Months after the Brian Williams scandal hit NBC’s news division, foreign correspondent Richard Engel has admitted that he made mistakes in the reporting of his 2012 kidnapping in Syria.
Engel wrote that he and his producer dug into the story more and discovered that the kidnappers who took Engel and his news team captive for five days in 2012 lied to them and said they were tied to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. They are now believed to be part of a Sunni militant group, not affiliated with Shiite forces loyal to Assad.
While NBC presents its clarification as re-reporting the story, the Times reports that NBC knew about these discrepancies both during and after Engel’s captivity and still chose to put him on the air and blame the Shiite forces.
Several sources who spoke to the Times said the team’s escape from their captors “was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support,” according to the newspaper.
And Engel might have exaggerated some details from his telling of the story — in a Vanity Fair article published after his release, he described one of his captors lying dead, but now acknowledges that he never saw the body.
The initial story
In a 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, Engel recounted the story of his kidnapping.
He said his crew entered Syria from Turkey with a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander to see four Iranian and two Lebanese fighters the FSA had captured — only to be kidnapped by Assad loyalists who wanted to trade the journalists for the foreign fighters.
Engel and his crew reportedly knew they were in rebel-held territory, but the kidnappers said they were part of the Syrian government militia called Shabiha.
The kidnappers held Engel and five others for five days, but left them behind when they stumbled through a rebel checkpoint, wound up in a firefight, and fled after two of them were killed.
Another band of fighters then came along to rescue Engel and his team. NBC reported that they were with Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group that is closely united with the Nusra Front and opposes the Assad regime.
Engel appeared on the Today show to talk about his experience shortly after he escaped his captors:
The revised version
Engel now contends that the kidnappers carried out an “elaborate ruse.” His “rescuers” apparently knew his kidnappers, who are now thought to be part of a Sunni group of criminals.
Here’s Engel wrote in his NBC statement about what he and his team learned when they re-reported the story:
- 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.
The New York Times reports that the Sunni criminals who took Engel and his crew were likely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the group that was escorting the journalists.
The Times notes that it’s a “common tactic for kidnappers in war zones to intentionally mislead hostages as to their identity.”
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