Warning with a brutal arrogance that “our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people,” the Islamic fundamentalist group holding Pinecrest journalist Steve Sotloff murdered him and posted a video of his decapitated body on the Internet on Tuesday.
U.S. government officials said they could not authenticate the video, which was retrieved by the SITE Intelligence Group, a Bethesda, Maryland-based organization that monitors the on-line activities of Muslim militants.
Sotloff’s family had no doubt it was genuine. “The family knows of this horrific tragedy and is grieving privately,” said spokesman Barak Barfi. “There will be no public comment from the family during this difficult time.”
The video was posted by the Islamic State, the homicidal militia trying to carve an independent Muslim state out of a large swath of Syrian and Iraqi territory. Last month, the group released a video of the decapitation of another abducted U.S. journalist, James Foley, followed by a threat that Sotloff was next.
The video posted Tuesday showed that the threat was anything but idle. Two minutes and 46 seconds long and highly produced — it includes multiple camera angles — the video includes a couple of seconds of footage of an Islamic State militant sawing on Sotloff’s throat with a knife, followed by a shot of his severed head resting atop his bloody torso.
The video begins with news footage of President Barack Obama pledging that “the United Sates of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people we act against [the Islamic State] standing alongside others.”
Then it switches to Sotloff, wearing an orange robe-like garment, kneeling in a windy desert as an all-black-clad Islamic State militant stands behind him with a knife. Sotloff, his face grim but his voice steady, makes a brief and obviously rehearsed statement addressed to 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?”
Then the British-accented Islamic State fighter — perhaps the same one who appeared in the video of Foley’s murder — proclaims: “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of you. Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.” He begins sawing on Sotloff’s throat with the knife, shown only for a couple of seconds. The next scene is the one of Sotloff’s body lying in the desert.
The video concludes with the militant threatening to kill yet another hostage, British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines, who was abducted in March 2013 near a refugee camp on the Turkish border with Syria.
Sotloff, a former University of Central Florida student who spent years reporting from Middle Eastern hot spots for Time magazine and other news media, was kidnapped with his driver in Syria near the Turkish border last August. Except for a single phone call to his parents in December, he wasn’t heard from again.
Late last month, after the Islamic State threatened to kill Sotloff, his mother Shirley, a Miami school teacher, released her own video, a plea directly to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group’s leader. “My son is in your hands,” she said. “As a mother I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over. I ask you to use your authority to spare his life.”
Scores of journalists gathered Tuesday afternoon around the Sotloff home in a gated Pinecrest neighborhood. The house remained quiet and shuttered, but the family’s grief reached out to clutch at the hearts of their neighbors. “They are family here,” said a stricken Robert Hersh, the executive director of Temple Beth Am, the Sotloff’s synagogue. “Our prayers are with the family.”
Jeffrey Solomon, a candidate for Pinecrest Village Council, had knocked on the door recently without knowing who lived there, seeking to put a campaign sign on the lawn. “That was a punch in the belly today when I heard the news,” he told a Miami Herald reporter.
Similar sentiments, running the gamut from melancholy to rage, rippled across the world Tuesday afternoon. “Steve was unfailingly helpful to me as a fellow journalist and generous with his time,” sadly recalled Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at New York’s Hudson Institute who met Sotloff when she was working as a reporter in Libya.
In Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott canceled a political rally and declared: “The people who did this are evil. They are not merely wrong, they are not adversaries, they are evil.” In London, Prime Minister David Cameron condemned what he saw in the video as “an absolutely disgusting and despicable act.”
The widespread revulsion triggered by the video raises the question of what the group hoped to accomplish by it — and not for the first time; the Islamic State has released numerous images of brutal mass executions of prisoners and Muslims from other sects that it considers heretics.
The answer, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which discovered the video, is to terrify the Islamic State’s enemies and inspire its allies.
“The brutality demonstrated in these videos says, ‘Don’t mess with us.’ Simple,” said Katz. “But beyond the surface level, there's an equally alarming element to this video: recruitment to jihad.”
Miami Herald staff writers Carol Rosenberg, Melhor Leonor and Alexi Cardona contributed to this report.