Steven Joel Sotloff
May 11, 1983
|Disappeared||August 4, 2013|
|Died||c. September 2, 2014 (aged 31)|
|Cause of death||Beheading|
|Alma mater||Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya|
Steven Joel Sotloff (Hebrew: סטיבן סוטלוף; May 11, 1983 – c. September 2, 2014) was an American-Israeli journalist. In August 2013, he was kidnapped in Aleppo, Syria, and held captive by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS).
On September 2, 2014, ISIL released a beheading video, showing one of its members beheading Sotloff. Following Sotloff's beheading, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that the United States would take action to "degrade and destroy" ISIS.
President Obama also signed an Executive Order dated June 24, 2015, in the presence of the Sotloff family and other hostage families, overhauling how the U.S. handles U.S. hostages held abroad by groups such as ISIS.
The capture and beheading of Steven Sotloff, and of fellow journalist James Foley a month prior, initiated broad public awareness of ISIL/ISIS after the beheadings were shown on the Internet and then on international television.
Sotloff's legacy is, in part, that he broke the Benghazi story to CNN, that there was no protest, and that he foresaw the massive Syrian Refugee Crisis as he reported on the everyday people's suffering in Syria, thus earning him the reputation as "The Voice for the Voiceless."
Early life and education
Steven Sotloff was the son of Arthur and Shirley Sotloff of Pinecrest, Florida, a suburb of Miami, and a grandson of Holocaust survivors, who inspired him to be "a voice for the voiceless." He was the brother of Lauren Sotloff. He grew up in Pinecrest, Florida, graduated from Kimball Union Academy, a private boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and later attended (but did not graduate from) the University of Central Florida with a major in journalism from 2002 to 2004. He transferred to the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel from 2005 to 2008, graduating cum laude with a major in government studies and counter-terrorism.
Steven emigrated to Israel after a Birthright trip inspired him to fall in love with the country, and held citizenship of both the United States and Israel, although his Jewish background and Israeli citizenship were not made public during his work in Muslim countries or during his captivity for fear that the information might endanger his release. Sotloff had significant interest in the Middle East and its culture and travelled to Yemen to study Arabic.
According to Al-Jazeera, Sotloff was in Qatar and wrote a letter of application dated May 29, 2010, to the Arabic for Non Native Speakers (ANNS) faculty at Qatar University. He later traveled around the region with a Yemeni mobile number. His career began during the Arab Spring. Sotloff had worked for the news magazine Time, as well as Christian Science Monitor, The National Interest, Media Line, World Affairs, and Foreign Policy, and had appeared on CNN and Fox News. His work took him to Syria a number of times, as well as Egypt, Turkey, Libya, and Bahrain.
Sotloff was the reporter that broke the Benghazi story, affirming to CNN that there was no protest that caused the killings and destruction, as U.S. media had initially reported. His greatly detailed story was hailed as "an excellent piece of journalism" by CNN's Suzanne Malveau.
In 2012 he reported in Time magazine about Al-Qaeda fighters and commanders from Libya flocking to Syria and shipping Libyan captured arms and ammunition on its way to join the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime. He was also one of a team of reporters that returned to the compound in Benghazi where the US ambassador and three other Americans had been killed on the night of 9/11 that year. He interviewed Libyan security guards who were at the site during the attack. He named a Libyan militia operative, Ahmad Abu Khattallah, as the head of the group (Ansar al-Sharia) that attacked the US compound and as the man who himself masterminded and led the attack. He later reported on a tit for tat retaliation pattern following the US attacks on those that committed the attack on the ambassador's compound in Benghazi. A week before entering Libya, he had written from Turkey about the Alawites there and their support for Assad, while another article written on the same day told about Alawites inside Syria who were against Assad. According to the words of Ann Marlowe who worked together with Sotloff in Libya "he lived in Yemen for years, spoke good Arabic, deeply loved (the) Islamic world".
Sotloff's journalistic work in Syria interviewing the everyday people suffering, which led to the massive Syrian Refugee Crisis, is in large part what earned him the title of "The Voice for the Voiceless" by Time, TheTelegraph, and NBC News. He was described by those who knew him as a gentle man who "was driven to report on the humanitarian dimensions of the conflicts in the Middle East, humbly referring to himself as a "stand-up philosopher from Miami".
Janine Di Giovanni, the Middle East editor of Newsweek, told CNN, "He was concerned that he had been on some kind of a list, and this had been around the time that ISIS had been showing up and taking over checkpoints that had been manned before by the rebels. And he thought he had angered some of the rebels, he didn't know which ones, by taking footage of a hospital in Aleppo that had been bombed, and he had been very concerned about this."
