Former Miami Filmmaker Trapped Inside Turkish Prison After Escaping Syria

In Miami, journalist Lindsey Snell spent years working documentary projects like Billy Corben's Square Grouper.  The University of Florida graduate made a name for herself telling the impossible-to-invent narrative of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church's huge marijuana-importing business.

Now, Snell is living her own tale of international intrigue. In July, Snell says she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jahbat al Nusra, before fleeing in a daring escape. Now NBC confirms that she's in a prison facility in Hatay province Turkey, and might be charged with illegally entering the country.

According to a Facebook post that Snell published on August 5, the journalist says she was thrown in a "cave prison," confronted by "masked villains" from the militant group in the Syrian war zone. She says she only escaped after her captors let her use a cell phone. Those details haven't been confirmed, but U.S. State Department officials did tell NBC News that she's being held in Turkey. 

It's a stunning shift for Snell, who helped Corben produce 2011's Square Grouper and the ESPN "30 for 30" short film Collision Course: The Murder of Don Aronow, which detailed the murder of a speedboat-racing marijuana smuggler. That film premiered in 2013.

"I haven't been in touch with Lindsey for years, but I've heard about her frightening ordeal and I hope it's resolved quickly," Corben tells New Times via email. She's also reported for Vice, MSNBC, and ABC News, among other outlets.

According to the Facebook post, Snell — who later converted to Islam — says she had come to Syria to see the family of one of Jabhat al Nusra's "recent martyrs." She claims the martyr even asked her to stay in his family's home. She says that fact, however, did not stop Nusra members from "arresting" her.

From there, Snell says she was held in a cave.

"The previous tenant of my cell had marked his days in residence in blood on the walls," she wrote.

Somehow, she says she convinced her captors to let her use a cell phone, with which she took photos of her condition and planned an escape. She writes that she escaped with the help of a disguise and a motorcycle, and was able to save photos and video footage of the ordeal.

"Really not sure why they kept letting me have my phone," she Tweeted Aug. 5.

According to NBC News, Snell was then detained after trying to cross Syria's western border into Turkey: 

A State Department official said the U.S. government was aware of Snell's presence in Syria and that helping her to get to a safe location was the agency's consistent and overriding goal.

U.S. personnel were dispatched to the Turkey-Syria border to support Snell's safe exit from the war-ravaged country but Snell was subsequently detained by Turkish authorities, the official said.
NBC News reports that the governor of Hatay Province, Ercan Topaca, told the country's state-run news agency that a "U.S. journalist was captured while she was trying to cross the border illegally; she was taken to court and remanded. The trial phase is ongoing. For now, we do not know if she is a spy or not."

Though NBC was unable to confirm Snell's personal story, she posted an interview with Jahbat al Nusra fighters to her Facebook page on July 7.

Snell, who grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida, never shied away from putting herself in harm's way. According to a 2011 Miami Beach 411 article (written by New Times contributor Bill Cooke), Snell studied law at Fordham University in Manhattan before moving back down to Miami Beach. Instead of passing her bar exams, she instead joined Corben's filmmaking company Rakontur as a researcher.

Speaking to Cooke, Corben described Snell as having “the mind of an attorney, the wit of a satirist, the face of an angel and the heart of a storyteller.”

Producing Square Grouper required taking repeated trips out to the lawless edges of Everglades City,  80 miles outside of Miami. There, she told Cooke she started hanging out at a rowdy drinking establishment called the Leebo's Rock Bottom Bar:

At first, Snell says, “They thought I was a narc.” That notion was quickly forgotten, Snell says, “when they saw how much I could drink.”
She added that she was "was hit on by men 50 years my senior too many times to count," and ended up getting splattered with blood during a particularly vicious bar fight.

More recently, Snell worked as a field producer for a 2016 segment on Palestine for Vice's HBO series.

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.