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WHY NBC had to Alters Account of Correspondent’s Kidnapping in Syria?

NBC News on Wednesday revised its account of the 2012 kidnapping of its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, saying it was likely that Mr. Engel and his reporting team had been abducted by a Sunni militant group, not forces affiliated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

In a statement posted on the NBC News website Wednesday evening, Mr. Engel said that a review of the episode — prompted by reporting from The New York Times — had led him to conclude that “the group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.” He also wrote that the abductors had “put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite shabiha militiamen.”

Mr. Engel and his team were kidnapped in December 2012 while reporting in Syria. They were held for five days. Just hours after emerging, they appeared on the “Today” show.

“This was a group known as the shabiha, this was the government militia, these are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Engel said on “Today,” citing information he had gathered from the group.

In that and other appearances on NBC, and in a Vanity Fair magazine article, he said that he had been rescued by Sunni rebels. At least two people died during the course of the captivity, he said in some versions of the account.

Interviews by The Times with several dozen people — including many of those involved in the search for NBC’s team, rebel fighters and activists in Syria and current and former NBC News employees — suggested 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.

The group, known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, was led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj, who had a history of smuggling and other crimes.

The kidnapping ended, the people involved in the search said, when the team was freed by another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, which had a relationship with Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj.

Mr. Engel and his team underwent a harrowing ordeal, and it is a common tactic for kidnappers in war zones to intentionally mislead hostages as to their identity.

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.

An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site. Vanity Fair said it had no immediate comment.

Just two months ago, NBC News suspended Brian Williams, its nightly news anchor, after he exaggerated an account of a helicopter episode in Iraq in 2003. The furor that surrounded Mr. Williams’s suspension led to a management shake-up in the news division, and the installation of Andrew Lack, a former NBC News president, as head of the operation.

NBC’s own assessment during the kidnapping had focused on Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj, according to a half-dozen people involved in the recovery effort. NBC had received GPS data from the team’s emergency beacon that showed it had been held early in the abduction at a chicken farm widely known by local residents and other rebels to be controlled by the Sunni criminal group.

NBC had sent an Arab envoy into Syria to drive past the farm, according to three people involved in the efforts to locate Mr. Engel, and engaged in outreach to local commanders for help in obtaining the team’s release. These three people declined to be identified, citing safety considerations.

Ali Bakran, a rebel commander who assisted in the search, said in an interview that when he confronted Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj with the GPS map, “Azzo and Shukri both acknowledged having the NBC reporters.”

Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.

Abu Hassan, a local medic who is close to the rebel movement, and who was involved in seeking the team’s release, said that when the kidnappers realized that all the other rebels in the area were working to get the captives out, they decided to create a ruse to free them and blame the kidnapping on the Assad regime. “It was there that the play was completed,” he said, speaking of the section of road Mr. Engel and the team were freed on.

Thaer al-Sheib, another local man connected with the rebel movement who sought the NBC team, said that on the day of the release “we heard some random shots for less than a minute coming from the direction of the farm.” He said that Abu Ayman, the rebel commander credited with freeing the team, is related by marriage to Mr. Ajouj, and that he staged the rescue.

Mr. Engel, in his statement, said he did not have a “definitive account of what happened that night.” He acknowledged the group that freed him had ties to his captors, but said he had received conflicting information.

“We managed to reach a man, who, according to both Syrian and U.S. intelligence sources, was one of Abu Ayman’s main fund-raisers,” he wrote. “He insists that Abu Ayman’s men shot and killed two of our kidnappers.”

Mr. Engel said the kidnapping “became a sensitive issue” for Mr. Ayman. “Abu Ayman and his superiors were hoping to persuade the U.S. to provide arms to them,” he wrote. “Having American journalists taken on what was known to be his turf could block that possibility.”

In his Vanity Fair article, Mr. Engel described one of his captors lying dead. In his statement Wednesday, he acknowledged that he did not see bodies during the rescue.

He said that one of his producers, Aziz Akyavas, climbed out of the van through the driver-side door, stepping over a body. “I climbed out of the passenger-side door,” he wrote.

“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.”

 

 Fertilizers shipped from Turkey to ISIS to prepare suicide car bombs

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT

AKCAKALE, Turkey —

The laborers work all day, piling bags of fertilizer onto carts and wheeling them through the crossing that connects this southern border town AKCAKALE, to Syria.

The Syrian town next door is firmly controlled by the extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), as is clear from the black flag flying over downtown.

And while the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is widely used for agriculture, it has also been used by terrorists around the world — including the Islamic State — to build powerful explosives.

Few here think the fertilizer is meant to help Syrian farmers.

“It is not for farming. It is for bombs,” said Mehmet Ayhan, an opposition politician from Akcakale who is running for Parliament. But he did not oppose the deliveries, saying they created jobs in his impoverished town.

“As long as the Turkish people benefit from this — regardless of where it goes on the other side — it is a good thing,” Mr. Ayhan said.

