Amid debate over Syria intervention, network dubiously claimed pro-Assad forces abducted its journalists.
(updated below – Update II)
Throughout 2012, numerous American factions were pushing for U.S. intervention in Syria to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad, who throughout the War on Terror had helped the U.S. in all sorts of ways, including torturing people for them. But by then, Assad was viewed mostly as an ally of Iran, and deposing him would weaken Tehran, the overarching regional strategy of the U.S. and its allies. The prevailing narrative was thus created that those fighting against Assad were “moderate” and even pro-Western groups, with the leading one dubbed “the Free Syrian Army.”
Whether to intervene in Syria in alliance with or on behalf of the “Free Syrian Army” was a major debate in the West through the end of that year. Then-Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry was openly discussing ways for the U.S. to aid the rebels to bring about regime change. Sen. Joe Lieberman was saying: “I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while ruling out direct military intervention, said: “[W]e have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”
A U.N. resolution calling for Assad to step down was supported by NATO states but vetoed by China and Russia, who were concerned that it would be depicted as a “regime change” endorsement to justify Western military intervention. By the following year, John Kerry, by then Obama’s secretary of state, was arguing that direct U.S. military action in Syria against Assad — a full-scale bombing campaign — was a moral and strategic imperative.
As it turns out, the “moderate” “Free Syrian Army” was largely a myth. By far, the most effective fighting forces against Assad were anything but “moderate,” composed instead of various Al Qaeda manifestations and even more extreme elements. After the U.S. and its Gulf allies funded and armed those groups for a while, the U.S. did ultimately go to war in Syria, but more in alliance with Assad than against him.
In December 2012 — as the pro-intervention cause was strengthening — a group of five journalists working for NBC News, including its star international reporter Richard Engel, was kidnapped inside Syria. They were held for five days, threatened with death, treated inhumanely, and forced to record a video in which Engel was made to call for an end to U.S. involvement in Syria. Scrawled on the walls of the room where the video was recorded was graffiti of pro-Assad messages along with well-known Shiite references.
The obvious intent was to make it appear that these NBC journalists had been kidnapped and mistreated by Shiite forces associated with Assad. By all accounts, the kidnappers went to great lengths to make their hostages believe that as well, and they succeeded. Engel and his fellow captives believed (understandably) they had been kidnapped by pro-Assad forces, only to be rescued by brave and kind Sunni rebels who freed them. Once they were released, NBC said at first that the journalists had been “kidnapped and held for five days inside Syria by an unknown group,” but Engel quickly gave numerous interviews unequivocally stating that the captors were aligned with Assad and that he was rescued by anti-Assad forces. That then became unquestioned fact on NBC.
As but one of many appearances, Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show on December 21 and recounted in detail what happened. He described how he was in “a very rebel-friendly area,” traveling with a “rebel commander” and his team, when they were “ambushed” by “government people”: pro-Assad forces. “We knew it was government by what they were saying,” Engel explained.
Engel then described how the rebel commander heroically tried to sacrifice his own life to save the journalists, but to no avail: the “pro-government forces” brutalized, tortured and threatened the reporters and even executed some of the rebels:
And so, we knew we were with pro-government forces. The rebel commander was saying to them, kill me, these guys are journalists, they have nothing to do with it. Kill me, I’m a rebel commander. Let them go …
They drive from there to one of their safe houses, don’t know exactly where, but roughly in this area up here. So it is a farm house. They take the guard, the rebel commander’s guard out of the truck. Kill him. Execute him …
And then they took all of us, including the rebel commander, in the safe house. He continually said let them go. … We were here, they wanted to move us here, to Fou’a. And Fou’a is a place that is very hard core Shia, very loyal to the government. It’s mostly surrounded by the rebels, it is being air-supplied by the Syrian government. … So this is a hand-in-glove relationship between the government and this very nasty militia group.
The ordeal ended, Engel said, only when his pro-government captors accidentally ran into a rebel checkpoint, where the rebels heroically killed some of Assad’s forces and freed the journalists, treating them with great compassion:
I don’t know who are these guys and we talk to them a little bit and it was quite clear they were from the rebel group and they couldn’t have been nicer to us. They were hard fighters, clearly good shots. … And then they brought us back to the headquarters, gave us food and water, let us make a phone call. And then they escorted us personally to the border.
Three days earlier, in a December 18 appearance on Maddow’s show, Engel — after describing how brutal and inhumane his captors were — actually linked them to both Iran and Hezbollah in response to a question from David Gregory:
I think I have a very good idea of who they were. This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al Assad. They are Shiite.
They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are allied with Hezbollah.
As Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone details, Engel told this story in various ways in numerous different media forums.
There were ample reasons at the time to be suspicious that this was a scam (perpetrated on (not by) Engel and his fellow captives) to blame Assad for the abduction. There was skepticism expressed by some independent analysts — although not on NBC News. The truly brilliant political science professor and blogger As’ad AbuKhalil (who I cannot recommend enough be read every day) was highly skeptical from the start about the identity of Engel’s captors, just as he was about the pro-intervention case in Syria and the nature of the “Free Syrian Army” generally (in August 2012 he told me: “Syria is one of the biggest propaganda schemes of our time. When the dust settles, if it does, it will be revealed”).
On December 18 — the day the Engel story became public — Professor AbuKhalil published an email from “a knowledgeable Western journalist” pointing out numerous reasons to doubt that the kidnappers were aligned with Assad, including the fact that prior kidnappings had been falsely attributed to pro-Assad forces. He argued that the Engel abduction “seems very much like a setup, like the kidnappers wanted him to think he was taken by Shiites.” AbuKhalil himself examined the video and wrote:
I looked at the video and it is so clearly a set up and the slogans are so clearly fake and they intend to show that they were clearly Shi’ites and that they are savages. If this one is believable, I am posing as a dentist.
