Steven Sotloff sounded the unanswered alarm about the Islamic State

The Media Line’s president tells of Sotloff’s journalistic prowess.

Students hold candles during a vigil honoring US journalist Steven Sotloff at the Reflection Pool on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Central Florida in Orlando. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Students hold candles during a vigil honoring US journalist Steven Sotloff at the Reflection Pool on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 ‘As the international media is fixated on the struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, few reporters are focusing on Syria. But a spate of kidnappings of foreign journalists in Syria has made the country a mini-Iraq that few want to venture into.
“‘It’s dangerous and getting worse by the day,’ says a correspondent for a major Western publication. If no one is asking for articles, why should we risk it?” So wrote Steven Sotloff in one of his final reports for The Media Line on July 30, 2013; he was kidnapped in Syria about a week later.
If Sotloff could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be the fact that the world – which, postmortem, is hanging on every word he wrote – failed to read his stories and heed his warnings several years before.
As a freelance journalist, Sotloff was in the Middle East by choice rather than by assignment. Driven there by his fascination with the region and affection for its people, Sotloff, who was fluent in Arabic, quickly developed an uncanny sense not only of what was, but what was going to follow as well.
He traced the evolution of the jihadi takeover of Syria and Iraq, the spawning by al-Qaida of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, all while chronicling the early steps toward the carving out of the Islamic State caliphate and the dangers it presented to the Western world.
When the media world was focused on Libya, Sotloff was there, writing about Darna, calling it “the jihadi capital,” already admonishing that “the Libyan dilemma will impact the Syrian crisis.” He warned in a personal email that “voices of support for intervention will be drowned out.”
SOTLOFF FIRST came to The Media Line – an American news agency covering the Middle East – in 2009. His pitch for full-time employment didn’t work out because I felt his need to travel throughout the region, and not be assigned to a single beat.
But in 2012, Sotloff reached out again after he had spent time living in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Yemen; he became a freelancer, reporting from Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria, filing insightful stories that eerily predicted today’s headlines.
Sotloff was fearless to the point where he appeared to believe he would not be harmed because potential foes would somehow sense his attachment to the Arab world and its people. In January 2013, in answer to a query regarding women’s involvement, Sotloff wrote from Aleppo, Syria, “Movement in general is becoming more difficult. Three Spanish journalists were kidnapped out of the media center.
The situation is now hostile to Westerners since our governments are not involving themselves. We are now restricting movement only with fighters we trust. They certainly won’t be taking us to any weddings and women’s gatherings.
“Just having an Aleppo byline these days is a luxury. Open to suggestions, though.
Imams are doable.”
In true journalistic fashion, Sotloff eschewed the desk for the street. Syrians returning from Turkey were reporting that the US was prepared to fund rebels fighting President Bashar Assad, but Sotloff was quoting Syrians who were asserting, “We don’t need food; we need weapons. Where are our weapons?” In May 2013, Sotloff wrote, “Syria’s peaceful revolution has become a military inferno.”
Two months before he went missing, he wrote a story about Syrian activists and their Friday demonstrations.
“With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army locked in a stalemate with regime forces, al-Qaida jihadists pouring in from neighboring countries, and lootings and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their pristine revolution.” He quoted 28-year old Mazin al-Masri lamenting, “We had so much hope when we began protesting, but today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists.”
In one of Sotloff’s final stories written for The Media Line, he covered a four-day Syrian-American medical conference in Gaziantep, Turkey, where American physicians conducted a workshop for Syrian doctors training them in the use of computerized equipment in trauma and limb-loss cases.
He struggled successfully to obtain video, and had difficulty transmitting quality film due to intermittent Internet.
On August 2, Sotloff communicated with me for the last time from the Turkish border town of Kilis, discussing the dangers of going into Syria. I warned him not to trust his fixer (the local making introductions and guiding his way), but Sotloff insisted that he did; he said a few journalists were still going in, and that it was his hope to return and write a book about his experiences.
Shortly thereafter, Sotloff dropped off the radar. Threatening to go public with whoever might be receiving his emails, I finally heard from an anonymous organization seeking his release who told us of the abduction, and that a gag order (of unexplained jurisdiction) was in place.
Subsequent conversations with his parents, Arthur and Shirley Sotloff, and others close to the family, confirmed the worst of fears, even though it is still not known what group originally pulled off the kidnapping. What is certain is that Sotloff eventually wound up in the hands of the Islamic State, perfectly timed to be used in its ghastly anti-American demonstration.
For more than a year, our utmost concern beyond Steven’s ultimate safety was that it not be discovered that he held dual US-Israeli citizenship. The consequences, all concerned agreed, would be a windfall for his captors that would prove irresistible.
Indeed, Sotloff grew up in south Florida and, after attending the University of Central Florida, moved to Israel in 2008 where he enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Many months were to pass before Art Sotloff confirmed his son was still alive. But only two weeks ago, when the world witnessed the horrific spectacle of James Foley’s beheading and saw Sotloff displayed as the “next victim,” did concern that his Israeli connections become known skyrocket.
Steven Sotloff was a courageous journalist whose insights were clearly on the mark. His readings of events at hand and events in the making constituted a sounding of the alarm that no one answered.
Perhaps the mass outpouring over his barbaric slaying will prompt the sort of action that would be worthy of Sotloff’s contribution to civil society.