Editor’s note: ISIS released a video on November 16 claiming to have beheaded Peter Kassig. Unlike the previous videos, this one does not show the beheading, and there is no forced speech from the victim. But it does features a masked militant, dressed in black standing over a severed head that ISIS claims is Kassig’s. Based on his British accent, the militant appears to be the same one—sometimes called Jihadi John—who has appeared in the previous videos over the last four months showing the murders of American and British hostages.
“This is Peter Edward Kassig, a U.S. citizen, of your country,” the militant said in the video. “Peter who fought against the Muslims in Iraq, while serving as a soldier.”
The Daily Beast is reposting Nick Schwellenbach’s story on Kassig, which he wrote when his friend first appeared in a video in early October, marking him as a possible victim of the monsters of ISIS.
I first met Peter Kassig in May of 2012. We were both studying introductory Arabic at the Saifi Institute in the Gemmayzeh area in Beirut, Lebanon. Saifi isn’t just a school: it’s a hostel, two bars and a restaurant. It is a rare place, where both expats and locals truly socialize and it isn’t hard to meet new people there.
Aside from studying Arabic, Peter was 24 and trying to figure out his place in the world. I was 30 and trying to get over a hard breakup. We both were Americans and liked to drink. He was an intense guy with a big heart. We quickly became friends during the month I knew him there.
Peter served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and he returned to the States with mixed emotions about the conflict he saw firsthand. While he knew he should focus on school and get his bachelor’s degree, his heart and soul took him back to the Middle East with a desire to help people in the region.
In Beirut, at first he spent considerable time trying to help Palestinians in the camps. Anyone who had any doubts about his seriousness soon lost them because it was clear that Peter was hardcore. He’s the kind of guy who burns with passion and wasn’t just talk. Some of his best friends in Beirut were Palestinians because of his efforts.
“He wanted to do anything to help,” said one British engineer with business experience in the Middle East, and our friend. “I went to one camp with him and we realized that solar power would be a great initiative, as it will increase their standard of living and reduce dependency on the grid.” On their laptops in the neighborhood of Hamra, they used Alibaba to reach out to Chinese solar panel companies, getting price quotes. Jawad told me they tried to create a business plan that might attract donations.
One week Peter was so spun up, frustrated that he wasn’t doing more, that I told him to cool it, to borrow my camping gear for a weekend and get away from it all. He and Jawad traveled out of the city for a couple nights to the mountains. When he came back, he had cooled down. Soon after, he met a girl he couldn’t stop talking about.
At this time, the Syrian conflict had been increasingly boiling over into Lebanon. It wasn’t uncommon to meet Syrians who had escaped the turmoil. No one who knew Peter in Beirut was surprised when he turned his focus to helping Syrians.
I left Lebanon in June 2012, but we kept in sporadic touch via Facebook. He started his relief group, called Special Emergency Response and Assistance (SERA), in the fall of that year. It was small scale and very risky.
Peter and a small group of volunteers would buy supplies and smuggle them into Syria for refugees, communities in need and hospitals. Eventually he moved to the Turkish border with Syria because there was more to do there.
After I returned to the United States, I wrote a brief piece for Time magazine in January 2013 after SERA’s first mission in Syria. Peter learned that the blankets they brought weren’t as needed as food. He also knew the human toll. “We learned first-hand through this process just how difficult it is to get supplies into Syria,” Peter wrote at the time on SERA’s Facebook page, which has since been taken down. “Innocent lives were lost in the days we were in the area of Qah Refugee camp attempting to deliver aid.”
But he didn’t let it beat him down. “I did not meet a single man, woman or child who could not muster a smile and a message of strength and hope that was nothing short of earth-shatteringly humbling,” Peter wrote.
After my article ran, Peter was thankful, even though he was the one who was taking the real risks. “I miss you, man,” he emailed me. “It’s been a real long road, but we’re still running strong.”
I heard from him briefly in the summer of 2013. He wanted to learn how to draft grant proposals so SERA could get more funding to do more relief work. Saying it ran on a shoestring budget would have been an overstatement. A small trickle of donations from friends and family, handled by a church in Indiana, was his main source of funding. I gave him some pointers and examples of grant proposals that I thought could be useful.
In November 2013, SERA’s Twitter feed went silent. SERA’s website stated, “Due to the present security situation in Syria, SERA has temporarily ceased its operations.” It turns out Peter had been “detained on October 1, 2013, on his way to Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria,” according to a statement released by his family.
Earlier this year, a mutual friend told me that Peter was being held captive in Syria. Spanish correspondent Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, who were freed in March, were with him. We were told to keep information about Peter’s capture private out of fear that publicity might endanger his life.
On Friday, when the video showing the beheading of Alan Henning was released, the world and I learned that he is next person ISIS is planning to murder.