Of course, I am not saying that Engel was [in] on this plot. I think that they were really kidnapped but that the kidnappers of the Free Syrian Army typically lied to them about their identity, which has happened before.
Other knowledgeable bloggers raised all sorts of questions about whether Engel’s captors were actually Sunni rebels posing as pro-Assad soldiers.
As it turns out, that seems to be exactly what happened. Last night, Engel posted a new statement on the NBC News website stating that, roughly one month ago, he had been contacted by The New York Times, which “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.” That inquiry from The NYT caused him to re-investigate the kidnapping, and he concluded that “the group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia” and that “the group that freed us” — which he had previously depicted as heroic anti-Assad rebels — actually “had ties to the kidnappers.”
That’s all fair enough. Nobody can blame Engel — a courageous reporter, fluent in Arabic — for falling for what appears to be a well-coordinated ruse. Particularly under those harrowing circumstances, when he and his fellow captives believed with good reason that their lives were in immediate danger, it’s completely understandable that he believed he had been captured by pro-Assad forces. There is no real evidence that Engel did anything wrong in recounting his ordeal.
But the same is most certainly not true of NBC News executives. In writing his new account, Engel does not mention the most important and most incriminating aspect of The New York Times reporting: that NBC officials knew at the time that there was reason to be highly skeptical of the identity of the captors, but nonetheless allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC reporters to tell this story with virtually no questioning.
In a very well-reported article this morning, The NYT states 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.” That rebel group is “known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade” and is “led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj.” Amazingly, NBC executives knew that this was at least very possible even during Engel’s kidnapping, and yet:
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.
In other words, NBC executives at least had ample reason to suspect that it was anti-Assad rebels who staged the kidnapping, not pro-Assad forces. Yet they allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC personalities repeatedly and unequivocally to blame the Assad regime and glorify the anti-Assad rebels, and worse, to link the hideous kidnapping to Iran and Hezbollah, all with no indication that there were other quite likely alternatives. NBC refused to respond to The NYT‘s questions about that (The Intercept’s inquiries to NBC News were also not responded to at the time of publication, though any responses will be added (update: an NBC executive has refused to comment)).
The Brian Williams scandal is basically about an insecure, ego-driven TV star who puffed up his own war credentials by fabricating war stories: it’s about personal foibles. But this Engel story is about what appears to be a reckless eagerness, if not deliberate deception, on the part of NBC officials to disseminate a dubious storyline which, at the time, was very much in line with the story that official Washington was selling (by then, Obama was secretly aiding anti-Assad rebels, and had just announced — literally a week before the Engel kidnapping — “that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative”). Much worse, the NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the West to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad.
That’s a far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo. Falsely and recklessly blaming the Assad regime for a heinous kidnapping of Western journalists and directly linking it to Iran and Hezbollah, while heralding the rebels as heroic and compassionate — during a brewing “regime change” and intervention debate — is on the level of Iraqi aluminum tubes.
At the very least, NBC owes a serious accounting for what happened here, yet thus far refuses to provide one (note how, as usual, the media outlets who love to sanctimoniously demand transparency from others refuse to provide even a minimal amount about themselves). There were — and are — a lot of shadowy interests eager to bring about regime change in Syria and to malign Iran and Hezbollah with false claims. Whether by intent or outcome, that’s what this story did. If it was not only false at the time, NBC executives repeatedly broadcast it, but recklessly disseminated with ample reason to suspect its falsity, that is a huge journalistic scandal.
UPDATE: About this story, Professor AbuKhalil this morning emailed this comment about what happened here at NBC:
This is a culture: they all were part of a charade to promote and champion the Free Syrian Army when that very army was kidnapping innocent Lebanese Shi’ites and killing people on sectarian grounds. They didn’t want to believe it.
He also passed a long an email from a Western correspondent based in the region, asking not to be identified, who said: “Everybody knew that it was a Sunni group tied to the [Free Syrian Army] that had kidnapped [Engel] from the moment it happened: people were talking about it in South Turkey, journalists, opposition people.” That’s essentially what Professor AbuKhalil — and others — said at the time.
On a different note: as I noted above, Engel claimed repeatedly that the anti-Assad rebels killed some of his pro-government captors when rescuing him. He stated the same thing in a Vanity Fair article he wrote recounting his kidnapping. But as The New York Times notes today, Engel now acknowledges that he never saw a body:
UPDATE II: In addition to AbuKhalil and the other above-cited sources, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer expressed serious doubts about the Engel/NBC story almost immediately. Writing on December 22, he said, among other things, that “the NBC version … omits much and is at odds with what security sources involved in the freeing of the group say happened,” and that “the gunmen who seized the crew may also have included rogue members of the rebel [Free Syrian Army] – something top FSA commanders are keen to obscure.” Moreover:
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.
That there was ample reason to doubt Engel’s belief about the identity of his captors is proven by how many people publicly called it into doubt. That NBC’s broadcasts reflected none of this doubt, and instead allowed a one-sided tale that we now know to be false to go unquestioned by the entire network is bad enough. That these executives seemed to have had ample reason to doubt the story themselves makes it far worse than just merely “bad”: it is the type of systematic journalistic deceit and propaganda that we have seen over and over, almost always on the side and in service of the U.S. government’s agenda of endless war.
Photo: Anadolu/AP TV