Steven Sotloff, the U.S. journalist beheaded by the Islamic State, held Israeli and U.S. citizenships and had strong connections to the country, an Israeli official and acquaintances said Wednesday.
Sotloff, 31, a Miami-area native, studied at an Israeli college, wrote for an Israeli news magazine and visited the country less than a month before he was abducted in Syria, the acquaintances said.
Sotloff’s execution also put pressure on President Obama to act more forcefully against the extremist Islamist group that has conquered a swath of Syria and Iraq. “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat,” Obama said during a visit to Estonia, using an abbreviation for the group.
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“We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists,” the president said, vowing to build a coalition to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. “And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”
Sotloff’s family broke a yearlong media blackout about his case two weeks ago after he appeared in an Internet video in which a black-clad, knife-wielding member of the extremist group marked him as the next hostage to die after U.S. journalist James Foley.
As long as there was a chance Sotloff was alive, there was fear that exposure of his Jewish roots and Israeli past could put him in further danger.
“Cleared for publication, Steven Sotloff was Israeli citizen RIP,” Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, tweeted Wednesday.
It was unknown whether his Islamic State captors were aware of his links to Israel or of his Jewish faith. His executioner made no mention of Israel or Sotloff’s religion during the video that showed Sotloff’s slaying, calling the killing retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. In the video, Sotloff referred to himself only as a U.S. citizen.
Studied in Israel
Word that he had studied in Israel at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college north of Tel Aviv, helped fill in gaps of what is known about the Miami-area native, who previously had been described as a one-time journalism student at the University of Central Florida who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines and other American publications.
The Interdisciplinary Center confirmed Wednesday that Sotloff had studied there from 2005 to 2008 and had completed an undergraduate program in government studies.
The news that Sotloff had connections to Israel dominated newscasts in the country and brought condolences from Israelis who knew him. “Steve was part of a group of young Jewish Americans who are enamored with Israel and enamored with the Arab world,” said Ehud Yaari, an Arab affairs commentator for Israeli Channel 2 who met Sotloff.
Jonathan Davis, vice president for external relations at the Interdisciplinary Center, recalled that he had interviewed Sotloff when he applied. Davis said he found Sotloff to be “a very inquisitive person and interested in everything that moves.” The government-studies program includes courses in counterterrorism, diplomacy, conflict resolution and international relations, Davis said.
Sotloff, who had played rugby during his university years in Florida, sought out a rugby squad in Israel and befriended Michael Sapir, a lawyer, who introduced him to his amateur team in Raanana, a town north of Tel Aviv. Sotloff trained with the team but was unable to play because of a back injury, though he continued to socialize regularly with the other players, Sapir said.
It was not clear when he obtained citizenship, but that is relatively easy under Israel’s Law of Return, which encourages Jews from around the world to immigrate.
After his studies in Israel, he traveled to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey and Syria for freelance work as the Arab Spring unfolded. For a while he was based in Yemen, where he studied Arabic, and traveled with a Yemeni cellphone.
He contributed 13 articles to Time between Aug. 9 and Nov. 26, 2012, according to a compilation of his work posted on the magazine’s website.
But his writing appeared more often in The Jerusalem Report, an English-language Israeli news magazine, to which he contributed about 20 articles under his name from 2010 through 2013, according to Avi Hoffman, the publication’s managing editor.
With Israeli reporters having only limited access to the Arab world, Sotloff’s offerings were a valued resource for the magazine. “Basically he was our premier Middle East correspondent out there,” Hoffman said. “He was very reliable, very daring. He was a guy who went out to speak to people in the trouble spots. He didn’t sit around a bar and talk to other journalists.”
Sotloff’s last article for the magazine, on the protest movement that led to the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, was a cover story that ran in August 2013, just as he disappeared.
Hoffman said he was unaware until last month that Sotloff had been abducted.
Fast on Yom Kippur
Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and his mother was a preschool teacher at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Fla., a Reform synagogue where Sotloff attended day school.
The popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted an unnamed hostage who had been held with Sotloff but was released as saying that Sotloff had hidden his Judaism from his captors but had managed to fast on Yom Kippur, telling them he was not feeling well and did not feel like eating.
Outside Sotloff’s parents’ home in Pinecrest, family friend Barak Barfi read a statement late Wednesday that said Sotloff was torn between living a normal American life watching “South Park,” playing golf and eating junk food and going to the Middle East’s trouble spots as a journalist.
“He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern- day Lawrence of Arabia,” Barfi said. “He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none. From the Libyan doctor in Misrata who struggled to provide psychological services to children ravaged by war, to the Syrian plumber who risked his life by crossing regime lines to purchase medicine, their story was Steve’s story. He ultimately sacrificed his life to bring their story to the world.”
Sapir said that he last saw Sotloff when he visited Israel in July 2013 and the two spent a day watching rugby matches in the Maccabiah Games, a gathering of Jewish athletes from around the world. Sapir said he was gripped by Sotloff’s accounts of the turmoil he had seen across the region, and his friend seemed driven by a desire to be a witness to history.
About two weeks after the trip to Israel, Sotloff disappeared in Syria.
Oren Kessler, a former Arab affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, cooperated with Sotloff during a two-year email correspondence after receiving a Facebook message from him sent from Libya in 2011.
In a tribute to his slain colleague published by Politico Magazine, Kessler recalled their relationship, citing messages they exchanged.
He wrote that when he once asked Sotloff what a journalist with an obviously Jewish name was doing in places like Libya and Yemen, his colleague replied: “I don’t really share my values and opinions. I try to stay alive.”
Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times is included in this report.