Six days ago, Richard Engel and his production team were captured while traveling in northwest Syria with a rebel group when they were taken captive by forces loyal to dictator Bashar Assad. One of the rebels was killed on sight by the 15 loyalist gunmen, and the American crew was subject to death threats and what Engel described as “psychological torture.” But the loyalist plan was to orchestrate an exchange of prisoners with the rebels. Until they ran into a leading Syrian jihadist group.
While Engel and his team were blindfolded and shoved into the back of a truck, the loyalists unwittingly stopped at a checkpoint run by Ahrar al-Sham. As Engel recounted on the Today Show Tuesday, fighters for the jihadist group confronted the loyalists and a firefight broke out, killing two of the loyalists. Ahrar al-Sham let Engel and his producers leave Syria unharmed, and posted the above video of the NBC team to its YouTube channel.
The U.S. is supposed to be in an epic global struggle with Islamic extremism. But the Arab revolutions of the past two years have shuffled the deck. Like with Libya in 2011, the U.S.’ sometimes-reluctant call for the ouster of regional dictators has put Washington effectively on the same side as some of the jihadist groups it fears will take power. In Syria, the U.S. is especially wary of the jihadi fighters, many of whom are believed to be veterans of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Securing Engel’s freedom is a particularly unexpected turn for Ahrar al-Sham, which the Associated Press describes as “Islamic fundamentalist brigade home to many foreign jihadis.” A recently revamped rebel command structure excluded the group, along with the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, seemingly to secure Western backing. Such groups are given to criticizing the U.S. — not for intervening in Syria, but for not intervening enough in Syria, and being prissy about the company it keeps.
Ahrar al-Sham might give Westerners pause. But Danger Room pal Matt Fanning, a Fort Worth-based IT consultant who closely tracks Syrian rebel groups, says the jihadist organization is one of the most effective and the most media-savvy of the rebel coalition. Their weapons of choice include roadside bombs and car bombs, tactics that “clearly came from Iraq,” Fanning says.
Ahrar al-Sham is also one of the most prolific Syrian jihadi groups on YouTube. Ahrar al-Sham takes video cameras along on raids — to capture giant explosions for upload — and doesn’t mind displaying maps of its operations against Assad’s forces. “Sham also releases probably three to five videos a day where Nusra is good for about one to three a week,” Fanning says.
But Ahrar al-Sham’s ideology is no less extreme. It’s issued religious edicts against the ruling Alawite minority and has been criticized for rounding up Shias as hostages. “I agree with al-Qaida on certain things and disagree on others,” one Ahrar al-Sham fighter, a veteran of al-Qaida in Iraq, told The New York Times in July. His nuanced view of suicide bombing: OK against government troops, not OK against civilians.
As BuzzFeed recounts, NBC worked hard to keep reporters from mentioning Engel’s captivity, for fear that publicity might jeopardize his safety. That’s no idle concern: The Committee to Protect Journalists says Syria is “by far the deadliest country” for reporters, with 28 “killed in combat or targeted for murder” in 2012 by the various warring factions. Engel and his team are some of the lucky ones — and unexpectedly lucky that they ran into one of Syria’s leading jihadist organizations.