Eamonn McCann: Syria kidnapping was not what it seemed
Journalists’ abduction and release was big news in US, but story was a bit too neat
‘On December 13th 2012, a news team from the US network NBC was kidnapped by armed men in northern Syria.’ Above, the aftermath of an artillery mortar shell attack in Aleppo, on December 3rd, 2012. Photograph: Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images
On December 13th, 2012, a news team from the US network NBC was kidnapped by armed men in northern Syria. The journalists, and members of a group aligned with the rebel Free Syrian Army with whom they had been travelling, were thrown into a truck, driven to a farmhouse and locked up under armed guard.
NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel told afterwards that along the way one of the rebel group was killed by the kidnappers. The newsmen themselves were not physically ill-treated during five days in captivity, but they were constantly threatened with death and made to pose for a video squatting under an Islamic flag before a wall covered with slogans extolling the Assad regime. Engel was forced to deliver a statement denouncing US interference in Syria.
On December 18th, the five were rescued by anti-Assad fighters who, it was said, had chanced upon them as their captors were trying to move them to a new location. Engel said two of the kidnappers were killed in a gunfight with the rescuers.
The release of the journalists was a huge story in the US. Engel, a fluent Arabic speaker, explained in a series of interviews what he had learnt from the kidnappers’ conversations of their motivation and allegiances.
He told NBC’s prime-time Rachel Maddow Show: “I think I have a very good idea who [the kidnappers] were . . . These are people who are loyal to President Bashar Assad. They are Shiite. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are allied with Hizbullah.”
In a piece in Vanity Fair, he quoted the leader of the kidnap gang: “You come here to write that we kill children . . . Yes, we use cluster bombs and kill their [Sunnis’] children. We kill their women so they won’t give birth to more dogs. We will destroy their villages. We will leave nothing. We will burn this country.”
Engel gave a contrasting account of the comportment of the leader of the anti-Assad group seized along with the journalists: “He was saying to [the kidnappers], ‘Kill me. These guys are journalists. I am a rebel commander. Let them go’.”
As for the fighters who rescued the crew from their five-day ordeal: “They couldn’t have been nicer to us. They were hard fighters, clearly good shots . . .They brought us back to their headquarters, gave us food and water, let us make a phone call. Then they escorted us personally to the border.”
Neat fitThe sharply contrasting estimations fitted neatly into the debate then under way as to whether the US should be intervening more decisively to support Syrian groups fighting to bring Assad down. Just as neatly, the narrative slotted into the argument advanced by elements in the US who regarded Iran, Assad and Hizbullah as components of an overarching Shia plot, posing deadly danger to US interests.
Suggestions speedily emerged that maybe it was all a bit too neat. These mainly came from commentators already sceptical of Western reporting from the region. It wasn’t until last week that a media mainstream big hitter challenged the NBC-Engel account. A lengthy article in the New York Times on Wednesday last concluded: “Mr Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.”
Last weekend, Engel told the NBC News website that after being contacted by the NYT he had “reinvestigated” the incident and now accepted “the group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia, and the group which freed us had ties to the kidnappers”.
Engel also explained he hadn’t actually seen anybody killed.
Nobody has suggested Engel was complicit in a stunt designed to mislead the US public. The news team will have genuinely believed that they had been abducted by men with murder in mind. Any misperception of detail has to be understood in that light.
Reliable observersHowever, NBC itself cannot be let off so lightly. The NYT found senior executives had been aware even before their Syria team had been freed of a widespread belief among reliable observers that there was more – or less – to this story than seemed at first sight.
The executives knew NBC’s security advisers believed from the outset that the FSA was involved and had asked wealthy Syrian-American supporters of the group to lobby for the journalists’ release.
Despite this, NBC sanctioned and promoted Engel’s account and allowed it to remain on the record as the “official” version until last week.
For two years, then, NBC bosses failed to alert their chief foreign correspondent to the fact that there were question marks against the account of a major politically- charged story that he was continuing honestly to offer.
There have been journalism scandals on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, but none, perhaps, as shocking as this. Had working journalists alone been involved, heads would already have rolled.
Managerial heads take a little longer.