Steven Sotloff, the 31-year-old American freelance journalist facing threat of execution by Islamic State militants, has covered conflict in Muslim countries for years with care and respect, colleagues said.
Well versed in the history and culture of the Middle East, the self-styled “stand-up philosopher from Miami” was seen Tuesday in a video released by IS that showed the beheading his compatriot and colleague James Foley.
The black-clad executioner, speaking with a clear London accent, then paraded Sotloff before the camera and said he would die unless President Barack Obama changes course after ordering U.S. air raids against IS positions in Iraq. Sotloff’s head was shaved and he wore the type of orange jumpsuits seen on terror suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
He was kidnapped more than a year ago, on Aug. 4, 2013. His loved ones only revealed the timeline of his captivity this week, due to a previous media blackout.
Sotloff has worked as a freelance journalist for Time, the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and World Affairs Journal. “Steve Sotloff lived in Yemen for years, spoke good Arabic, deeply loved Islamic world … for this he is threatened with beheading,” tweeted writer Ann Marlowe, who met Sotloff during the conflict in Libya. Speaking to The Miami Herald, she insisted that Sotloff was “no war junkie.” He was “committed to the Arab Spring and very respectful of Islamic culture,” Marlowe added.
On social media like Instagram and Facebook, the journalist posted poignant images of civilians in the grips of conflict beyond their control, including children in a Syrian refugee camp. On Twitter, he spoke of the conflict in Syria and the Arab Spring popular revolts in countries like Egypt and Libya but also his favorite basketball team, the Miami Heat. “Is it bad that I want to focus on #syria, but all I can think of is a #HEATFinals repeat?” he wrote in a June 2013 tweet.
“Sotloff is young and funny and irreverent,” recalled Newsweek’s Middle East editor Janine di Giovanni, who worked with him in Syria. “He lived in Benghazi, Libya—he actually lived there—one of the few freelance reporters who felt he had to stay there to do his job properly. He is a great storyteller, but he is also smart and committed.”
His most recent employer, World Affairs, described him as “an honest and thoughtful journalist who strives to understand the story from local perspectives and report his findings straightforwardly.”
“He is certainly courageous,” it added.
Fellow freelance journalist Ben Taub said Sotloff had actually planned to take a break from reporting, but wanted one last Syria run. “He said he was chasing a good story, but kept the specifics close to his chest,” Taub wrote in The Daily Beast. “He was experienced. He could speak Arabic. He was careful. And he told me he had had enough.”
Taub also suggested that the identity of Sotloff’s fixer might have been compromised before crossing the border into Syria from Turkey due to an imprudent Canadian photographer who had never covered war and had wanted to cover the conflict but backed out at the last minute.
After the release of the IS video, Sotloff’s family urged President Barack Obama to “take immediate action” to rescue him. A petition posted on the White House website was signed by nearly 9,000 people by late Friday.