NBC News’ Richard Engel Says He Was Kidnapped by Sunnis, Not Shiites

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel issued a statement on Wednesday correcting details about the gunmen who kidnapped him and his crew in Syria in December 2012.

In his statement, Engel said that following the incident, he incorrectly claimed that Shiite gunmen of the Shabiha militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad kidnapped him and his team.

However, after an inquiry from the New York Times about the incident, Engel and his team discovered that they were abducted by a Sunni militant group who merely claimed to be affiliated with the Shabiha. The NBC team was also likely freed by a rebel group with ties to the gunmen that kidnapped them.

Engel said that he believed the gunmen when they said they were affiliated with the Shabiha and that the kidnappers “put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.”

The New York Times contacted NBC News about a month ago with information suggesting that Engel and his team members were actually kidnapped by Sunni militants. According to the New York Times, NBC News was aware that the Sunni group may have been involved in the kidnapping and knew that the NBC crew was held at a farm controlled by that Sunni group.

According to both Engel and the New York Times, the rebels that kidnapped Engel and his crew grew nervous that kidnapping American journalists would hurt their cause, and developed a plan to release the NBC crew and blame the abduction on Shiite gunmen.

Engel said in his statement that it’s still not entirely clear to him what happened.

“We have not been able to get a definitive account of what happened that night. But based on all of our reporting, it is clear that we were kidnapped by a criminal gang for money and released for propaganda purposes,” Engel said.

As New York Magazine noted, Engel told Vanity Fair in April 2013 that the threats from his captors did not seem entirely realistic at the time.

“I had heard shabiha rhetoric like this on Internet videos, but it had never seemed quite real—more like campy bad-guy dialogue from the movies. It sounded like he was playing it up for an audience, but nobody was watching except the kidnappers and us,” Engel said.

New York Magazine also pointed out that Engel has given conflicting accounts on whether rebels died while the NBC crew was being held by the gunmen.

Engel told Vanity Fair that two rebels were killed and that an NBC producer saw them lying outside of the van in which the NBC crew was being held at the time. But in a 2012 interview with Rachel Maddow, Engel said that the two captors were killed in the van.

And in his statement on Wednesday, Engel did not say he saw any of the captors killed, but said that one member of the NBC team saw a body outside the van. One of the rebels allegedly told the NBC team that the rebels had killed two of their fellow kidnappers.

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