NEW YORK -- NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel revealed Wednesday night that the masked men who kidnapped him and five colleagues in Syria in December 2012 misled the captive journalists about their affiliation, leading him to misidentify them in accounts of the ordeal.
During a Dec. 18, 2012, appearance on the "Today" show following their escape, Engel identified his captors as members of the shabiha, a Shia militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. But as The Huffington Post reported Wednesday afternoon, new questions about the kidnappers’ affiliation recently prompted Engel and a team of journalists to revisit the harrowing five days in captivity.
After reporting for the past several weeks, Engel wrote Wednesday that his kidnappers were Sunni, not Shia, and had “put on an elaborate ruse to convince” the captured journalists they were the shabiha and linked to Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah. Engel had previously described the men as part of the Shia militia in TV interviews and a first-person piece for Vanity Fair in March 2013.
Though California State University professor As'ad AbuKhalil expressed serious doubts early on about Engel's captors being the shabiha, and aligned with Iran and Hezbollah, the correspondent’s account was never seriously challenged in the news media. On the day Engel surfaced in Turkey, AbuKhalil wrote that graffiti visible in a video of the captured journalists included "clearly fake" slogans intended to falsely suggest the captors were Shiites. "If this one is believable" he wrote, "I am posing as a dentist.”
Following publication of Engel's piece on Wednesday, AbuKhalil told The Huffington Post that the episode "shows the extent to which Western media were going out of their way to protect the armed thugs and terrorists of the Syrian armed groups."
"Engel did not want to believe that he was kidnapped by the very 'moderate' Syrian rebels that he and other correspondents were promoting on a daily basis," AbuKhalil wrote in an email. "This is a scandal of major proportion. The moderate rebels are the ones who perfected the art of kidnapping for ransom, of journalists and sectarian kidnapping of innocent Lebanese and Syrians. This should raise questions about the quality of Western reporting on Syria."
The 28-month-old ordeal gained renewed attention in recent weeks after The New York Times asked Engel about the kidnapping. The Times reported late Wednesday that NBC News executives were informed during and after Engel's captivity that a Sunni criminal gang may be to blame, but "moved quickly to put Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events."
The Times story raises questions about NBC News' handling of the ordeal and brings more scrutiny on a network still reeling from "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams' false claims of coming under RPG fire while reporting in Iraq. Williams was subsequently suspended.
There's no dispute that Engel and his crew were kidnapped and endured psychological torture for several days. But Engel's original conclusion about the ordeal -- that a pro-government Shia militia seized the journalists and was delivering them to a Hezbollah stronghold in Syria -- can no longer be supported. Engel now concludes that he and his crew 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,” Engel said, “and we have found no evidence that the Iranian and Lebanese prisoners whom we were headed to see existed.” (In previous accounts, Engel said a rebel commander was bringing them into Syria to see these prisoners, proof of Iranian government and Hezbollah activity in the Syrian civil war.) Engel also wrote that the Syrian rebels who freed his crew after five days had ties to the kidnappers.
In his article Wednesday, Engel provides new details of the kidnapping, including how an emergency GPS system the crew carried had alerted NBC to their position. As word spread that the journalists were located, Engel wrote, his captors considered killing them and hiding the bodies.
Engel wrote that Abu Ayman, an Islamist commander in the area, feared that the death of American journalists could lead to the U.S. not providing arms to those fighting Assad’s regime. Abu Ayman, he wrote, contacted the Sunni leader of the criminal gang holding the journalists. The details of the intervention remain unclear, as two of the participants are believed dead and a third missing.
Engel and his crew were freed soon after the kidnappers stopped at a rebel checkpoint and were killed in a firefight -- or, at least that's what Engel believed at the time. The situation is increasingly murky, given that the rebels freeing Engel's crew had some previous interaction with the kidnappers. Engel said a source insisted in his recent reporting that the kidnappers were indeed killed that night.
This article has been updated to include The New York Times report.