NBC News’ Richard Engel released a statement Wednesday that drastically changed the details of his 2012 kidnapping in Syria – saying that the New York Times had recently provided him information that showed he had actually been captured by Syrian rebels who were just posing as Shiite militiamen aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Engel and two crew members were kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and held for five days before being “freed” by rebels who attacked their captors. After he was freed, Engel gave an interview in Antakya, describing the ordeal and how he was freed.
"This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar Assad," he said.
The group of supposed government militiamen had kidnapped Engel and his team while the three were driving through a rebel-held area with an escort.
After "executing" one of the rebels escorting the news team, the captors "took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound," according to Engel.
Engel also gave an interview to Vanity Fair at the time, telling the reporter that he had stepped over the body of one of his captors after the rebels “freed” the NBC crew.
The harrowing tale of kidnapping and then a heroic release was played up in the media at the time – and provided a boost to the Syrian rebels in the battle against being labeled as terrorists.
But it seems that it was all fake – or at least nothing like what Engel thought it was.
According to the New York Times, both Engel’s initial captors and the men who freed him were Sunnis and loosely affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The paper identified the captors as the "North Idlib Falcons Brigade, [which] was led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj, who had a history of smuggling and other crimes. The kidnapping ended, the people involved in the search said, when the team was freed by another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, which had a relationship with Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj.”
But if the two groups were cooperating in a sham for propaganda, then what about the body of the captor who Engel said he stepped over after being freed? In Engel’s statement Wednesday, he said it was producer Aziz Akyavas, not him, who claimed to have stepped over a body.
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.
Regardless of the “who" of the kidnapping, the group was kidnapped and experienced a harrowing ordeal by all accounts. And in a war zone such as Syria, it’s not surprising that there would be false flag attacks and hidden motives behind these incidents – the nature of the conflict is tortuous and full of propaganda.
But the timing of being so spectacularly fact-checked by the New York Times on a story about one of its own has to be difficult for NBC News. The company is still debating star anchor Brian Williams’ future after he was caught lying about an experience in Iraq. The anchor was suspended for six months without pay in February, after a story he had told repeatedly of being in a helicopter in Iraq when it came under fire was exposed as a lie by soldiers who were in his convoy.
Luckily for Engel no one is suggesting that he made up being kidnapped - just perhaps of being too gullible and being too quick to spread propaganda.
A touch of a reporter’s own blood, sweat and tears makes for better ratings after they are back home in the West – but being in the center of the story leaves them quite exposed when it turns out to be full of holes.