Steven Sotloff and the Stories He Told

On the work of the American journalist murdered by ISIS
Reuters/Brian Snyder

"The civilians of Aleppo are trapped in a violent stalemate, left to endure a war whose suffering and hardships grow larger with every passing day. ... [P]eople in Aleppo fear they are stage players in a war with no end in sight."

So began Steven Sotloff's dispatch for Foreign Policy from the Syrian city of Aleppo on December 24, 2012. Nearly two years later, there is still no end to Syria's brutal war in sight. But now one of the few journalists telling the world about it has been murdered.

On Tuesday, two weeks after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheaded the American journalist James Foley, the SITE Intelligence Group reported that ISIS had carried through on its threat to do the same to Sotloff. The Sunni extremist group posted a video of the beheading online, claiming, as with Foley, that the murder was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. "The same masked fighter with British-accented English who appeared in the video of Mr. Foley's beheading also appears beside Mr. Sotloff, asserting, 'I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State,'" The New York Times reports.

Before his kidnapping in northern Syria in 2013, Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance journalist from Miami, had spent two years covering the Arab Spring and its chaotic aftermath. He'd risked his life to report from Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Turkey. His reporting vividly captures the Middle East's convulsions in recent years—the ecstasy of revolution, the tortuous paths of political transitions, the anguish of civil war.

In Libya, where he rode on ships with Libyan rebels and mingled with prisoners loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi, Sotloff wrote about the towering challenges that the country would face in the post-Qaddafi era—reflections that appear prescient given the chaos in Libya today. Here's a report Sotloff filed for Time in August 2011:

"What is a constitution?" Zubaida Ben Taher asked a group of curious Libyans gathered in a lecture hall at Benghazi's Garyounis University in early April. Though the writer's talk was ostensibly about the electoral process, he had to begin with the bare basics when addressing an audience that had almost no knowledge of what democracy entails. In early June another lecture on the same topic began with a discussion on various political systems such as democracies, communist regimes and Third World dictatorships. With no experience with elections, Libyans are compelled to begin their transition towards democracy by starting with its fundamentals.

During the coup against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sotloff, in an article for the World Affairs Journal, questioned the narratives that were dividing Egyptian society:

When I told my Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal that I wanted to go to the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Nasser City, a pallid look gripped him. “Don’t go there!” he pleaded. “They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger there.” After an hour of fruitless conversation over endless glasses of sweet tea, I rose, shook Ahmad’s hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.

But when I arrived at Nasser City, the picture Ahmad painted of long-bearded, club-wielding extremists bent on roughing up secular Egyptians was just as devoid of truth [as] so much else in this divided country. Coups depicted as revolutions, peaceful protesters painted as fanatics, and disgruntled citizens hailed as revolutionaries have transformed Egypt into a circus where the main attraction is the uncertainty of heading into the unknown.

He began many of his articles with personal anecdotes and sprinkled his reporting with mundane details like the precise price of bread, reminding readers that faceless forces like Syria's civil war and Egypt's military coup were fundamentally altering the lives of real people, in divergent but no less devastating ways. Here's another snippet of his report from Aleppo:

Muhammad Jadu wishes time could move backward. The electrician does not understand what the rebels are fighting for, nor does he care. He merely knows the war has dealt a death blow to his business; the city has not had electricity for several weeks. Today, Jadu spends his time at a friend's wheel and rim shop, drinking tea and smoking an endless string of cigarettes. "This war has made everything worse and nothing better," Jadu laments. "Why do we need it? We have enough problems in Syria."

In the poor neighborhood of Sukari, where buildings stack up on one another, Bakari Kajaji is performing his nightly prayers. The flickers of an oil lamp provide just enough light to illuminate his red prayer rug. Near the bed along the other side of the wall, auburn embers in a small barbecue grill supply a consistent stream of heat that keeps Kajaji and his wife from shivering. With no power and heat, the 58-year-old spends most of his day in the dark, mumbling to his wife about topics ranging from the wet staircase to his desire to buy a new transistor radio. Though he has not worked at his laundromat for two months -- one of his bosses was killed by shelling and the other fled to Egypt -- and his savings are almost exhausted, Kajaji is not complaining. "It is better to starve a thousand days with no electricity and heat than to endure one more day of Assad. We have everything we need."

News of Sotloff's killing comes less than a week after his mother, Shirley Sotloff, released a video appealing to his captors for mercy. "Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hand of tyrants," she said. "I want what every mother wants: to live to see her children's children. I plead with you to grant me this."

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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