NBC News admits blaming wrong Syrian group for capturing its journalists

Reporter Richard Engel (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)
Months after the Brian Williams’ fiasco, NBC News is again amending the details of a war story. This time a journalist who was kidnapped in Syria has uncovered new details that he was misled about the affiliations of the group who took him.

READ MORE: Richard Engel and NBC crew freed from captivity in Syria

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and three other crew members were detained in December 2012 while trying to move into Syria from Turkey. Five days after being caught, Engel said the crew managed to escape while being moved from one location to another. The claimed that the kidnappers were group supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, but now the network admitted it rushed to conclusions due to "an elaborate ruse."

During the botched entry into Syria, kidnappers reportedly blindfolded the journalists and tossed them into the back of a truck.

“The kidnappers told us they were Shiite militiamen, members of the notorious Shabiha militia loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” Engel wrote in an NBC News statement released Wednesday evening. “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.”

But the New York Times contacted NBC News about a month ago, saying it had “uncovered information that suggested the kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers,” Engel wrote.

“Mr. Engel and his team underwent a harrowing ordeal, and it is a common tactic for kidnappers in war zones to intentionally mislead hostages as to their identity,” the NY Times wrote of the incident.

Both NBC News and the NY Times investigated the kidnapping, interviewing those involved in the search for NBC’s team, rebel fighters and activists in Syria, Syrian exiles in the US and Turkey, a man who said he was one of the guards for the captive group, and current and former NBC News employees.

Re-reporting the story was difficult due to the evolving war in Syria, Engel said.

“We reached out to contacts inside and outside of Syria. The rise of ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria mean that we are no longer able to visit the part of Syria where we were taken,” he wrote. “Many of our most reliable sources have now escaped and live as refugees in neighboring Turkey. Many of those directly involved, including the leader of the group that rescued us, have since been killed. Others have gone into exile or hiding and can't be reached.”

Nonetheless, both news organizations reached the same conclusion: The kidnapped crew was taken “by a criminal gang for money and released for propaganda purposes,” Engel wrote.

Richard Engel's conclusions about his 2012 kidnapping (screenshot from NBCNews.com)

The NY Times concluded that Engel’s team “was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of rebels opposed to Mr. Assad.”

The kidnappers were from a group known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade. They were led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj, who had a history of smuggling and other crimes. The journalists were said to have been freed by another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, “which had a relationship with Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj,” the NY Times reported. Engel’s release “was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.”

NBC executives were told of the two men’s possible involvement both during and after the kidnapping, current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for the journalists told the NY Times.

The reporting mistakes unveiled by the two investigations into the group or groups that captured and released the NBC journalists were not the only problems with Engel’s story about the incident, however. Like Brian Williams before him, Engel misreported key details of the ordeal.

In a Vanity Fair article published shortly after his release, Engel said he saw one of his captors lying dead as the kidnapped journalists escaped during a firefight at a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group.

Engel admitted that he never saw the dead body in the updated account released Wednesday evening.

“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,” Engel wrote. “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.”

An NBC News spokesman told the NYT that the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site. Vanity Fair told the paper it had no immediate comment.