The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Iraq and Syria has terrified the world.

Europe is struggling to stop its Muslims from slipping off to war; the United States is leading Arab countries in a bombing campaign; and Turkey has vowed to close its southern border to foreign fighters seeking to join the jihad.

But the open transport of ammonium nitrate into Islamic State territory points to lingering questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors.

Yet for the people here, the cross-border trade offers some relief in an economy that has been battered by the war in Syria.

Analysts said Turkey had recently made efforts to secure its border and to halt the flow of foreign fighters. But the country still allows cross-border trade that gives the Islamic State access to goods from energy drinks to fertilizer.

“Trade continues to go into the north, not just to ISIS, but ISIS is a tangential beneficiary of the trade policy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who studies Turkey.

Cross-border connections have long defined Akcakale, which is home to 90,000 Turks and directly across the border from the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The towns share so many family and trade ties that residents said they used to be like one town.

But the war has split them. Fleeing Syrians now outnumber the Turks in Akcakale; they have opened restaurants, and they work for lower wages. Smugglers who once moved sugar, tea and cement now move items like foreign jihadists.

One Turkish smuggler used to help Syrian rebels transfer goods and people across the border. Then the Islamic State offered him $35 a head to get its fighters into Syria, he said.

He moved 25 in, nearly all of them foreigners, before quitting because he worried that the Islamic State would threaten Turkey.

“I worked for them for two months, and I still regret that I let all those people in,” he said, withholding his name for fear of the jihadists.

Outside the border gate on a recent day, scores of Syrians lined up to return home. Nearby, traders sold sandwiches, drinks and cigarettes, an indulgence banned under the Islamic State.

Also for sale were black gowns for women needing to meet the jihadists’ dress code.

In line, Nasser al-Ali, 30, lifted a cigarette to his mouth with a tattooed arm. The jihadists also oppose tattoos.

“I can throw this away and cover this,” he said with a shrug, pointing to his cigarette and his tattoo.

There was little work in the city of  Raqqa, he said, but life under the jihadists was not bad.

“No one bothers you if you don’t bother anyone,” he said. When asked if the Islamic State would last, he smiled and said, “God willing.”

Four times on two recent days, reporters for The New York Times saw large wooden carts loaded with fertilizer enter the crossing and come back empty a short time later.

The workers then refilled their carts from a pile of sacks as large as a semi-truck in a nearby lot.

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate.

When the reporters arrived at the crossing, the carts stopped moving. When asked what they contained, a City Hall employee who was escorting the reporters replied, “Flour.”

Residents said the shipments began a few months earlier between traders on each side. Some residents said the fertilizer was for agriculture, noting that it is sold legally in Turkey and widely used for farming.

But ammonium nitrate has also been a vital ingredient in some of the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the bombings of the United States Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.

It has also been widely used by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the Islamic State.

Turkey, too, has been a victim; bombs made with ammonium nitrate struck Istanbul in 2003, killing scores of people.

Shown pictures of the sacks, John Goodpaster, a forensic chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said they were clearly marked as ammonium nitrate.

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT, he said. Twenty pounds of the mix can fill a suicide vest, while 200 pounds can make a car bomb.

A bomb filled with about 45,000 pounds could damage 16 city blocks, Dr. Goodpaster said, adding that there appeared to be at least 55,000 pounds in the pile of sacks waiting to enter the crossing.

“That is a definite concern,” he said.

Turkish officials failed to explain why the substance was allowed to cross.

A spokesman for the Akcakale’s mayor’s office, Mustafa Guçlu, first denied that any fertilizer was crossing, then said that if there was any, it would be for agriculture.

An official in the governor’s office for Sanliurfa Province, which includes Akcakale, said fertilizer was not allowed to cross.

Another official, reached by phone at the crossing, said that about 500 Syrians returned home every few days and that each was allowed 30 or 40 bags of low-nitrate fertilizer, which is less explosive.

“There is no way high-ration nitrate fertilizer can go through, because we have ISIS on the other side,” the official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media.

Around town, the fertilizer shipments were common knowledge.

“Of course they use it to make bombs,” said Mustafa Kurt, a cafe owner.

Like many, he said he suspected that Islamic State fighters regularly passed through town, facing little interference from the authorities. “How can we tell the difference if they dress normal and aren’t carrying guns?” he said.

But he did not worry that they would launch attacks in Turkey, because that could hurt them in Syria. “They need us,” Mr. Kurt said. “Because if they hurt us, we can close the gate.”

Sabine Choucair  shared this link

Karam Shoumali and I were visiting the Turkish border town of Akcakale when we made a strange discovery: large shipments of fertilizer commonly used to make explosives crossing the border to territory controlled by the Islamic State. Raises questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors. With Ceylan Yeginsu and Christopher Chivers.

The fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which was used in explosives at the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, has been moving into an extremist-controlled Syrian town…
nytimes.com|By BEN HUBBARD

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