EXCLUSIVE – After he escaped from Al Qaeda in Syria, American photojournalist Matt Schrier investigated his own kidnapping and uncovered what he describes as a pattern of “betrayal” by FBI agents handling his case.
Schrier is now asking hard questions of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who now leads the special counsel Russia probe, and former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by President Trump in May 2017.
“Not every FBI agent is bad. Some are very good people,” Schrier told Fox News. “But the ones that are bad need to be weeded out. And the ones who let them be bad, and who turn their head, need to be exposed.”
In an exclusive cable interview that first aired Monday on “The Story” with Martha MacCallum, Schrier went in depth, sharing emails, financial records and formal letters of complaint, which backed up allegations that after he was taken hostage in 2012, the FBI monitored his accounts as Al Qaeda terrorists used his money to buy at least a dozen computers and tablets.
While he was tortured and held by al Nusra, the brutal Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, Schrier claimed the FBI put intelligence gathering ahead of his personal security, hoping to track the computers and tablets to learn more about Al Qaeda recruits and future plots. After his harrowing escape, Schrier started demanding answers from the FBI, which at the time of his kidnapping was led by Mueller.
Since his return to the U.S. in mid-2013, Schrier shared documents with Fox News and explained, “I faxed– I emailed them, probably between my mother and my father and me, between 50 and 100 complaints.”
Comey took over from Mueller in September 2013, and Schrier said the stonewalling continued. “I was emailing him questions. I was forwarding him all these emails. I was demanding answers from him,” Schrier said. “And I never got anything back.”
Schrier said he has been unable to obtain credit cards or open new bank accounts because Al Qaeda stole his identity and passwords. Unable to get a lease for an apartment, Schrier said his FBI case manager suggested he temporarily live in a New York City homeless shelter.
“I just got clean clothes without bed bugs. I don’t want to go through a situation where I have to deal with lice and bed bugs again. Like, no thank you.”
The publisher for Comey’s upcoming book, A Higher Loyalty, did not immediately respond to Fox News’ questions. The Office of the Special Counsel referred Fox News to the FBI. The FBI did not dispute Schrier’s account. An FBI spokesperson said the bureau could neither respond to specific questions nor make the agent assigned to Schrier’s case available for an interview.
“The FBI’s investigation into the kidnapping of Matthew Schrier remains open, therefore, we are not able to discuss investigative details surrounding this case. The FBI works closely with our federal partners not only to ensure that the U.S. Government does all that it can to safely recover Americans taken hostage overseas but to also assist victims who have been defrauded or further abused by a hostage-taker,” the spokesperson said.
A leading group that helps American hostages and their families, Hostage US, confirmed 2012 and 2013 represented a dark period.
“By the U.S. government’s own admission, there were many problems relating to their engagement with families around this time, mixed messages from different parts of government,” Hostage US CEO Rachel Briggs told Fox News. “President Obama ordered a review of the U.S. government’s handling of hostages’ cases in late 2014, which… led to a range of policy and procedural changes. The review came about largely because families themselves were vocal in their criticisms, and they should take the credit for the changes they brought about.”
Briggs cited a new Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell — a cross-government unit focused on hostage cases, as well as a Hostage Response Group at the National Security Council.
Schrier’s story began in 2012 when, as a freelance photographer, he traveled to Syria, one of the most dangerous places on the planet for journalists to operate. Schrier said he wanted to witness history.
“I love military history and I’m not really the type who wants to photograph handshakes. So I thought it would be a great experience witnessing history, photographing history, bringing it back,” Schrier explained.
On New Year’s Eve of 2012, instead of crossing back into Turkey, Schrier was kidnapped by the Al Qaeda franchise known as al Nusra. “ISIS pushed them out, but at that time, they were number one,” Schrier said. “They were the guys you did not want to be held by.”
Schrier spent the next seven months held in six prisons across Syria where he was routinely tortured and starved. “They caught me trying to escape a month and six days in, so they put a tire around my knees and they lock it in place by sliding a bar in the crook between the tire and your knee — the back of your knees. And they flip you over so your feet are in the air and you’re handcuffed… And they take a cable… about as thick as nightstick, and they whack your feet.”
