Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Felice Friedson
The Media Line 

Steven Sotloff sounded the unanswered alarm about ISIS


Steven Sotloff, freelance reporter in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Libya.

In one of Steven Sotloff's final reports for The Media Line, dated July 30, 2014, he wrote: "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?"

He was kidnapped in Syria about a week later.

If Steven Sotloff could express his frustrations, no doubt atop the list would be that the world that 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-Qa'ida of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State; all while chronicling the early steps toward the carving-out of the ISIS caliphate and the dangers it presented to the Western world. When the media world was focused on Libya, he was there, writing about Darna, calling it "the Jihadi capital," and 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; and became a freelancer for The Media Line, reporting from Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria; filing insightful stories that eerily predict 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, "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 do-able."

In true journalistic fashion, Sotloff eschewed the desk for the street. Syrians returning from Turkey were reporting that the U.S. was prepared to fund anti-Assad rebels, but Sotloff was quoting Syrians who were asserting that, "We don't need food; we need weapons. Where are our weapons?"

In May 2013, Sotloff wrote that, "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-Qa'ida 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 wrote about 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 cases and cases of limb-loss. He struggled successfully to obtain video, and had difficulty transmitting quality film due to intermittent Internet.

On Aug. 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 the 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 to whomever 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 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 ISIS, perfectly-time to be used in its ghastly anti-American demonstration.

For more than one year, our utmost concern beyond Steven's 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.

Sotloff grew up in south Florida and after attending University of Central Florida, moved to Israel in 2008 where he enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.

Many months were to pass before Art Sotloff confirmed that Steven 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 constitute 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 Steven Sotloff's contribution to civil society.

The following is Steven Sotloff's last article written for The Media Line, titled:

Islamists outmuscle Free Syrian Army to 'seize the revolution'

August 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 speaking in the Turkish town of Reyhanli. "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 Jihadists group Jabhat Al-Nusra had an arching plan to hijack his revolution. Created by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Al-Qa'ida'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, they no longer needed their 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-Qa'ida affiliate ISI. After Jabhat Al-Nusra's leader pledged allegiance to Al-Qa'ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ISI moved its own cadres into Syria. It feared a direct link between Al-Qa'ida 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. 

"They won't let us move through their checkpoints and if we do, they might shoot at us," explains Abu Hamza. We have fighting with them sometimes."

In the coastal province of Latakia, which constitutes the regime's stronghold, tensions exploded in July 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 bullets and the weapons to shoot them. But political infighting between the White House and Congress has held up delivery of the arms. Congressmen are 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.


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