Steven Sotloff: Journalist who was devoted to exposing the hardships endured by ordinary people in the Middle East conflict

 

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The Independent Online

Steven Sotloff had a gift for intimacy as he reported the chaos engulfing the Middle East, describing drinks in a small town's only bar, tea taken with Egyptian fighters and the red of a prayer mat in oil-lamp light while its owner, an Aleppo electrician, fought despair, with all power lines cut.

Like James Foley – the fellow US journalist with whom he was held captive by Islamic State, and who was murdered on or about 19 August – the shy, sweet, curious, imaginative boy whom schoolfriends remembered, and saw transformed in his last few years of life into a sturdy, flak-jacketed, black-helmeted reporter taking notes in the world's worst trouble spots, was determined to expose the hardships of ordinary people's daily lives amid conflict. Time magazine, the broadcasters CNN and Fox News, Christian Science Monitor, and the journals World Affairs and Foreign Policy, all used his work.

His appearances speaking to camera – horrifyingly echoed in his last, in the clutches of assassins apparently about to behead him – had the stamp of a showman, which acquaintances recalled from his teenage years, when he would perform freestyle raps at school talent shows. His relations with news contacts, too, had a tinge of drama: "After an hour of fruitless conversation... I rose, shook Ahmad's hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured," he wrote, reporting on affairs in Egypt as he headed to speak to the Muslim Brotherhood in Nasr City in 2013.

Yet a scholarly aspect pervaded his work. He wrote angrily about how coups were defined as revolutions, peaceful protesters painted as fanatics and disgruntled citizens tainted as revolutionaries. He also reported on a university talk given amid the chaos of Benghazi as the regime of Colonel Gaddafi crumbled in 2011.

Friends in his native Florida, and at his boarding school, Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire, called him "Sottie", and one reminisced: "Talking to Sottie was like playing a one-sided game of 20 questions. As soon as one question was answered, another would be right behind it."

He described himself as "a stand-up philosopher from Miami" and "a travelling man." His family background, as the grandson of Jews who were murdered in Hitler's Germany in the Second World War, contributed a seriousness to his desire to explore the Middle East, and to a developing love of the Islamic world.

 

His wish to get to know Arab countries – from Libya, where he lived for some time in Benghazi, to Bahrain, and Yemen, where he also lived and where he first learned the Arabic in which he would become fluent, may also have sprung from disillusionment with Israel, where he moved to stay in 2008.

All through his captivity, after being kidnapped with his local "fixer" on 4 August 2013 minutes after crossing the Syrian border from the Turkish town of Kilis, it seems he managed to keep from his guards the fact that he held Israeli citizenship as well as his American passport. A former fellow captive said Sotloff had even succeeded in fasting for the festival of Yom Kippur by feigning illness. It appears he had used to tell Arab contacts that he had been raised a Muslim, and that his real first name was Chechen.

Sotloff's editors, and fellow journalists he had met, described him as an experienced freelancer who took every precaution in the dangerous places he visited. He had travelled to Syria on assignment, and confided to one colleague days before his kidnap that he was sick of being beaten up, shot at, and accused of being a spy. He had been sprayed with pepper by Turkish police, and once in Syria the pinprick of light from his cigarette as he squatted in a bathroom, trying to recover from indigestion, had drawn fire through the window from a sniper, the bullet only just missing him.

Steven Joel Sotloff was born in Miami, the son of Arthur and Shirley Sotloff. His mother, a teacher, whose parents both died under Nazi persecution, appealed for his life in a video recording broadcast on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV, in which she accorded the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his self-appointed title of "caliph".

Sotloff grew up in the family home at Pinecrest, 12 miles from Miami, and attended the city's Temple Beth Am day school, for which he later came back to work. At Kimball he co-edited the school newspaper, The Kimball Union, and played in the school rugby team. He was a keen basketball player, also supporting his home team, Miami Heat. He went on to major in journalism at the University of Central Florida at Orlando, where he worked for the student paper, Central Florida Future. He left in 2004 without completing the course, eager to pursue his writing in the wider world.

He did further studies in Israel, graduating from the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, Tel Aviv. He is thought to have been intending, before he was seized, to return to the US to complete his university course there. In his last published piece he wrote of seeking the person he wished to interview: "I stumbled over sandals and the men sleeping next to them... But as I looked closer into a sea of Egyptians that Moses would have been hard pressed to part... one man's tresses... drew me in."

His parents and his sister Lauren survive him.

ANNE KELENY

Steven Joel Sotloff, journalist: born Miami 11 May 1983; died Iraq c. 2 September 2014.

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