NBC’s Middle East correspondent Richard Engel was released yesterday after being held for five days in Syria. When his kidnappers came to a rebel checkpoint, they were engaged in a firefight with a Free Syrian Army unit that allowed Engel and his colleagues to go free. NBC’s statement said he was taken by an “unknown group,” but Engel himself said he has a “very good idea” that the kidnappers are members of the shabbiha.
As Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote here last year, “The shabbiha refers to a phenomenon originating in the coastal region of northwest Syria—where the ruling Alawite clan is from—and describes gangs of young thugs working for members of the Assad family, but in no official capacity.”
However, there’s some speculation that there was more to the kidnapping than just Assad thuggery. According to a report at the Guardian, a video clip of the NBC crew pleading for their release appears to have captured in the background a shot of graffiti typically associated with Shia slogans, like “There is no chivalrous man except 'Ali [a figure revered in Shi’sm], and there is no sword except Dhu l-Fiqar ['Ali's mythical sword]."
“Engel’s kidnappers are likely not Assad’s Alawite shabbiha,” says Badran. “Rather, they’re elements of Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force, or proxies thereof.”
Indeed, Engel says that his “captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah.”
Michael Ross, a former Mossad operations officer explains that the original concept of the shabbiha “has been co-opted since the uprising started. It’s no longer just an Alawite group. It’s an Iranian-trained militia, with Qods Force and Hezbollah guys working directly with the group. It’s part of the Iranian effort to upgrade their capability of helping the Assad regime survive. In another sense, it’s nothing new, the Iranians have been on the ground since the 80s.”
That era, during the middle of Lebanon’s civil war, represented the heyday of Hezbollah abductions—a tactic that may be making a comeback. As Engel explained, “the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.”
“This would be in keeping with an established Hezbollah practice,” says Badran. “They capture Westerners in exchange for Hezbollah or Iranian prisoners, or other accommodations.”
Most recently, as Badran notes, in March 2011 seven Estonian cyclists were abducted in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. In response, the Estonians were reluctant to join other EU countries in sanctioning Syrian officials. Historically, it was French and American hostages, including journalists like Terry Anderson, which Hezbollah kidnapped in the 80s.
“They wanted their prisoners back,” says Badran—like the Kuwait 17, who were arrested for a series of seven coordinated bombings in Kuwait City in 1983, including the French and American embassies. As Matthew Levitt wrote recently here: “The abduction of the CIA’s station chief in Beirut, William Buckley … as well as several other kidnappings in the second half of 1984, are believed to have been a direct response to the arrest and sentencing of the Kuwait 17 bombers.”
The Free Syrian Army says it’s holding Hezbollah prisoners, and won’t return them until its own people are released. Perhaps Hezbollah sees it’s getting nowhere with the FSA and has turned to other options. “Now Hezbollah is going for the soft target,” says Badran. “The westerners—in order to get its guys released.”