A grisly recording of Islamic jihadists decapitating an American journalist that was posted on the Internet Tuesday revealed more than just the group’s pitiless, homicidal soul. It also uncorked one of the Middle East’s dirty little secrets: A Pinecrest 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 has spent years reporting from Middle Eastern hot spots for Time magazine and other news 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, 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. “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 that 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 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 the Islamic Nation. It’s a heinously evil terrorist group.”
The Sotloff family maintained a polite but firm silence Wednesday, refusing comment to a crowd of 20 or so journalists — some from as far away as New York — who staked out their Pinecrest home. When family friend Chris Castle emerged from the house in the early evening to buy groceries, he would say only, “Please pray, sign and share,” a reference to a Facebook petition for Steve Sotloff’s release.
In Washington, there was much more than praying. A glowering President Obama declared of the Islamic State: “No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and every single day.” As he spoke, U.S. aircraft carried out 14 strikes against Islamic State military positions in northern Iraq.
Sotloff, if he were free, would probably have been covering the airstrikes. 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 Benghazi, 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. But on her Twitter account, the rage she and many of her colleagues feel at the week’s events in Syria bubbled through.
“Steve 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 the Islamic State seizes territory for a fundamentalist Muslim nation. All of them 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 or so kidnapped. “We know of at least 20 reporters who are still being held by their kidnappers,” said CPJ’s Mansour. “Syria has been the most dangerous place in the world for journalists over the past two years.”
It’s a landscape remote not just geographically but culturally from those in which Sotloff grew up. He went to high school at Kimball Union Academy, a New Hampshire prep school where he played on the football and rugby teams, then attended Central Florida University for three years before dropping out short of a diploma to pursue a journalism career.
“We were just a bunch of bachelor guys, enjoying a bachelor life,” said Lotzia. “He got me to join the rugby team, and we played hours and hours of video-game football.”
(Sotloff’s fanaticism about sports would persist through the coming years. “Is it bad that I want to focus on Syria, but all I can think of is a Heat finals repeat?” he wrote last June as the NBA playoffs entered their final stretch. His final tweet, on Aug. 3, was about Heat personnel moves.)
But, Lotzia added, his roommate also had a serious side, putting in long hours at the school newspaper and talking about his ambition to report from the Middle East.
“I always wanted ESPN on the TV, and he always wanted the news networks,” Lotzia recalled. “And he usually won that battle.”
Lotzia said the past 48 hours have been a blood-curdling roller-coast ride for the Sotloff family.
“I talked to Steve’s dad Tuesday night,” he said. “He was in the best of spirits, then he was in the worst of spirits, he told me. ‘At last, I know my son is alive,’ he said. ‘But look at the situation....’ It’s killing him, and he’s trying his best to stay on an even keel.”