The NBC journalists Aziz Akyavas, left, Richard Engel and John Kooistra were held hostage. Credit via Associated Press
NBC News on Wednesday revised its account of the 2012 kidnapping of its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, saying it was likely that Mr. Engel and his reporting team had been abducted by a Sunni militant group, not forces affiliated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
In a statement posted on the NBC News website Wednesday evening, Mr. Engel said that a review of the episode — prompted by reporting from The New York Times — had led him to conclude that “the group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.” He also wrote that the abductors had “put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite shabiha militiamen.”
Mr. Engel and his team were kidnapped in December 2012 while reporting in Syria. They were held for five days. Just hours after emerging, they appeared on the “Today” show.
“This was a group known as the shabiha, this was the government militia, these are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Engel said on “Today,” citing information he had gathered from the group. In that and other appearances on NBC, and in a Vanity Fair magazine article, he said that he had been rescued by Sunni rebels. At least two people died during the course of the captivity, he said in some versions of the account.
Interviews by The Times with several dozen people — including many of those involved in the search for NBC’s team, rebel fighters and activists in Syria and current and former NBC News employees — suggested that Mr. Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of rebels opposed to Mr. Assad.
The group, known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, 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.
Mr. Engel and his team underwent a harrowing ordeal, and it is a common tactic for kidnappers in war zones to intentionally mislead hostages as to their identity.
NBC executives were informed of Mr. Ajouj and Mr. Qassab’s possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals. Still, the network moved quickly to put Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events.
An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site. Vanity Fair said it had no immediate comment.
Just two months ago, NBC News suspended Brian Williams, its nightly news anchor, after he exaggerated an account of a helicopter episode in Iraq in 2003. The furor that surrounded Mr. Williams’s suspension led to a management shake-up in the news division, and the installation of Andrew Lack, a former NBC News president, as head of the operation.
NBC’s own assessment during the kidnapping had focused on Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj, according to a half-dozen people involved in the recovery effort. NBC had received GPS data from the team’s emergency beacon that showed it had been held early in the abduction at a chicken farm widely known by local residents and other rebels to be controlled by the Sunni criminal group.
NBC had sent an Arab envoy into Syria to drive past the farm, according to three people involved in the efforts to locate Mr. Engel, and engaged in outreach to local commanders for help in obtaining the team’s release. These three people declined to be identified, citing safety considerations.
Ali Bakran, a rebel commander who assisted in the search, said in an interview that when he confronted Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj with the GPS map, “Azzo and Shukri both acknowledged having the NBC reporters.”
Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.
Abu Hassan, a local medic who is close to the rebel movement, and who was involved in seeking the team’s release, said that when the kidnappers realized that all the other rebels in the area were working to get the captives out, they decided to create a ruse to free them and blame the kidnapping on the Assad regime. “It was there that the play was completed,” he said, speaking of the section of road Mr. Engel and the team were freed on.
Thaer al-Sheib, another local man connected with the rebel movement who sought the NBC team, said that on the day of the release “we heard some random shots for less than a minute coming from the direction of the farm.” He said that Abu Ayman, the rebel commander credited with freeing the team, is related by marriage to Mr. Ajouj, and that he staged the rescue.
Mr. Engel, in his statement, said he did not have a “definitive account of what happened that night.” He acknowledged the group that freed him had ties to his captors, but said he had received conflicting information.
“We managed to reach a man, who, according to both Syrian and U.S. intelligence sources, was one of Abu Ayman’s main fund-raisers,” he wrote. “He insists that Abu Ayman’s men shot and killed two of our kidnappers.”
Mr. Engel said the kidnapping “became a sensitive issue” for Mr. Ayman. “Abu Ayman and his superiors were hoping to persuade the U.S. to provide arms to them,” he wrote. “Having American journalists taken on what was known to be his turf could block that possibility.”
In his Vanity Fair article, Mr. Engel described one of his captors lying dead. In his statement Wednesday, he acknowledged that he did not see bodies during the rescue.
He said that one of his producers, Aziz Akyavas, climbed out of the van through the driver-side door, stepping over a body. “I climbed out of the passenger-side door,” he wrote. “A bearded gunman approached and said that we were safe now. That was our introduction to Abu Ayman. He said that he and his men had killed the two kidnappers. Under the circumstances, and especially since Aziz said that he had seen and stepped over a body, I didn’t doubt it and later reported it as fact.”