Q: Were there moments during Matt's interview when you were surprised by how he told his story?
A: As soon as we sat down with Matt a few weeks after his escape, we realized he was still reliving details about what happened. He was clearly traumatized, but his personality is not a victim personality. He's tough and he's funny. He reminded me a little of the characters in the show M*A*S*H, real people who are funny and smart, who are constantly having their lives interrupted by complete terror. At one point, he said, "You just gotta adapt." His coping mechanism is to recall the details that make him laugh at the absurdity of it all.
I think Matt's sense of people and power is really what helped him survive. He's basically one of those guys who has a winning personality and uses humor constantly to put you at ease.
Q: What were some of the most interesting things you learned about the terrorists who kidnapped him? These aren't your average terrorists, it seems.
A: The guys he was with were hardcore, Islamic fighters, but not really as we in the West conceive of them. He says they were basically young men-- kids, really-- who'd become indoctrinated into the idea of jihad, but were also driven by the desires of most young men: money, power, girls.
When he got back to the U.S., he was able to go over his banks accounts and he realized that these devout religious fighters actually stole a lot of money from him -- which is clearly not a very moral thing to do as a religious person or a very disciplined thing to do for a "soldier."
Q: There were two songs that were meaningful to Matt during his kidnapping and escape. Explain how these two songs affected him.
A: Matt told us he was moved from prison to prison six times during the seven months he was held. One time, he said, they threw him into the back of an SUV where he was placed in a "trunk" with air holes punched in the top. He says the kidnappers were basically just impulsive young men, who he describes as "crazy for jihad," at least as they understood it. When they drove through town, he says they played a song on the car's stereo, like American teenagers would. But instead of some bass-pounding gangster rap, these young, heavily-armed thugs had their own "jihadi" tunes, one of which, he says, completely terrified him.
When Matt got back to the United States, he found the song on YouTube. It's actually a catchy song, and the guy who sings it has a beautiful voice. But for Matt, tied up in the trunk of an SUV driven by heavily armed young men who kidnapped and tortured him, it was "scary as hell."
When Matt finally escaped into the streets of Aleppo, his biggest fear was running into another rebel group made up of religious fighters, because they might kidnap him themselves or turn him back over to his Jabhat al-Nusra kidnappers. So when he made it into a small Free Syrian Army base, located inside an old factory, he was still terrified.He says there were, like, 20 guys in there, and he didn't really know if he could trust them. So he asked for a cigarette because the jihadis forbade smoking. They gave him one and that calmed him down a little. But he says he really felt better when one of the F.S.A. guys turned on a Shaggy music video, "Sexy Lady."
When he heard that song, that's when he knew he was really out of the hands of religious extremists.