
Schrier’s complaints are a symptom of a bigger problem, the families say – a government approach to retrieving hostages that gets lost among several government agencies, none of which is tasked with doing everything possible to bring an American home.
The FBI generally is a family’s main point of contact because it is charged with investigating overseas crimes against Americans, but the State Department, intelligence community and the National Security Council all have roles. Often, the agencies don’t share what they learn with one another – or the families.
How aggressively a family pushes for a loved one often shapes the U.S. government’s approach, several families have told McClatchy. Many alleged that the government’s approach appeared to be to do the minimum possible to secure an American’s return and that a hostage’s release appeared to depend primarily on the goodwill of whoever is holding him.
Often families said they feared that their loved ones’ cases were seen more as a way for the U.S. to gather intelligence on the groups holding American citizens than on actually finding and freeing the hostages.
Schrier is among those making the accusation. “They use us,” he said. “They use journalists as chum to bring sharks to the surface.”
Such handling not only hurts the chances of getting hostages home but the subsequent investigation into the effects of the kidnapping, Schrier said.
In his case, his kidnappers used his debit card to buy things overseas. They also paid off his Discover card, he said, leading the FBI to suspect he had joined the extremists. Then they created a clone of the card, which someone used as recently as this summer in Garden City, N.Y. Schrier fears that portends an extremist sleeper cell in the United States, funded in part by a card in his name.
But he’s never received a call from the FBI, though he has called them repeatedly to report the misuse. “I am the victim and I have been shut out of the investigation,” Schrier said.
Schrier was entering Syria for the second time in December 2012 as a freelance photographer when he went missing. At the time, there was little indication in news accounts that al Qaida-affiliated rebels were a significant presence in northern Syria, making it appear relatively safe for Westerners to cover the war there, and so Schrier went. Instead, a group of kidnappers surrounded his taxi and snatched him. He eventually would fall under the control of the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
Back home, his mother called the authorities and reported her son missing. When the FBI arrived, she told them not to call his father as she was estranged from him and Schrier had not talked to him for years. They followed her wishes during the entire time he was a hostage, Schrier said.
Schrier’s mother did not realize at first that he was just one of several Americans being held hostage in Syria. When she realized there were other victims, she noticed that the FBI had created missing-person posters for the others, but not for her son. When she asked why, the FBI hurriedly posted one online, six months after her son’s disappearance, he said.
His mother also deferred to the FBI on how to get her son home. Every time she sought answers, however, the FBI gave her vague responses, Schrier said. They said, for example, that the government could not get into his email, but when she called AOL and explained the situation AOL gave her a temporary password. FBI agents made no mention of jihadists’ spending her son’s money.
She received poorly worded emails from her son’s account during his capture telling her he was all right. The agents told her they could not say whether he was writing the emails or still being held, Schrier said.
During his captivity, Schrier’s captors tortured him, whipping his feet repeatedly until he could not walk, giving him electric shocks and holding him in a dark room for extended periods.
He escaped through a window on July 29, 2013. Hours later, he met with American officials across the border in Turkey in what he thought would be a warm welcome home. Instead, the next day officials had him sign a document vowing to reimburse the State Department for his airfare back to the United States. He complied, as he said they told him it was only a formality. Less than a month later, officials said they would not help him get a new passport unless he paid.
The FBI’s Office of Victim Assistance is supposed to help American hostages who return home, but Schrier said that in his case it ignored his requests for help and valued him only as an intelligence source on jihadists in Syria. He briefed the office for weeks.
“I am the one who told the government that the (rebel) groups are fighting each other,” Schrier said. “I regret doing anything for them.”
With an al Qaida-affiliated group using his identity to make purchases, Schrier needed to get a new ID and Social Security number. It took five months for him to get a new identification card – and that was only after he cursed the agent who was supposed to help. He so far has not received a new Social Security number.
The FBI put him up in a hotel when he returned to the United States. But one month into his return, with his lack of valid identification contributing to his difficulty finding an apartment, the FBI suggested he move to a homeless shelter.
“I hear they are not that bad,” he said the victims assistance agent told him.
Schrier said his experience is a case study in how not to treat a hostage who’s returning to the United States.
“It is like a scam. I don’t understand what they do, victims services,” Schrier said. “The FBI has made it impossible for me to recover.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article had the wrong state where Schrier said his cloned credit card was used this summer.