After his death, Felice Friedson, Sotloff's editor at The Media Line, called him "one of the most courageous, talented and insightful journalists that I have met".
Kidnapping and beheading
On July 15, 2013, he arrived in Israel for his former roommate Benny Scholder's wedding and wanted to spend a couple of weeks there. Before his kidnapping he was in Kilis - a town at the border of Turkey and Syria. It was during his talk to Ben Taub, a journalist and philosophy student at Princeton University, that he confessed of being tired of Middle East, "he was sick of being beaten up, and shot at, and accused of being a spy". And his intention was to stop reporting and to come back to the USA, but first he wanted one more tour to Syria. According to Taub's statement it is likely that Sotloff was betrayed to jihadis by his fixer.
Sotloff was kidnapped along with his fixer and the fixer's brother and cousins on August 4, 2013, near Aleppo, after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey. The fixer and his family members were released 15 days later. He was held in Raqqa. Sotloff fasted secretly during the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur in September 2013 during his captivity, by feigning illness. Before his execution he criticized the foreign policy of Barack Obama for non-fulfillment of his pre-election promise to bring all American soldiers back home.
His family kept the news secret, fearing harm to him if they went public. His family and government agencies were working privately to gain his release for a year.
Sotloff, his family, friends and previous employers such as The Jerusalem Post went to great lengths to keep his Jewish background and Israeli citizenship a secret from his ISIL captors after Sotloff was shown in the beheading video of James Foley. It is unknown if those attempts had any effect, since the information was online for the past duration of his captivity. Following Sotloff's death in September, ISIS published 11 rules that pertain to journalists "who wish to continue working in the governorate." The first rule says all journalists must swear their allegiance as subjects of the Islamic State.
On August 19, 2014, the terrorist organization The Islamic State (IS) released a video titled "A Message to America", showing the beheading of fellow journalist James Foley. At the end of the video, ISIS threatened President of the United States Barack Obama, telling him that "his next move" will decide the fate of Sotloff.
Shortly after the release of the video, a petition was started on WhiteHouse.gov, calling for President Obama to save Sotloff's life. The petition attracted thousands of signatures within days. On August 27, 2014, Sotloff's mother released a short video asking Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to release her son. Fellow journalists including Sotloff's friend Oren Kessler worked intensively for his release.
On September 2, 2014, the SITE Intelligence Group discovered the video of Sotloff's execution on what they called "a file-sharing site" and released it to their subscribers. The video, entitled "A Second Message to America", was discovered purportedly ahead of its intended release by Al-Furqan Media Productions. The video opens with a clip of an August 20 speech by US president Barack Obama[a] denouncing ISIL for the beheading of journalist James Foley followed by a title screen. The video then shows Sotloff, wearing an orange jumpsuit and a wireless microphone, being beheaded by a masked man, later discovered to be Mohammed Emwazi who was described by the media as "Jihadi John" and who was the same person that killed James Foley. Sotloff, kneeling and handcuffed, delivers a prepared statement.[b] In the video, the executioner says, "I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people." Jeff Smith, Associate Director of the CU Denver National Center for Media Forensics said "What's most interesting is that the actual beheading that takes place in the videos, both of them are staged."
The next scene shows the same executioner holding another prisoner, British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines, saying "We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone."
After Sotloff's beheading, tributes flooded in to his family from all over the world, including from The Vatican and Pope Francis, Prime Minister of Israel's Benyamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama, U.S. senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and The Consul General of Israel to Florida and Puerto Rico. He was memorialized by the U.S. Congress in The Congressional Record. The Architect of the Capitol gave his family a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol. The New York Times set up a Legacy Guest Book in Sotloff's honor that would remain open permanently. Grammy Award winner Dave Matthews and his Dave Matthews Band planted 120 trees in Israel in Sotloff's memory, and Matthews personally dedicated his song "Mercy" to Sotloff.
Sotloff won numerous awards and honors both during his life and posthumously:
- The ADL Daniel Pearl Award - given to journalists who have or had a commitment to build cultural bridges and promote understanding. The ADL Daniel Pearl Award recognizes those who, like Daniel Pearl, have attempted to understand developments on the ground and the perceptions of those who are living through the region's seismic changes. Despite the inherent risks of [his] chosen profession, [he] remained tirelessly committed to "finding the humanity behind the headlines" in Syria and Iraq.
- The Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF)'s Citation of Courage Award - given for the first time ever when presented to Steven Sotloff and James Foley, in recognition of distinguished service to journalism and the extraordinary courage to face danger in search of the truth ... [making] the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of free and unfettered journalism in the war-torn Syrian region.
- The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA)'s Conscience in Media Award - for commitment to the highest principles of journalism at notable personable cost, "The Conscience in Media award recognizes journalists who knowingly have endured great personal costs while pursuing the highest tenets of their profession."
