Steven Sotloff gave early warning about ISIL

If Steven Sotloff could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be that the world failed to read his stories and heed his warnings about Syria.

In a July 2013 report, one of his last filings for the Media Line, he wrote, “[F]ew 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.”

American Jewish journalist Steven Sotloff (center, with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels in June 2011. photo/jta-etienne de malglaive via getty images

Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance journalist who was killed in gruesome fashion by ISIL (the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant) on Sept. 2, was in the Middle East by choice rather than by assignment. Driven by his fascination with the region and his 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. He traced the evolution of the jihadi campaign in Syria and Iraq and the spawning by al-Qaida of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, all while chronicling the dangers an ISIL caliphate presented to the Western world.

When mass media were focused on Libya, Sotloff was there, writing about rising jihadism and 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 grew up Jewish in South Florida and attended the University of Central Florida. He made aliyah in 2005 and studied at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya near Tel Aviv.

Over the years he wrote for a variety of publications, including Time and the Jerusalem Report. In 2012, after living in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Yemen, Sotloff became a freelancer for the Media Line, where I am the co-founder and current CEO. He reported from Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria, and filed insightful stories that eerily predict today’s headlines.

Sotloff eschewed the desk for the street — and he appeared to be fearless, believing any potential foes would sense his attachment to the Arab world and its people and would not harm him.

Yet in January 2013, 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.”

From Satloff’s Facebook page photo/facebook

Two months before he went missing, he wrote a story about Syrian activists. In it, he anticipates today’s surging jihadist movement: “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 one 28-year-old rebel lamenting, “We had so much hope when we began protesting, but today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists.”

On Aug. 2, 2013, 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 the introductions and guiding his way), but Sotloff insisted. 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.

After a long time with no word, I finally heard from an anonymous organization seeking his release who told us of the abduction and said a gag order was in place. Subsequent conversations with his parents, Arthur and Shirley Sotloff, and others close to the family, confirmed the worst. Though it is still not known which group pulled off the kidnapping, what is certain is that Sotloff eventually wound up in the hands of ISIL, perfectly timed to be used in its ghastly anti-American demonstration.

For more than one year, our utmost concern beyond his ultimate safety was that it not be discovered that he held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. The consequences, all concerned agreed, would be a windfall for his captors that would prove irresistible.

Many months were to pass before Art Sotloff confirmed that 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 skyrocket that his Israeli connections might become known.

Steven Sotloff was a courageous journalist with clear and prescient insights. Perhaps the outpouring over his barbaric slaying will prompt the sort of action that would be worthy of his contribution to civil society.


This was the last article Sotloff wrote for the Media Line on Aug. 6, 2013:

reyhanli, turkey | As the bureaucratic red tape in Washington has delayed arming Syrian rebels fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), jihadists have slowly taken charge of a revolution that has sunk into chaos. They now control large swaths of Syria and are gradually marginalizing FSA units who are becoming increasingly demoralized.

Analysts note an increasing triangulation that pits opposition forces against each other in addition to fighting regime forces.

Conversations with several FSA brigade leaders reveal a rudderless revolution that is barely managing to stay afloat as foreign jihadists inundate Syria. They complain that if the West does not act soon, all that will be left to salvage is the sunken hopes of a people who desperately wanted an end to five decades of oppression at the hands of the Assad family.

Abu Munthir, a bulky man with a Rottweiler glare, is not eager to tell his story. He hesitates before opening up about his experiences. “At first we worked with the jihadists,” says the 28-year-old. “They had skills we needed and were good fighters. But soon they began pushing us out and we were too weak to stop them.”

Abu Munthir relates that the jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusra had an arching plan to hijack his revolution. Created by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra was initially tasked with ingratiating itself with the Syrian rebels. The organization first offered FSA units its bomb-making expertise and combat skills. Once the brigades were won over, joint operations came next.

“It was all a ruse,” Abu Munthir complained. “They wanted our trust to gain our understanding of the terrain and to pluck off some of our fighters.” As Jabhat Al-Nusra gained strength, it no longer needed its Syrian allies and began skirmishing with the FSA to protect its turf.

In some places such as Aleppo, the FSA can still hold its ground. But in eastern cities such as Raqqa, the jihadists have completely taken over. “We can’t do anything there anymore,” laments 31-year-old FSA leader Abu Hamza in the Turkish town of Killis. “They are too strong.”

Raqqa is controlled by al-Qaida affiliate ISI. After Jabhat Al-Nusra’s leader pledged allegiance to al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ISI moved its own cadres into Syria. It feared a direct link between al-Qaida and Jabhat Al-Nusra would marginalize it. The ISI, however, is much more ruthless than its offspring and rarely cooperates with the FSA. Instead, it views the organization as an adversary to be battled like the Syrian regime.

In the coastal province of Latakia, which constitutes the regime’s stronghold, tensions exploded in July [2013] after the ISI killed senior FSA leader Kamal Hamami, known to his fighters as Abu Basir Al-Ladkani. “They set up a trap for Abu Basir and ambushed him,” explained 28-year-old FSA fighter Khalid Bustani in a Skype call from the province. The FSA declared an all-out war against the ISI, but in its weakened state could not do much more than engage in verbal saber rattling. “We are too weak to fight them,” Bustani says. “We don’t even have ammunition.”

In June, Washington pledged to supply the FSA with weapons. But political infighting between the White House and Congress has held up delivery of the arms. Congress is wary of providing weapons that could fall into the hands of jihadists from Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISI. Radicals have benefited from previous weapons deliveries from Qatar and there is little reason to believe they will be shut out of any future bonanza.

Washington’s turf wars are of little concern to Abu Munthir, though. He just wants to be able to push the jihadists out of Syria. “Give me the weapons and I will fight them every day until they are gone,” he says. But until the United States does, there is little he can do but curse the jihadists who have seized his revolution.