ISTANBUL — In December 2012, along with five other members of an NBC News team, I was kidnapped by armed gunmen in Syria. Bound and blindfolded, we spent five days expecting to be killed. I prayed we wouldn't be taken outside and shot. The gunmen repeatedly threatened to kill us.
The kidnappers told us they were Shiite militiamen, members of the notorious Shabiha militia loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They spoke in a particular accent, playing Shiite chants on their cellphones, smoking cigarettes, even serving us coffee in cups decorated with Shiite symbols. I, along with two other Arabic speaking members of our six-member team, believed they were from the Shabiha.
On the fifth night, our kidnappers drove straight into a rebel checkpoint. There was an exchange of gunfire. We removed our blindfolds and climbed out of the van. One of our producers says he saw and stepped over a body that was lying next to the front wheel. The rebels told us they had killed our kidnappers and we were free.
Once safely back across the border in Turkey, we recounted that story. Then, we moved on with our lives and went back to work.
About a month ago, we were contacted by the New York Times. The newspaper had 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.
We wanted to find out for ourselves, so my producer and I went to work. We spoke to multiple U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources who had direct knowledge of our case. They all said they did not doubt our story back in 2012 or anytime since.
We reached out to contacts inside and outside of Syria. The rise of ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria mean that we are no longer able to visit the part of Syria where we were taken. Many of our most reliable sources have now escaped and live as refugees in neighboring Turkey. Many of those directly involved, including the leader of the group that rescued us, have since been killed. Others have gone into exile or hiding and can't be reached.
Working with a team of Syrian exiles in the U.S. and in Turkey, we contacted dozens of activists and rebel fighters inside Syria. A member of our team also traveled back to the Turkey-Syria border to meet some of these sources face-to-face. We also interviewed a man who says he was one of our guards for part of the time we were held captive. The questions we were raising were sensitive, so many of the sources we did eventually reach asked that their names and identities go unpublished for fear of retribution.
We spoke to members and former members of several armed groups from the town of Maarat Misrin, where we were held captive. Many of these sources had agendas, which had to be considered when weighing their credibility. They had varying degrees of knowledge of events, but none was a first-hand witness to every part of the kidnapping.
Here is what we found based on facts gathered from dozens of sources inside and outside of Syria, including two sources with first-hand knowledge of events:
- The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.
- The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.
- The group that kidnapped us was a criminal gang with shifting allegiances.
- The group that freed us also had ties to the kidnappers.
Here is more on the story:
Late on the morning of December 13, 2012, we met up at the Syria-Turkey border with a man who said that he was a Syrian rebel commander and that he could take us to see Iranian and Lebanese prisoners being held by rebels. Moments after we started driving, our vehicles were stopped by gunmen blocking the road. We were quickly loaded into a waiting container truck. Once inside, we were bound, blindfolded and stripped of our passports, phones, money, equipment, belts and shoes.
In darkness, we bumped around in the back of the truck not knowing where we were going. Then the truck stopped, and our kidnappers called for one of the rebels with whom we had been traveling to step outside. We heard gunshots and what sounded like the thud of a falling body. The kidnappers told us they had killed one of the rebels who had been with us, and I believed them.
Then, the truck moved us to a farmhouse, where our kidnappers took off our blindfolds and forced us to make a video. They searched our bags, questioning us about our equipment. They unwittingly set off an emergency GPS beacon we carried with us.
We didn't know this at the time, but the beacon sent out a distress signal and the GPS coordinates, which meant that NBC knew that we had run into trouble and exactly where we were at the time. That precise information probably saved our lives.
NBC was able to put out the word to sources all around the Middle East that we had been taken. From the GPS data, NBC was able to pinpoint the farm as a key location, and even provide an aerial photo of the farm. Word spread quickly and, we now know, soon reached the kidnappers themselves.
Three Syrian sources tell us that, at that point, the kidnappers grew nervous and considered killing us and hiding our bodies to wash their hands of what had become a liability; but, with their base at the farm exposed, they decided that killing us would be too risky.
Our kidnapping also became a sensitive issue for the main rebel field commander in that part of Syria, a man known as Abu Ayman. A member of an the Islamist group Ahrar al Sham, Abu Ayman and his superiors were hoping to persuade the U.S. to provide arms to them. Having American journalists taken on what was known to be his turf could block that possibility.
We have now learned Abu Ayman was personally acquainted, and publicly cooperated with the leader of the group that controlled the farm where we were taken, Ezzo Qussab, a Sunni with a reputation for being a thug. Multiple local sources say that, while he called himself a rebel leader, Qussab was more of a criminal boss.
After Abu Ayman learned we were abducted and taken to the farm, Syrian sources say, he called for a meeting with Qussab and his deputy, a man named Shukri Abdelbagi, also known as Shukri Ajouj, to demand our release. Even after an intensive investigation, it remains unclear exactly what happened next. The three men can no longer be reached. Abu Ayman was reportedly killed in an explosion last year. Shukri Abdelbagi died in clashes with another group in 2013, and according to several sources who know him, Qussab is in hiding.
What happened on the fifth night of our kidnapping has been perhaps the most difficult part of our ordeal to pin down. Around 11 p.m., we were loaded — blindfolded and bound — into a van.
The kidnappers told us we were being taken to a village called Foua, which was then, and remains, under the control of the Assad regime. The kidnappers told us we were to be handed over to Syrian military forces in Foua.
After driving for several minutes, the driver and the lead kidnapper who had identified himself to us by the name Abu Jaafar shouted that there was a checkpoint up ahead. The van came to a screeching halt. We heard what sounded like a firefight. I lifted my blindfold, and I saw both the driver and Abu Jaafar shoot in the direction of the checkpoint.
Ian Rivers, who was with our team, climbed out through the passenger side door. He tried to open the side door for us but it wouldn't budge, so he came around to the back door, but it wouldn't open either.
Producer Aziz Akyavas climbed out of the van through the driver side door. He says he saw and stepped over a body that lay by the front wheel. I climbed out of the passenger side door. 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.
At this point, Ian was nowhere to be found. We spent several minutes calling his name. He later recounted that he couldn't hear us because he was 200 meters away and it was raining intensely. He subsequently made it safely to the border on his own.
Some now claim that the gunfire was staged to convince us — the hostages in the van — that we were rescued, rather than just handed over. But that is not what a key supporter of Abu Ayman tells us. We managed to reach a man, who according to both Syrian and US intelligence sources, was one of Abu Ayman's main fund-raisers. He insists that Abu Ayman's men shot and killed two of our kidnappers.
We also were told by several Syrian sources that our rescue did not take place on the road by Foua as both our kidnappers and rescuers had told us, but took place closer to Maarat Misrin.
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. We still cannot determine whether we were set up to be kidnapped from the start, and we have found no evidence that the Iranian and Lebanese prisoners whom we were headed to see existed.
This, of course, does not make our kidnappers or the five days they held us at gunpoint any less dangerous. It does, however, underscore the treacherous and violent nature of the conflict inside Syria.