- The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Tribute - FDD's scholars, one of whom was Steven, "believe that no one should be denied basic human rights including freedom of religion, speech and assembly; that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin; that free and democratic nations have a right to defend themselves and an obligation to defend one another; and that terrorism – unlawful and premeditated violence against civilians to instill fear and coerce governments or societies – is always wrong and should never be condoned."
- The Southeastern Association of Journalists's Turkey's Special Prize of the Jury - given for their traditional "Year's Successful Journalists."
- The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Florida Heroes Award - awarded by CNN's Larry King, given for Sotloff's "demonstration of tremendous courage, compassion, and determination in confronting hate and intolerance."
The Steven Sotloff Art Memorial, created by American artist Tracy Ellyn, first opened publicly just days after President Obama toasted to the memory of the slain journalist at the White House Correspondents Dinner of 2015, and just one day after Sotloff's birthday. It currently overlooks the Atlantic Ocean at Greenspoon Marder Law Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where viewers can face the Middle East in his memory, as his remains were never returned. Another original of the same memorial is placed at Temple Beth Am in Miami, Florida, where he and his family were and continue to be members.
The memorial, filled with metaphor and symbolism, contains in its layers some excerpts from the letter that Sotloff smuggled out to his family while held in captivity, when he realized he may not make it out alive. Some of those words are: "Do what makes you happy. Be where you are happy. Love and respect each other. Don't fight over nonsense. Hug each other every day. Eat dinner together. Live your life to the fullest and pray to be happy. Stay positive and patient. Everyone has two lives; the 2nd one begins when you realize you have only one." 
Another memorial, the Steven Sotloff Memorial Garden, spearheaded by Mayor Cindy Lerner of Pinecrest, Florida, is a public place of reflection where Sotloff's family and the public can go and pay their respects to their son. They chose the site in the village of Pinecrest because they had taken Steven to the site as a child when it was Parrot Jungle. The Miami Foundation and Home Depot were involved in its creation.
After Sotloff's passing, the Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial 2LIVES Foundation was created. It is named after his most compelling line in the letter he smuggled out to his family during captivity, "Everyone has two lives; the 2nd one begins when you realize you have only one."  Its vision is to equip journalists with the knowledge and tools they need to tell the important stories of the world in the safest possible way, honoring freedom of speech and freedom of the press, ending impunity, and bringing them home safely under all circumstances.
The 2LIVES Foundation has thus far signed on with United Nations/UNESCO, Columbia University School of Journalism, Reuters, Associated Press and others who spearheaded the first ever Global Safety Principles and Practices for journalists in New York on September 30, 2015. The final draft was signed at UNESCO Paris headquarters on February 5, 2016. The group announced unprecedented initiatives to share security information, provide subsidized safety training to freelancers, end impunity, and more. Other media organizations that signed on include CNN, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and finally 300+ more.
The foundation also worked tirelessly with the U.S. government and senior officials in Washington, D.C. to push for changes to its hostage laws. On June 24, 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order, in the presence of the Sotloffs and other hostage families, for a broad overhaul regarding how it handles U.S. hostages held abroad by groups such as ISIS.
The foundation provides both endowed and individual scholarships for journalism students around the world who have the passion and desire to pursue a career in journalism. To date, scholarships have already been set up in Steven's name at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, University of Central Florida, .and University of Miami
The 2LIVES Foundation has partnered with The Media Line, creating its new Press-and-Policy Student Program, to build a scholarship fund that will allow outstanding journalism students from universities around the world to learn and develop their skills, in Steven's name, through on-going participation with a working newsroom and veteran journalists stationed in the region of the world that captivates the interest of news readers worldwide as it did Steven Sotloff.
On April 20, 2016, it was announced that the family of Steven Sotloff were seeking $90 million in damages from Syria in U.S court. The family claims the Assad government provided support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which was responsible for his murder .
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- Sotloff: "I am Steven Joel Sotloff. I'm sure you know exactly who I am by now and why I am appearing before you. And now this time for my message: Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives and interests, so why is it that I am paying the price of your interference with my life? Am I not an American citizen? You've spent billions of U.S. tax payers' dollars and we've lost thousands of our troops in our previous fighting against the Islamic State, so where is the people's interest in reigniting this war? From what little I know about foreign policy, I remember a time you could not win an election without promising to bring our troops back home from Iraq and Afghanistan and to close down Guantanamo. Here you are now, Obama, nearing the end of your term, and having achieving none of the above, and deceivingly marching us the American people in the blazing fire."
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- "Family of journalist Steven Sotloff sues Syria in US court over Isis beheading". The Guardian. April 20, 2016. Retrieved April 30, 2016.