Six weeks after his disappearance, records reviewed by Fox News showed 10 computers were purchased using his accounts, after Schrier said his Al Qaeda kidnappers threatened him. “They sat me down in the office in a circle with the emir, three Canadians and another guy. And they put a piece of paper in front of me and said, basically, ‘Write down all the passwords for every account you have, from Facebook to your credit cards to your bank accounts, we want your social security number.'”
At least two tablets were shipped to a Canadian address. Fox News called phone numbers listed under the name and address but there was no response. A February 2017 email reviewed by Fox News from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police suggested a criminal case was being built, but there was no public evidence charges were pursued.
By February 2013, Schrier said the terrorists had everything to steal his identity. “They bought laptops, they bought tablets, they bought boots, you know, things to fight with. They practically rebuilt a Mercedes with parts. I mean, all sorts of stuff… They bought a Kama Sutra guide. They bought sunglasses, cologne.”
At the same time, Schrier claimed the FBI was monitoring the transactions, and the bureau’s point person for his family, agent Lindsey Perotti, misled his mother. Six months into his captivity, the FBI agent wrote Schrier’s mother, “Everything at this point seems to indicate he is the one using his phone, credit card, and bank account.” Despite working as a freelance war photographer, Schrier had not posted any new work.
“I’d been kept in the dark for extremely long periods of times, I’m infested with bedbugs,” Schrier said. “Yet, according to the FBI, I’m speaking to people on my cellphone, I’m buying laptops and cologne and boots and sunglasses, maybe going into Turkey once in a while to get away from things, you know, just like all jihadis do, you know. ‘Cause Southern Turkey’s like the Hamptons, you know?”
Schrier, from New York, hid the fact he was Jewish from his captors because he said it meant certain death.
Two intelligence officers, one current, the other former, told Fox News that Schrier’s theory — that the FBI was tracking Al Qaeda’s online activity with his accounts, as well as the computer purchases — suggested it was part of a larger operation.
“So they’re monitoring my financial records straight off the bat. They’re letting them steal this money. Why are they letting them steal the money, what’s the angle? Well, what are they buying? They’re buying laptops and tablets. If they intercept them, they do their little spy thing and then they deliver them right into the hands of Al Qaeda and they create, basically, a dream come true for the intelligence community, a way to infiltrate the enemy like never before, without them even knowing it,” Schrier said.
He claimed the FBI’s priority was running an intelligence operation and not an investigation to secure his release. Pressed by Fox News to back up the serious allegation, Schrier said, “Beyond a reasonable doubt, I have all the evidence, I have made one attempt after another to have this investigated so that the people responsible can be held accountable, nobody will return my calls, nobody will investigate this, despite all the evidence.”
Halfway through his captivity, by April 2013, there was a conversation between FBI agent Perotti and a government official familiar with the case.
“He’s like, ‘Do you think that he joined them? Like, what’s going on?’ She’s like, ‘No, no, no. We’re pretty sure he didn’t join ’em based on his financial records.’ Boom, she slipped. She admitted she was monitoring my financial records as of early April,” Schrier said.
A government official backed up the account to Fox News.
Nearly five years after a harrowing escape, Schrier documented his story in a new book, “The Dawn Prayer.”
The 39-year-old Schrier said he remained angry at how the FBI handled his case. “You know, what I needed help with was reestablishing a life for myself, which means a new social security number and rebuilding my credit.”
Schrier emphasized that he still couldn’t get a credit card though he was able eventually to recover more than $16,000 in stolen funds through PayPal and Citibank, but it took months. “You have the Witness Protection Program, you give new social security numbers to murderers and pimps and drug dealers. I’m a witness too and I didn’t do any of that stuff. ‘No — can’t help you.'”
After he returned, Schrier described a debrief for the FBI and CIA. The CIA had no comment for Fox News.
“I gave them more information than probably 50 informants could’ve given ’em. And that’s when I went from feeling like, ‘All right, I don’t deserve anything,’ to, ‘You know what, yeah, yeah I deserve some things. I deserve a new social security number, I deserve decent health care, I deserve to be treated with respect.’ I didn’t ask for anything. I gave them Skype names, I gave them more than anyone in my situation has ever given them. I can say that definitively. And what I got in return was lies, betrayal, nothing,” Schrier said.
An FBI spokesperson added, “The FBI offers assistance to victims to aid them in rebuilding their lives. We continue to work with our inter-agency and international law enforcement partners to gather intelligence as well as assess the possibility of bringing charges against those who victimized Mr. Schrier.”