No one doubts that NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel suffered a terrifying and dangerous ordeal when he and five colleagues were kidnapped in Syria in December 2012, but thanks in part to the Brian Williams scandal, there are new questions about his story and how the network handled the incident. In reports for NBC News and other outlets, Engel said the armed men who held his team captive for five days were Shiites loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and identified his rescuers as Sunni rebels. However, in a statement posted on the NBC News website Wednesday night, Engel said he now believes their rescuers were Sunnis with ties to the “criminal gang” who kidnapped them, and their abductors “put on an elaborate ruse” to convince them they were pro-Assad militiamen.
Engel and his team were driving with a man believed to be a Syrian rebel commander on December 13, 2012, when their vehicle was stopped and masked gunman blindfolded them and put them in a truck. For the next five days, they were moved to multiple locations, as the kidnappers threatened to kill them and held mock shootings. At one point, a man they were traveling with was taken outside and they heard a gunshots and what sounded like a body hitting the ground. “The kidnappers told us they had killed one of the rebels who had been with us, and I believed them,” Engel writes. Finally, the kidnappers drove into a rebel checkpoint and after a shootout, the rebels said they’d killed their captors and escorted them to the border in Turkey.
Then about a month ago, the New York Times contacted Engel and said they discovered that the kidnappers were not who they said they were. Engel and his producer began to reexamine the story themselves, and after interviewing multiple sources, they’ve concluded that they were purposely duped. Engel writes:
The kidnappers told us they were Shiite militiaman, members of the notorious Shabiha militia loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They spoke in a particular accent, playing Shiite chants on their cellphones, smoking cigarettes, even serving us coffee in cups decorated with Shiite symbols. I, along with two other Arabic speaking members of our six-member team, believed they were from the Shabiha.
Three Syrian sources said that when the kidnappers heard NBC was looking for its team they realized holding American journalists hostage would hurt their efforts to win support from Western nations. They considered killing them, but decided it was safer to blame the Assad regime and stage a rescue.
Engel says they heard conflicting stories on where the rescue took place, and whether two of their kidnappers were actually shot. He writes:
We have not been able to get a definitive account of what happened that night. But based on all of our reporting, it is clear that we were kidnapped by a criminal gang for money and released for propaganda purposes. We still cannot determine whether we were set up to be kidnapped from the start, and we have found no evidence that the Iranian and Lebanese prisoners whom we were headed to see existed.
He also notes that while re-reporting the story, they “spoke to multiple U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources who had direct knowledge of our case. They all said they did not doubt our story back in 2012 or anytime since.”
No mainstream news source questioned Engel’s story at the time, but on Wednesday the New York Times reported that the NBC team was “almost certainly” kidnapped by a Sunni criminal group known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, which was led by Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj. They were likely freed by another rebel-affiliated group, Ahrar al-Sham, that also had ties to Qassab and Ajouj. The kidnappers accidentally set off a GPS beacon while they were at a farm held by the criminal group, and the Times says NBC executives knew Ajouj and Qassab may be involved even before Engel and his team were released. The paper notes, “Still, the network moved quickly to put Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events.”
In this report that aired on the Today show just a few hours after the NBC team made it to Turkey, Engel identifies the kidnappers as “a group known as the shabiha, this was the government militia, these are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.”
In an April 2013 Vanity Fair piece on his ordeal, Engel commented that his captor’s threats sounded unrealistic:
I had heard shabiha rhetoric like this on Internet videos, but it had never seemed quite real—more like campy bad-guy dialogue from the movies. It sounded like he was playing it up for an audience, but nobody was watching except the kidnappers and us.
Engel also wrote in the magazine that two of his captors had been killed in the gunfight with their rescuers, and described their bodies lying by the van:
[Producer Aziz Akyavas] was next, climbing over the driver’s seat. Leaving the van, he stumbled on the driver—the man had been shot and was lying dead. Aziz knelt by the body and took cover by the van, going no farther.
… [Kidnapper] Abu Jaafar was in fact dead, lying where he had fallen not far from the passenger-side door.
In a December 2012 interview with Rachel Maddow, Engel said two of their captors were killed in the vehicle (at the 7:35 mark below). “They were pretty good shots,” he said of their rescuers. “They didn’t brass up the vehicle. They were precise. They shot the two guys and that was it.” (He also said that while he was blindfolded when a rebel was purportedly killed on day one, he’s “utterly convinced” that it happened because he was standing a few feet away when he was shot.)
In the update posted on Wednesday, Engel said he lifted his blindfold when the firefight began, and saw the two kidnappers firing toward the checkpoint. However, he acknowledged that he didn’t actually see their bodies, as his reporting suggested:
Producer Aziz Akyavas climbed out of the van through the driver side door. He says he saw and stepped over a body that lay by the front wheel. I climbed out of the passenger side door. A bearded gunman approached and said that we were safe now. That was our introduction to Abu Ayman. He said that he and his men had killed the two kidnappers. Under the circumstances, and especially since Aziz said that he had seen and stepped over a body, I didn’t doubt it and later reported it as fact.