NEW YORK -- NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel is re-reporting a key detail of his December 2012 kidnapping in Syria after new information surfaced suggesting he may have been misled about the identities of his captors, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Engel is conducting the re-reporting along with his team, and the effort has been ongoing for several weeks. Originally, Engel identified his captors as the shabiha, a shadowy Shia militia acting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He is now investigating whether the men were actually Sunni, and if so, whether they were motivated by money or posing as Shia militiamen as part of an anti-Assad propaganda ploy.
The developments bear little resemblance to the controversy surrounding NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended after falsely claiming to have come under rocket-propelled grenade fire in Iraq and remains the subject of an ongoing network investigation into other allegations about his reporting.
In Williams' case, it is evident that the anchor embellished his experience in a war zone. The question surrounding Engel’s war story is not whether he overstated the danger he and his crew were in, but who exactly was responsible for that danger.
There is no doubt that Engel and his crew were at serious risk. On Dec. 13, 2012, he and five crew members were seized in Syria and subjected to psychological torture and abuse during five harrowing days in captivity. What is in dispute, sources say, is not the correspondent's description of what he witnessed during the kidnapping ordeal, but rather his conclusion -- offered in several TV interviews and in a first-person Vanity Fair story -- about his captors' affiliation.
Engel did not respond to an email seeking comment. NBC News declined to comment.
Some observers had indicated skepticism early on about the identity of Engel's captors. The same day Engel surfaced from captivity, California State University professor As'ad AbuKhalil, who blogs at a site called the Angry Arab News Service, expressed doubts that the captors were pro-Assad agents linked to the Iranian government and Hezbollah.
But neither Engel's account nor his conclusion were ever seriously challenged in the news media. After The New York Times began inquiring about details of the kidnapping, according to sources, Engel revisited the ordeal twenty-eight months later to determine who exactly was responsible for the kidnapping .
Engel emerged from captivity on Dec. 18, 2012 and appeared that day on NBC's "Today" show, along with photographer John Kooistra and producer Ghazi Balkiz, two other members of the crew. All six captive journalists had escaped after a firefight the previous night.
On the show, Engel described being kidnapped while traveling in an area of northwest Syria controlled by rebels fighting the Assad regime, part of a bloody conflict in the country that had been going on for nearly two years at that point. Engel said that a group of around 15 gunmen wearing ski masks came out of the trees and detained the journalists as well as the rebel fighters who were escorting them.
“They took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places and they kept us blindfolded, bound, we weren’t physically beaten [or] tortured,” Engel said. “It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. And when we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times.”
While kidnappers executed the bodyguard of Abdelrazaq, a rebel commander accompanying the journalists, no one in Engel's crew was seriously harmed.
Engel and his crew hid the fact that they understood Arabic and listened to the kidnappers speaking amongst themselves. He became convinced that his captors were the shabiha.
“These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,” Engel said in the "Today" show interview. “They are Shiite. They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their -- the Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are allied with Hezbollah. We were told that they wanted to exchange us for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese people ... These were other shabiha members who’ve been captured by the rebels. They captured us in order to carry out this exchange.”
Engel later elaborated on the experience in other interviews, including one on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” as well as in the Vanity Fair piece he published in early March 2013. He pointed out that Abdelrazaq had wanted to show the TV crew a group of four Iranian and two Lebanese fighters that his fighters had captured, suggesting that these were the same shabiha members that the kidnappers had been talking about getting back.
In Vanity Fair, Engel also described freshly spray-painted graffiti on the walls praising "Assad and the seventh-century Imam Ali, whom Shiite Muslims revere as the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad." The captors' graffiti, he wrote, "lionized Imam Ali’s mythical sword, Zulfiqar," which is a meaningful symbol for Shia often used in Iran and by Hezbollah.
Some of this graffiti is visible in a video of the men in captivity that was posted online.
AbuKhalil, who expressed doubts in his initial blog post that the captors were, in fact, tied to Iran and Hezbollah, examined the graffiti in a second post. “I looked at the video and it is so clearly a set up and the slogans are so clearly fake and they intend to show that they were clearly Shi’ites and that they are savages,” he wrote. “If this one is believable, I am posing as a dentist.”
The captors attempted to move Engel's crew from Maarrat Misrin to Foua, a town that was surrounded by Syrian rebels but still receiving supplies by air from the Assad government. Engel described Foua as a Hezbollah stronghold and said he feared the journalists could end up spending years in captivity, perhaps being “helicoptered from there to Beirut or Tehran or Damascus.”
But fortunately, they never reached Foua. Syrian rebels stopped the kidnappers at a roadside checkpoint, and after a shootout, Engel's crew was freed. The rebels took the journalists with them and the crew crossed back into Turkey the next day.
Engel appeared certain the shabiha were to blame in his initial accounts. But in light of new questions about the kidnappers, one of Engel's descriptions -- of Abu Jaafar, one of the kidnappers, boasting of plans to kill Sunni women and children and burn their villages -- could be viewed as oddly prescient.
"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," Engel wrote in Vanity Fair. "It sounded like he was playing it up for an audience, but nobody was watching except the kidnappers and us."