War reporting is not a science. Every foray into a battleground requires basic preparation — for the most part. But the chemistry of each war zone is different and fluid. In addition to training, instinct often plays a huge part in keeping a reporter out of harm’s way. And then there’s luck — both good and bad. All of that has been reinforced by the experience of a veteran journalist who vanished for several days while on assignment in northern Syria. NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his crew emerged on Tuesday morning after being held in blindfolded captivity by an armed group since early Thursday morning. Engel and company were freed in a firefight that ensued when their captors tried to transport them on Monday through a checkpoint run by the Ahrar al-Sham rebel brigade, which is under the antiregime Free Syrian Army umbrella. Two of the captors died in the incident but the NBC crew was unharmed.
That is good news indeed in a region that has become increasingly dangerous for journalists as hostility increases not only from the Damascus regime but from its opponents as well. Interviewed on his network, Engel said he and his crew were subjected to psychological torture with threats of execution. He also said the gang that held him talked openly of loyalty to the regime of President Bashar Assad. The group has not been identified. The region is rife with various militias, ranging from secular defectors from the Syrian army to their Islamist allies to jihadis to groups with no firm affiliation as well as purely criminal organizations intent on theft or profit via ransom.
As news director of TIME, I have had to keep track of the permeability of the Syrian border ever since the revolt against Assad began turning into a civil war. The fall of several Syrian border posts with Turkey over the summer made it easier for journalists to legally cross into northern Syria, but the sudden influx of Westerners in particular, especially people who had not previously covered Syria, has fueled suspicion among many rebel groups that not all of those wielding the tools of our trade are really journalists.
Indeed, the ongoing case of Anhar Kochneva, a Ukrainian journalist, is alarming. She was kidnapped in mid-October by a yet unidentified rebel group and scheduled for execution as a spy last week. Most rebels appeared unsympathetic with the attempts by Western journalists to win her release, believing her stories slanted in favor of the regime. Despite the schedule — and tweets to that effect — a reporter for Russia Today said negotiations for Kochneva’s release are ongoing in Turkey, and the reports of her death are false. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also denied today that she had been killed but gave no details about negotiations.
Of course, tarring journalists as spies is not new, but the level of distrust among some rebels is growing. Some rebel units have refused to work with freelancers, especially ones without an assignment and a clear media affiliation, fearing that they may be intelligence agents. The flurry of reports about CIA operatives in the border area certainly hasn’t helped quell that notion. Others, some Islamists in particular, openly say Americans — regardless of their media affiliation — should no longer be welcomed in Syria, especially after the U.S. designated one of the most effective jihadi rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, a terrorist organization.
Northern Syria is not a safe place by any definition. Apart from the regime’s warplanes and shelling, the danger to journalists is exacerbated by the fact that although vast swathes of the north are no longer in regime hands, they are not firmly controlled by the various rebel groups either. As TIME reported in July, criminal gangs also roam relatively freely in these parts, kidnapping Syrians for ransom, engaging in carjacking, looting and other general criminal activity. As the Engel case may show, Western journalists are not immune to this danger. There is also much disunity, rivalry, sometimes jealousy and outright hostility between some rebel groups operating in the area. It’s difficult terrain to navigate, and journalists must be cognizant of which group controls what, where and what it’s ties to others are. Slip up, and you could be in trouble. Take a wrong turn, and you may end up in a jihadi recruiting camp.
Over the weekend, TIME became aware that Engel had vanished into this wild zone. We cooperated with NBC News’ blackout on the situation, and we rejoice in his return and the safety of his crew.