How Carl Campeau, abducted in Syria, escaped al-Qaeda's clutches

Canadian Carl Campeau was working for the UN as a legal adviser in Syria when he was captured by a group of rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda almost a year ago. He tells the CBC's Nahlah Ayed of his eight months in captivity and the gamble he took to escape.

Montrealer forced to make videos, slipped away from his jailers

A Canadian hostage's story

8 years ago
Montreal's Carl Campeau spent eight months in captivity, abducted by Syrian rebels with ties to al-Qaeda 9:06

Carl Campeau knew he was in a dire situation when one of the gunmen who'd taken him hostage asked a surprising, but pointed question.

"He said, 'Bashar, or Osama bin Laden?' so it was like, are you with the Syrian regime or with Osama bin Laden?"

Until that moment, the Montreal native, a legal adviser to the UN, believed that the men who grabbed him on the road to Damascus at gunpoint on Feb. 17 would eventually set him free; that they might be tempted by the money he offered, and the vehicle he said could be theirs, if only they would let him go.

But he had fallen by chance into the hands of Syrian fighters linked to al-Qaida, and he knew then it wouldn't be that simple.

Campeau ultimately spent eight months in captivity. In his captors' view he was considered a prisoner of war. At times he faced both the threats of execution, and the civil war that often brought shells crashing near and even onto the villa where he was being held.

At the same time, he gained insights into the thinking of an Islamist group at the forefront of Syria's civil war, insights that he told CBC News this week in his first interview since his dramatic escape in mid-October.

Campeau was in Syria as a legal adviser to a UN mission observing the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. He was on his way from the border to Damascus, when he came across what appeared to be a group of six or seven gunmen on the road robbing a family in a car.

The gunmen pointed their guns at him, and insisted he get out of the vehicle. At first he resisted.

"One of the fighters … showed me the butt of his rifle, like he was going to hit me," Campeau said in an interview in Vienna, where he lives. "They were extremely nervous … they knew I was a UN staff member, that they had caught a big fish."

Campeau was kept, occasionally blindfolded, in a cramped room in a villa a short distance from the main road. They hid the window behind a wardrobe, often leaving Campeau alone and in the dark during his first few weeks.

"It's a terrible feeling," he said. "It's like somebody, something comes and pulls the rug under your feet and you fall in a hole, and you are in front of a mirror."

The Nusra Front

The men who abducted Campeau told him they belonged to the Nusra Front, a Syrian Islamist group fighting against regime forces. It is a group that has also claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks.

Its aim is not only the downfall of the regime, but the establishment of an Islamic state.

Campeau says the kidnappers initially demanded a $7-million dollar ransom, and that they kept him abreast of apparent negotiations, including their offer to release him in exchange for prisoners held in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

UN lawyer Carl Campeau, captured by Syrian rebels for eight months last year, tells his story to CBC News. (CBC)

He told them both demands were unreasonable and unlikely to be agreed to. They told him no one on the outside seemed interested in saving him.

Still, the hostage takers took to coercing Campeau to call home, to ask that their demands be met. They then forced him to make proof-of-life videos.

One seen by Campeau's distressed family falsely suggested that he had his leg cut off.

"They made me fold my leg under the other… They put some sheets and some bandages, and to make it real they put iodine to simulate blood… So they made me look very miserable and injured and suffering."

Many of the fighters did not appear professional, said Campeau. Many of them were young and Syrian — although more hardened fighters also appeared, some of them from outside Syria.

He said they did not appear to be well-equipped militarily, though they carried rifles, and each carried a small grenade on their belt, which they described as a weapon for suicide, should it be required.

At times, he says, when negotiations apparently faltered, they considered killing him. At other times, they allowed him to watch television and write in a diary — some of them even dropping by to chat.

Sometimes, they pushed him to convert to Islam. At one point when a new leader came along, they left him in virtual darkness, without any privileges and no interaction save for a meal twice a day.

At that stage he thought negotiations must have failed, and that it might be over for him. There were times, says Campeau, when he did feel completely forgotten in captivity.

(During that time, nothing was said publicly about Campeau’s abduction, a news blackout of sorts to try to protect him.)

It was during this dark period late in his confinement that Campeau decided to agree to convert. The gunmen approved.

"They reacted extremely well, because from that point they told me, 'now you're a brother. We cannot kill you anymore.' "

The chance to escape

Campeau's life in captivity improved dramatically after that, he said. His kidnappers allowed him to step out of the villa for fresh air. He prayed with them five times a day. Campeau would not discuss it further.

Earlier, they had told him that Canada's involvement in Afghanistan made him a fair target.

This Jan. 11, 2013, photo from a citizen journalist, authenticated by AP,shows rebels from al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, as they sit on a truck full of ammunition, in Idlib province, northern Syria. (Associated Press)

"For them, we're on the top of their list of enemies… And so that makes me not only a hostage for them but a prisoner of war."

One morning, he discovered his captors had left his door unlocked. He walked out to find that their weapons were sitting outside his room unattended. It was the start of the Eid holiday.

He grabbed a red scarf often worn by locals in the area, put it on his head, and started a dangerous walk through the fields, hiding in irrigation channels, until he found the Syrian army.

That took three hours, he said. It took many more hours for him to feel safe — he was first interrogated by army officials before they handed him over to the foreign ministry.

"It was a big risk to take. But, the other risk is, I would be locked [in] for years…  I would just be a shadow of myself."

Campeau insists, as does the UN, that no ransom was paid.

"I came to my own rescue. I'm proud about this."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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