When the shooting erupted last Monday evening at a checkpoint manned by Islamists from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) near the village of Ma'arrat Misrin in the anarchic northwest of Syria, NBC correspondent Richard Engel and the four members of his TV crew and their security guard were as unprepared as their abductors—two of whom died almost instantly in the gunfire.
Were the shooters rescuers or rival kidnappers eager to snatch the prize of foreign journalists?
Ghazi Balkiz, one of the captives and Engel’s producer, said in a subsequent interview that the firefight was for him the most “nerve-wracking” moment of all in the five days he and Engel and their colleagues were held captive, despite having been put through mock executions by his abductors previously.
In the chaotic minutes that followed, the NBC team managed to break out of the back of the van they were in, dodged bullets and take cover. The security guard, a former British special forces veteran, sprinted toward a nearby olive grove. He later made contact with another FSA and asked for help. The TV crew didn’t see him again until they were all reunited in neighboring Turkey on Wednesday.
NBC hasn’t detailed the circumstances of the rescue on Dec. 17 that ended a terrifying five-day ordeal for Engel and his crew. Nor for that matter has the 39-year-old award-winning correspondent or his field colleagues. When it comes to the security guard, NBC officially has said that he just got “separated” from the others, offering no further explanation.
And as for the checkpoint manned by fighters from the Ahrar al Sham brigade, the American network has implied that it was there fortuitously and that the NBC team’s freedom was the result of chance. It wasn’t.
The inside story of the abduction and rescue of Engel and his colleagues is far murkier than has been made public and underscores the high risk of covering the civil war in Syria and the ease with which even experienced journalists can slip up. It casts light also on the nervousness of media organizations worried about their corporate reputations, argue some journalists critical of a media blackout the network tried to enforce during Engel’s captivity.
That media blackout, which was observed by most media outlets, including The Daily Beast, but broken by the Turkish press, London’s Daily Mail, and the U.S. website Gawker, has become the source of acrimonious debate within the press corps covering Syria.
Robert Young Pelton, author of the book The World's Most Dangerous Places, argues that the news blackout NBC called for was a “clumsy attempt to cover collective corporate ass and mitigate bad publicity.” He adds, “They will tell you that there is no overlap between editorial and corporate, and this is exactly that overlap.” He maintains that no one can show blackouts help protect captives.
Others believe that NBC had every right to seek a blackout to give the network a chance to ascertain what was happening without having to be distracted with stories in the media compromising the chance to enter negotiations or hampering a rescue effort. A news blackout was observed in 2008 when the Taliban abducted New York Times reporter David Rohde. He later escaped his kidnappers.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of a news blackout, NBC has capitalized since on the rescue as a good news story, burnishing its reputation in the process. Engel and members of his production team have done a series of interviews for shows on the network and with affiliates. Understandably, NBC executives are cock-a-hoop that they got their employees back unscathed physically.
Their relief is shared across the foreign press corps working on Syria—the dogged Engel, who won awards and promotion for coverage in Iraq and Libya, is a highly respected and popular correspondent and few want to second-guess him publicly.
Since the rescue, network executives and Engel himself have followed a consistent clear-cut narrative on the kidnapping.
According to Engel and NBC, a group of 15 masked men confronted the crew on Dec. 13 near the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. They shot one of the rebels traveling with the crew and then forced all of their captives into the back of a container truck, transporting them to a location near the small town of Ma'arrat Misrin. During their captivity, the NBC team were not physically harmed but they were terrorized, with the captors submitting them to what Engel has described as “psychological torture.”
“They were making us choose which one of us would be executed," Engel said in an interview with NBC’s Today program.
He says the kidnappers were members of the shabiha, a government militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who talked of exchanging the crew for four Iranians and two members of the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary group Hizbullah being held by FSA rebels.
The NBC version, though, omits much and is at odds with what security sources involved in the freeing of the group say happened. Declining to be named for this article, they say the abduction and rescue of the TV crew “wasn't as clean cut as stated.” They say the network is at pains to present the incident in the best possible light, masking a series of basic security lapses that may have contributed to the capture of Engel and his production team.
First, the sources say the gunmen who seized the crew may also have included rogue members of the rebel FSA–something top FSA commanders are keen to obscure. According to one source, “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.” Top FSA commanders were alarmed and promised to help.
The disclosure that rogue FSA fighters may been involved in the abduction of the NBC crew will alarm Western correspondents working in Syria, who have to rely on FSA rebels for their safety in a particularly testing war zone of constantly shifting frontlines.
The proliferation of fringe armed groups, some with criminal and smuggling backgrounds, and Jihadist militias, especially in the Syrian province of Idlib, where the NBC crew was kidnapped, and in Aleppo, where they’d been for several days before the abduction, is making the conflict zone especially dangerous for reporters. So too is the fragmentation of the FSA when it comes to command and control.
The security sources claim also that the NBC crew took risks they shouldn’t have: “They had a Syrian fixer/driver they had not used before and when he decided he wanted to leave them and return to Turkey, they picked up a new driver inside Syria they didn’t know. That’s a big red flag.”
In recent weeks there have been unconfirmed reports that Assad security forces have been paying drivers working out of Bab al-Hawa for information. According to the sources, the new driver happily tied up and blindfolded NBC producer Balkiz once the kidnappers had overpowered the TV crew.
NBC executives became alarmed when Engel and his team failed to contact the network at a pre-set time and all subsequent efforts to contact the crew failed.
U.K.-based Pilgrims Group, the security firm the network contracts to provide protection for war correspondents, also couldn’t raise the security guard with Engel and scrambled an emergency team of half a dozen operatives to Antakya in southern Turkey. They arrived on Friday, setting up initial headquarters at the Liwan hotel, a press corps favorite, but they shifted to a more discrete out-of-town hotel when top NBC and Pilgrims executives arrived on the weekend.
Working with FSA contacts, the Pilgrims team believed that Engel and his colleagues were being held close to where they’d been seized and they focused on the village of Ma’arrat Misrin and the area around it. At one point they believed they had located the house where Engel was being held and a two-man reconnaissance team was sent in but came back empty-handed.
In fact, the abductors shifted around the NBC crew regularly.
Meanwhile, anxious about the fallout of Engel’s abduction, top FSA commanders agreed to throw up checkpoints on the roads out of Ma’arrat Misrin. “Pilgrims wanted to make it difficult for the kidnappers to shift them out of the area,” says one security source. “They wanted to box them in. They understood if they were moved out of the area, then the chance of locating them would be remote.”
The strategy worked. “The Ahrar al Sham guys did a brilliant job and didn’t hesitate in the firefight,” says a security source. “They were accurate and deadly and took out two of the captors very quickly.”
Now NBC and Pilgrims executives are going through a lessons-learned exercise. Industry sources say Pilgrims was at risk of losing their NBC contract—when clients get kidnapped, the security firm involved normally gets fired. But in this case Pilgrims appears to have recovered by engineering the recovery of Engel.