Former Hostage: Islamist Group Was ‘Collecting’ American Journalists

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A photo taken on Sept. 29, 2011 shows U.S. freelance reporter James Foley resting in a room at the airport of Sirte, Libya. (credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A photo taken on Sept. 29, 2011 shows U.S. freelance reporter James Foley resting in a room at the airport of Sirte, Libya. (credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — An American journalist who was held captive for 210 days by extremist Syrian rebels says the Islamist group was “collecting us.”

Matthew Schrier, a photojournalist, was traveling with the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group backed by the United States, for 18 days before being taken captive by al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra on New Year’s Eve in 2012.

Schrier described to CBS News’ “60 Minutes” in November 2013 about how the extremists would torture its hostages.

“All I knew was that people were getting tortured because my second day there that’s when I started hearing people screaming,” Schrier said about his time being held at a children’s hospital al-Nusra turned into a prison. “And you hear whack, and they enjoy it. One of them said, ‘It gets me closer to God.’”

Schrier continued about his torturer: “He had this voice, this high-pitched squeaky voice. And you can hear him interrogating people. He used electricity. So inbetween whacks he hung people from handcuffs on pipes and he would just leave them hanging.”

Schrier, who was moved to six different prisons during his captivity, that he was moved to a cell where another American journalist was being held. He realized the terror group was “collecting” American journalists.

“This guy shoots up and his beard’s out to here and he’s dirty and he’s talking to Mohammed in Arabic. And Mohammed is just like, ‘American, American, just like you,’” Schrier explained to CBS News. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I didn’t believe him because the guy was speaking Arabic. It looked like he had the beard and everything. So I looked and I was like, ‘Oh my God, he is an American.’ It was a curveball. I didn’t expect this at all. One of the first things I said was, ‘Oh my God, they’re collecting us.’”

Members of al-Nusra would also max out his credit cards, buying things like Mercedes Benz parts, Ray-Ban sunglasses and even music off iTunes.

Schrier was finally able to escape from the last prison cell he was in through a window during the month of Ramadan. He was then able to meet up with the Free Syrian Army who took him to the Turkish border.

Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terror group that beheaded American journalist James Foley, used to be bitter rivals. This past June, though, al-Nusra’s Albu Kamal branch “pledged loyalty” to ISIS, France 24 reported.

ISIS released video this week showing the beheading of Foley in what they say was payback for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

In a press briefing Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS a “threat beyond anything we’ve seen.”

“They are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of … military prowess,” Hagel stated. “They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything we’ve seen.”

The White House revealed Wednesday that the U.S. had launched a secret rescue mission inside Syria earlier this summer that failed to rescue Foley and other Americans still being held hostage.

The secret mission to rescue the U.S. hostages involved several dozen special operations forces dropped by aircraft into Syria. The hostages weren’t found, but special forces engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing, according to administration officials. Several militants were killed, and one American sustained minor injuries.

“The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens,” Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present.”

Hagel said during the press briefing it was the right call to go into Syria to try to save Foley and the other hostages.

“We all regret that mission did not succeed, but I’m very proud of the U.S. forces that participated in it,” Hagel stated.

Foley, a 40-year-old journalist from Rochester, New Hampshire, was no stranger to war zone reporting. He went missing in northern Syria in November 2012 while freelancing for Agence France-Presse and the Boston-based news organization GlobalPost. The car he was riding in was stopped by four militants in a contested battle zone that both Sunni rebel fighters and government forces were trying to control. He had not been heard from since.

He was one of at least four Americans still being held in Syria — three of whom officials said were kidnapped by the Islamic State. The fourth, freelance journalist Austin Tice, disappeared in Syria in August 2012 and is believed to be in the custody of government forces in Syria.

The Islamic State video of Foley’s beheading also showed another of the missing American journalists, Steven Sotloff, and warned he would be the next killed if U.S. airstrikes continued. U.S. officials believe the video was made days before its Tuesday release, perhaps last weekend, and have grown increasingly worried about Sotloff’s fate.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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