Richard Engel is one of NBC’s best and brightest foreign correspondents. He is the chief foreign correspondent.
On Wednesday night, he revealed that the people who kidnapped him and five colleagues in Syria in December of 2012 misled them about their affiliation, leading them to misidentify them in their media accounts of the kidnapping.
The mistake was first pointed out in an April 15th article by The New York Times.
During a Dec. 18th, 2012, appearance on the “Today” show following their escape, Engel identified his captors as members of the “shabiha,” a Shia militia that was loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Assad is in charge of the government troops and is an Alawite, who are related to and fight together with the Shia. The Shia are often backed by Iran, a Shia Muslim country.
However, as The Huffington Post reported Wednesday afternoon, new questions about the kidnappers’ group affiliation recently prompted Engel and a team of journalists to adjust their accounts of their five days in captivity in 2012.
After reporting for the past several weeks, Engel recently wrote on Wednesday that his kidnappers were Sunni, not Shia, states the Huffington Post.
That would make his kidnappers affiliated with the rebels, not with the Assad government.
He also wrote that they had “put on an elaborate ruse to convince” them that they were the “shabiha” and allied with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Was it an honest mistake by Engel?
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.
Vanity fair recently made a correction to their 2013 article about the hostage ordeal.
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, but 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.
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.”
Recently, Engel made a correction article: “Our kidnapping also became a sensitive issue for the main rebel field commander in that part of Syria, a man known as Abu Ayman. A member of an the Islamist group Ahrar al Sham, Abu Ayman and his superiors were hoping to persuade the U.S. to provide arms to them. Having American journalists taken on what was known to be his turf could block that possibility.”
Ahrar al Sham is a Sunni Muslim rebel group and is supposedly one of the founding groups of the Islamic Front, according to Wikipedia.
According to the BBC, “The Islamic Front refuses to come under the umbrella of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, but co-operates with SMC-aligned brigades on the battlefield, as well as the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.”
Several sources state that some former al-Qaeda members work for Ahrar al-Sham.
“US intelligence sources have asserted that an important figure within Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Khalid al Suri, is a senior Al Qaeda operative and acts as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s representative in the Levant,” states Wikipedia.
Ahrar al-Sham was a dangerous group to be hanging around with, regardless of affiliation.
“We have now learned Abu Ayman was personally acquainted, and publicly cooperated with the leader of the group that controlled the farm where we were taken, Ezzo Qussab, a Sunni with a reputation for being a thug. Multiple local sources say that, while he called himself a rebel leader, Qussab was more of a criminal boss,” wrote Engel recently for NBC.
“After Abu Ayman learned we were abducted and taken to the farm, Syrian sources say, he called for a meeting with Qussab and his deputy, a man named Shukri Abdelbagi, also known as Shukri Ajouj, to demand our release. Even after an intensive investigation, it remains unclear exactly what happened next. The three men can no longer be reached. Abu Ayman was reportedly killed in an explosion last year. Shukri Abdelbagi died in clashes with another group in 2013, and according to several sources who know him, Qussab is in hiding.”
It remains to be seen if Richard Engel will receive disciplinary action for the mistake, or if NBC knowingly made the mistake and didn’t correct it.