This image taken from undated amateur video posted on the Internet shows NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, center, with NBC Turkey reporter Aziz Akyavas, left, and NBC photographer John Kooistra, right, after they were taken hostage in Syria. More than a dozen heavily armed gunmen kidnapped and held Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, keeping them blindfolded and tied up before they finally escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and anti-regime rebels, Engel claimed, but later admitted it was actually the rebels who carried out the kidnapping.
When NBC News war correspondent Richard Engel and his crew were kidnapped in Syria in late 2012, he didn’t expect to return alive.
“At least I’ll die with my friends,” Engel recalled thinking when he recounted the events for Vanity Fair.
In December 2012, as they traveled southeast from the Turkish border toward the Syrian town of Taftanaz, Engel and his crew found their minivan surrounded by about 15 heavily armed men wearing ski masks. Under threat of their AK-47 assault rifles, the crew were loaded into a container truck. They were held for five days before being freed by a Syrian rebel group, Ahrar ash-Sham.
The kidnappers went to some lengths to identify themselves with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and his secret police, the “shabiha.” In the following passage from the Vanity Fair report, the kidnappers are initially identified as belonging to rebel forces by Engel’s guide, a rebel commander named Abdelrazaq:
“Abdelrazaq was confused. He thought this was a misunderstanding. He thought that this was a group of rebels who’d gone rogue and were acting like commandos.
‘What are you doing?’ he yelled to the gunmen as they loaded him into the truck. ‘We are Free Syrian Army! We are Free Syrian Army! I am a commander with the Free Syrian Army.’
We were traveling in rebel territory. Government forces weren’t supposed to be here.
‘Oh, you’re Free Syrian Army?’ one of the gunmen answered. ‘Here’s to your Free Syrian Army.’ He kicked Abdelrazaq in the face, then smashed a rifle butt into his back.”
Even at the time of the kidnapping, Abdelrazaq was not the only one to question their identity.
“NBC’s security advisers were convinced that there was some FSA involvement in this and contacted wealthy Syrian-American donors of the rebel group, pointing out that Richard had been supportive of the uprising against Assad. They urged them to put pressure on the FSA. They really screwed down on them,” an unnamed source told The Daily Beast just days after news of the kidnapping went public.
NBC and Engel admitted on Thursday that their original narrative — that Engel and his crew were kidnapped by Assad’s shadow forces — no longer stands up. Inspired by a recent New York Times investigation, Engel and NBC released a new report admitting that they were kidnapped by a group with Syrian rebel ties:
“Here is what we found based on facts gathered from dozens of sources inside and outside of Syria, including two sources with first-hand knowledge of events:
- The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.
- The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen
- The group that kidnapped us was a criminal gang with shifting allegiances.
- The group that freed us also had ties to the kidnappers.”
In an exclusive report published by Consortiumnews, investigative reporter Robert Parry concludes that Engel’s kidnapping was a false flag designed to bolster overseas support for Syrian rebels’ war on Assad’s government.
He compares the incident to the infamous 2013 “chemical weapons” attack, in which mainstream media initially claimed Assad’s forces had killed hundreds of rebels with chemical weapons. MintPress News was one of the first media outlets to report that evidence suggested Syrian rebels used chemical weapons on their own side.
Though the Free Syrian Army appears to have engineered the kidnapping to their own benefit, they remain “the principal rebel force supported by the U.S. government which, in April 2013, several months after Engel’s high-profile ordeal, earmarked $123 million in aid to the group to carry out its war against Assad’s government,” reports Parry.
“The other significance of the Syrian rebels’ successful false-flag kidnapping/rescue of Engel is that it may have encouraged them to sponsor other events that would be blamed on the Syrian government and excite the U.S. government and media to intervene militarily against Assad,” he continues.
Even now, according to Parry, the media remains focused on ethics in journalism rather than the real, murky truth behind the Syrian conflict. The Times, he says, published the story “as a follow-up to disclosures that NBC’s longtime anchor Brian Williams had exaggerated the danger he was in while covering the Iraq War in 2003,” and so buried the story in its business section.