MIAMI – A grisly recording of Islamic jihadists decapitating an American journalist revealed more than just the group’s pitiless, homicidal soul. It also uncorked one of the Middle East’s dirty little secrets: that a Florida man has been held hostage in Syria for a year by militants who now threaten to kill him.
Thirty-one-year-old Steven Joel Sotloff, a former University of Central Florida student who spent years reporting from the Middle East for Time magazine and other media, was kidnapped in Syria near the Turkish border last August.
Except for a single phone call to his parents in December, he hadn’t been seen or heard from again until he appeared in the video purportedly posted by the militant Islamic group that calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), shortly after the scenes of the decapitation of another American journalist, 40-year-old James Foley of New Hampshire.
Sotloff was shown atop a sand dune, his head shaved, his arms bound behind his back and his expression grim as an Arabic caption flashed across the screen: “The life of Steven Joel Sotloff depends on Obama’s next move.”
“It was Steve, 100 percent, the guy I roomed with at the University of Central Florida for three years,” said Emerson Lotzia, a sports anchorman and reporter for the Fox and NBC television affiliates in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I wish I could believe it wasn’t.”
Lotzia was horrified by the video, but not entirely surprised. He was part of a small circle of family friends, government officials and journalist rights’ advocates who were aware of the kidnapping. At the behest of Sotloff’s parents, there was no public disclosure of the abduction.
“There was a blackout on his case enforced by his parents, a very effective one, and we honored it,” said Sherif Mansour, a program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ headquarters in New York.
Most members of the South Florida congressional delegation knew of the kidnapping as well, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and were trying to aid State Department efforts to free Sotloff and other American hostages.
“We did what we could, but to be honest, we had very limited ability,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s not like we have a diplomatic channel to [ISIL]. It’s a heinously evil terrorist group.”
The Sotloff family maintained a polite but firm silence, refusing comment to a crowd of journalists who staked out their Pinecrest, Fla., home. When family friend Chris Castle emerged from the house to buy groceries, he would say only, “Please pray, sign and share,” a reference to a Facebook petition for Steve Sotloff’s release.
Colleagues called him astute, insightful and fearless, a journalist fluent in Arabic who did not shrink even from bloody, lawless landscapes like the one in Libya, from which he reported regularly. But neither was he a cowboy.
“He struck me as thoughtful and mature, no war junkie,” said Anne Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who met Sotloff when she was working as a reporter in Libya. He was “committed to the Arab Spring and very respectful of Islamic culture,” she added.
Like most journalists who worked with Sotloff, Marlowe chose her words carefully Wednesday, mindful that his life may be dangling by a thread.
On her Twitter account, the rage she and many of her colleagues feel at the week’s events in Syria came through. Sotloff “lived in Yemen for years, spoke good Arabic, deeply loved Islamic world. … For this he is threatened with beheading,” she wrote.
Sotloff and his doomed video companion Foley were hardly the first reporters to run afoul of the confusing and deadly political landscape in Syria, where the tyrannical dictatorship of Bashar Assad is fighting a civil war against an equally ruthless coalition of Islamic opposition groups, while ISIL seizes territory for a fundamentalist Muslim nation. They regard journalists as potential targets rather than neutral observers.
At least 70 journalists have been killed in Syria over the past two years, and another 80 were kidnapped.