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Complex Syrian Civil War:Journalists Serving as Spies?

By Kerry Patton
Clash Daily Guest Contributor

teaserbreitSyria’s ongoing atrocities have led to multiple discoveries revealing unprecedented amounts of covert activities. An array of international players exist in Syria, however most observers solely focus on the Assad regime or his opposition comprised of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There is so much more to the situation in Syria going unreported and it constitutes internationally led covert activities and the illegal incorporation of journalists serving as spies.

After several days of deductive reasoning, then a quick follow up with an undisclosed source that is incredibly active with the Syrian conflict, some points of covert activities have been confirmed. At least one US media network, and possibly more, has been involved in covering up some of the activities.

More interesting is the fact that some of these media networks have a history of chastising such intelligence practices especially when it comes to the incorporation of intelligence contractors.Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, and his crew recently escaped pro-Assad militants after being held for five days. Mixed reporting initially aired claiming he and his crew were abducted by the Free Syrian Army. NBC requested a temporary media blackout on this situation.

Engel and his crew miraculously freed themselves yet the escape was not as miraculous as he or NBC would like anyone to believe. There was an orchestrated attempt to see Engel and his team freed by international players many of whom have no government affiliation — independent contractors.

These international players worked closely with the Free Syrian Army formulating a plan of action and that plan came to fruition.

With sound intelligence, an ambush was orchestrated on Engel’s captors. The pro-Assad captors were caught in a “dead zone” forced to return fire and engage the FSA opposition.

During this action, some of Engel’s captors were severely injured prompting Engel and his team to flee. Everything Engel revealed came to life but a lot of missing points can be observed. Temporarily freed, Engel was still in a hostile region deep inside Syria. Who assisted him and his team to physically move out of that hostile region? Who assisted in his transportation needs to reach the border of Turkey?

The same people who engaged Engel’s captors were the same people who assisted in his travels to Turkey — the Free Syrian Army. This information has been confirmed by undisclosed western sources intimately familiar with Engel’s escape as these sources were part of the planning process.

The same sources revealed a botched rescue mission conducted by the Free Syrian Army unfolded in September. It was a rescue mission to free US journalist Austin Tice. The former Marine Corp veteran was abducted in mid-August by pro-Assad militants.

The former Marine’s family recently begged for information pertaining to their son’s whereabouts. While no one can confirm his current whereabouts, it is known that in September, Mr. Tice was being held on an undisclosed airfield in Syria.

The airfield, which shall not be named due to intelligence security, was attacked by the FSA. The attack was a multi-pronged attack intended to destroy vital infrastructure which included gas storage facilities, air traffic control, and even aircraft. The attack was also intended to free at least one western journalist.

Operational security is vital in these types of missions. Leaks of information can get people killed. Unfortunately, the Free Syrian Army had a leak in their operation’s planning which placed ground forces in a grueling situation leaving some killed.

During this time in September, at least three air fields were attacked by the Free Syrian Army. Some of the attacks could be deemed successful while others were a complete nightmare. Needless to say, Austin Tice remains in pro-Assad militant’s captivity.

Another international journalist has been abducted, however most reporting claims the abduction was enacted by the Free Syrian Army. Ankhar Kotchneva, a Ukrainian journalist with Russian citizenship, has been missing since October.

The case of Ankhar Kotchneva is interesting. A few questions must be asked to determine her actual status. Some reports claim when Kotchneva was abducted, she was actually carrying a weapon.

Anti-Assad elements have stated that Kotchneva “was carrying a gun and was an interpreter for Russian officers.” Real journalists do not make it a habit of carry weapons while on assignment. Why was she carrying a weapon? Was she using journalism as a cover story for intelligence activities?

According to the, “Her coverage of the Syrian conflict for several Russian media, including NTV, RenTV and RT channels favored Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She voiced support for the Syrian president in interviews she gave to other news outlets as an expert on the region. When she was abducted, Kotchneva was employed as an interpreter.”

At least one Eastern European media outlet acknowledges Kotchneva was not in Syria working as a journalist. Instead, she was serving as an interpreter. But who was she interpreting for? That question remains unknown. But what is known is this — no one is coming to her rescue anytime soon.

Journalists have been rightly outraged over the ongoing crisis dealing with Ankhar Kotchneva. For many journalists, she is one of them. But emotions need to be taken out of the cognitive process to understand the life Ankhar Kotchneva could possibly have been living.

Remember Anna Chapman? How many American’s who were close to her refused to accept the fact that she was an actual spy for Russia? If Ankhar Kotchneva is actually found to be a spy for Russia, many journalists will likely go into denial as well.

Russia is playing a very dangerous game in Syria and they have recently acknowledged that it appears Bashir Assad will likely lose the war. Russia backed the wrong team in Syria. Now they have one of their own citizens held against her will potentially facing execution for crimes of espionage.

When it comes to Syria, there is a difference between Russia’s activities and the West. Russia is physically placing its citizens in harm’s way on the ground in Syria. Some of those citizens may or may not be acting as journalists while they serve as spies.

Col. Stanislav Lunev has once revealed that many journalists from Russia and other countries are, in reality, spies. He also stated that many Russian journalists have recruited leading American reporters to engage in espionage as well.  Col Lunev should know exactly how Russian covert operatives execute their missions. He was the highest-ranking spy ever to defect from the Russia’s top spy organization, the GRU.

The United States has strict laws against using journalists as spies. This does not mean it never happens, though. More often than not, journalists serve as sources for the US intelligence community. OSINT, Open Source Intelligence, is the lead in utilizing media for its intelligence activities.

50 USC § 403–7 titled, Prohibition on using journalists as agents or assets, specifically states that “the Intelligence Community may not use as an agent or asset for the purposes of collecting intelligence any individual who is authorized by contract or by the issuance of press credentials to represent himself or herself, either in the United States or abroad, as a correspondent of a United States news media organization.”

With more than 28 journalists killed in Syria just in 2012 alone, the war torn nation has become uniquely complex. Many of these journalists have been killed by pro-Assad forces while some have been killed by anti-Assad opposition.

Both sides have enacted the practice of targeting journalists and both sides may have good reason. Today, we learn that while most journalists are serving in ethical roles, some are not. Some, like Ankhar Kotchneva, may be serving in unique covert activities working as spies.

Image: Kidnapped journalist Ankhar Kotchneva

Kerry Patton, a combat disabled veteran, is the author of Contracted: America’s Secret Warriors (Quiet Owl Books). You can follow him on Facebook or at

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