Ex-hostage says there may be Canadian al-Qaeda link
Escaped hostage suspects some captors were Canadian
In the two years since Matthew Schrier staged a daring escape from the clutches of al-Qaeda in Syria, the name and address of a Canadian living in Montreal have been constantly nagging at the U.S. photojournalist.
The Canadian who keeps Schrier up at night is a man in his early 20s who converted to Islam in his late teens.
CBC News is not naming him because it's not clear what his connection is to Schrier's kidnapping. Instead, we refer to him as AKM.
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According to his friends, AKM is a devout Muslim who goes by his adopted Arabic name. CBC News has learned from those close to him that AKM leads a peaceful and quiet life in Montreal, is married and has a job.
But from his home in New York, Schrier says he has difficulty reconciling this image with evidence he has uncovered linking AKM to his ordeal in Syria. He admits that he has never met AKM, nor does he know what he looks like or even how he might be connected to his kidnappers.
Schrier arrived in Syria in late 2012, working as a freelance photographer. For 18 days, he took harrowing photos, coming close to battle. He was on his way home, approaching the Turkish border, when his jeep was cut off and he was kidnapped by armed men.
The men who snatched Schrier in an area between Aleppo and the Turkish border in late December 2012 always wore masks. He would learn that they were jihadis with the notorious terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's front in war-torn Syria.
A month after he was taken captive, Schrier says, he was thrown into a filthy room with another American journalist, Theo Padnos, who later changed his name to Peter Theo Curtis.
Once Schrier and Padnos were caught trying to punch holes in a door at the children's hospital in Aleppo, where they were being held. Eight armed fighters took Padnos away. Schrier said he could hear his screams from the beating.
Then it was Schrier's turn. He said he was dragged into a boiler room and the Jabhat al-Nusra commander ordered he be given 115 strikes on the soles of his feet. He said his kidnappers poured water on his blistering feet to make it hurt even more.
To prevent any further escape attempts, Schrier and Padnos were moved to the Electrical Institute in Hraytan, northeast of Aleppo. Here, Schrier said he and Padnos were practically starved, given contaminated water to drink, and repeatedly beaten and Tasered.
Distinct Canadian accents
Then on Jan. 31, 2013, a date imprinted on Schrier's mind, he and Padnos met three men they're convinced were Canadians. Schrier said Padnos even knew they were from Quebec because of their distinct accents. Padnos grew up in Vermont on the Canadian border.
Schrier told CBC News the men took him into a small room. "As soon as I sat down, someone in very good English said, 'How are you?' I said, 'You know, I miss my family.' They gave me a piece of paper and they were like, I want all your passwords, your codes, your social security number, everything so they can rob me. You know, they were very polite."
During a recent on-camera interview with the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, Schrier described the men's appearance. "The one who operated the computer was pudgy. We called him Chubs. There was another one with droopy eyes and some red in his beard and the leader had these big thick rimmed glasses and he spoke Arabic."
Using his passwords, the men sent emails to Schrier's mother and friends.
Schrier said "they were like kids, these Canadians. They didn't lay a finger on me. They could have done whatever they want. They gave me a KitKat."
Two months later Schrier would have another encounter with the Canadian he described as Chubs. This time, Chubs was operating a camera, and Schrier was forced to wear an orange jumpsuit and confess to being a CIA agent. He was slapped and beaten when he refused. "I was like no no no no no ... I don't want my mother seeing me like this. I look terrible," he says.
Eventually, Schrier and Padnos falsely confessed and were told by their captors that the videos were handed over to a foreign media outlet. The videos were not aired.
In July 2013 Schrier cooked up another escape plan. In the early hours of the morning just before sunrise during the Muslim sacred month of Ramadan, Schrier squeezed himself out of a tiny window.
Unable to get Padnos out, Schrier ran frantically from the building until he managed to hook up with a Free Syrian Army unit. The men sheltered Schrier and when it was safe, drove him across the Turkish border to safety. Padnos remained a captive until 2014 when he was turned over to UN peacekeepers following extensive mediation by Qatar.
Downloading the Kama Sutra
Back on U.S. soil, Schrier began the arduous task of piecing together his own financial footprints spanning the seven months he was held hostage.
He soon discovered that someone or several people had used his accounts to make nearly 100 online purchases. They bought laptops, tablets, a GPS watch, cameras, memory sticks, cologne and military-style boots. "They practically rebuilt a Mercedes with all the different parts they bought," says Schrier.
"They even used my iTunes account to download the 69 positions of a Kama Sutra guide from the app store," he says.
In total, Schrier said they got $18,000 from his business account before the bank froze it.
The bulk of the shipments were sent to addresses on the Turkish-Syrian border, but two were addressed to AKM in Montreal's Westmount neighbourhood.
For example, on Feb.13, 2013 someone ordered $940 US of products from an American company in Schrier's name.
The recipient on the shipping order was listed as AKM. The items included one Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (seven-inch, Wi-Fi) tablet, an HD Sony camcorder and a number of electronic accessories. For some reason the order was cancelled.
Confirmation email is sent
A confirmation number was sent to Schrier's email account as proof the shipment was delivered and received. Schrier assumes the person who received it was AKM.
Schrier says he shared the information he uncovered with the FBI and the RCMP but does not believe that much has happened in the year since he turned over the documents. And Schrier told CBC News that information he has gleaned from the FBI and RCMP reinforces his conviction that the men responsible for his and Padnos' kidnapping are Canadians.
CBC News tracked down AKM and made several attempts to have him explain who might have shipped the items to him in Schrier's name. CBC News also asked how Al-Qaeda's operatives in Syria picked his name, as well as whether he is connected to the Syrian kidnappers and whether he knows who the alleged Canadian kidnappers are.
CBC News was unable to persuade AKM to answer these questions. He said he was told by his lawyers not to have any discussion with reporters. He even refused to look at the evidence, saying that he has seen it.
Although Schrier's bank refunded him the money that was siphoned out of his account, he says he still needs to know who held him hostage, who tortured and defrauded him and whether an al-Qaeda cell made up of men from Montreal is still at large.
He believes AKM can provide answers to these questions and is disappointed AKM has refused to co-operate with the CBC News investigation.