Richard Engel's Syria Kidnap Drama

Jewish NBC Newsman Tells of Mock Executions

Free To Report: Richard Engel and his NBC news team were captured in wartorn Syria last week. The network asked journalists not to report on the incident, a request that was mostly honored.
getty images
Free To Report: Richard Engel and his NBC news team were captured in wartorn Syria last week. The network asked journalists not to report on the incident, a request that was mostly honored.

By Reuters

Published December 18, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

NBC’s Richard Engel revealed harrowing details of his five days as a captive of a Syrian armed group, telling of endless threats and mock executions by the kidnappers.

The Jewish newsman spoke out after he and his crew were freed Tuesday during a dramatic firefight at a rebel checkpoint.

“Then they took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound,” Engel said. “We weren’t physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed,” and mock shootings, he said. “It was a very traumatic experience.”

Engel, 39, who along with production crew members Ghazi Balkiz and John Kooistra disappeared after crossing into northwestern Syria from Turkey on Thursday, said their kidnappers were members of a militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Their ordeal ended when their captors, who frequently moved them bound and blindfolded between safe houses, on Monday night unexpectedly drove into checkpoint set up by an Islamist rebel group. Two of their kidnappers were killed in the ensuing firefight, and the three spent the night with the Islamist rebels, Engel told the network.

The three were kidnapped when they were driving with anti-Assad rebels in a rebel-controlled area, Engel, an American, told NBC’s “Today” program from Antakya, Turkey.

A group of about 15 heavily armed men wearing ski masks “jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road,” seized the three and put them in a container truck, Engel said.

“We tried to joke around a little and keep our spirits up,” Engel said, adding that they could peek under blindfolds but were not allowed to talk.

Engel’s colleagues spoke of moments of despair as they worried about their families. “During the ordeal … I made good with my maker, I made good with myself. I was prepared to die many times,” Kooistra said.

NBC identified the rebels at the checkpoint as members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group.

The network said it had not been able to contact them until they were freed. NBC had attempted to keep the crew’s disappearance secret but several media outlets ignored the requested blackout.

GOVERNMENT MILITIA

There was no claim of responsibility and no request for ransom, NBC said, but Engel said of the captors: “This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar Assad.”

The kidnappers spoke openly about their loyalty to the government and their faith, he said, and were planning to exchange him and his team for four Iranian agents and two Shabiha members held by Syrian rebels.

Ahrar al-Sham, an extremist Salafist group that includes a large contingent of foreign fighters, has been at the forefront of rebel offensives in northern Syria.

Members of the group have told Reuters the unit wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria, not a pluralistic democracy, when Assad is overthrown. But they have not shown hostility to Western journalists covering the conflict.

Engel has reported on the popular uprisings that swept the Arab world since 2011.

At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria’s uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests that were met with gunfire by Assad’s security forces, and which spiralled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab revolts.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.