NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has uncovered new details about his 2012 kidnapping in Syria.
Engel and five other members of an NBC News team were captured by armed gunmen, bound and blindfolded and expected to be killed during their five-day captivity that began Dec. 13, 2012.
They were freed on the fifth night after a firefight at a rebel checkpoint that occurred when the kidnappers were transporting the group for what they believed was a hand-off to Syrian military forces.
What happened to Engel and his crew – and the danger they were in - remains true. But Engel turned up new information about his captors’ affiliation, according to a detailed account he filed Wednesday night on NBCNews.com.
Engel followed up on his story after being contacted a month ago by the New York Times. “The newspaper 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 said.
Word circulated throughout the TV news business that the New York Times reporting on the matter could create another credibility problem for NBC News. The network is still reeling from the suspension of its lead anchor Brian Williams after he made misstatements about his reporting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
While some of the details about the principals involved in Engel’s original story have changed, his revised account provides no reason to believe he and his crew were not in danger.
Engel said his kidnappers identified themselves as Shiite militiamen “loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” Engel, who speaks Arabic, recognized their accents and the Shiite chants that played on their cellphones.
But he’s since learned that the kidnappers were Sunni not Shia. The group, he said, was “a criminal gang with shifted allegiances” that did have ties to the people that freed him and his colleagues. The kidnappers made an elaborate effort to lead Engel and the others to believe they were Shia.
Engel said he and his producer recently spoke to multiple U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources with direct knowledge of their case.
“They all said they did not doubt our story back in 2012 or anytime since,” he said.
Engel said he worked with a team of Syrian exiles in the U.S. and Turkey to contact activists and rebel fighters inside Syria to further investigate the story. “A member of our team also traveled back to the Turkey-Syria border to meet some of these sources face-to-face,” he added. “We also interviewed a man who says he was one of our guards for part of the time we were held captive.”
Engel said they also “spoke to members and former members of several armed groups from the town of Maarat Misrin, where we were held captive. Many of these sources had agendas, which had to be considered when weighing their credibility. They had varying degrees of knowledge of events, but none was a first-hand witness to every part of the kidnapping.”
A full account of Engel’s story can be found at nbcnews.com.