Beheaded US journalist Steven Sotloff fearless in his coverage of human side to Syria's conflict

Second US journalist beheaded by Islamic State fearless in covering human side to Syria conflict

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 10:57pm

Even for a freelance journalist covering the tumult in the Arab world, Steven Sotloff's travels seemed non-stop.

In October 2012, the American reporter was in Benghazi, Libya, covering the aftermath of the deadly raid on the US diplomatic compound. In December, he was in northern Syria, writing about the lives of destitute, displaced Syrians and the war.

"I've been here over a week and no one wants freelance because of the kidnappings. It's pretty bad here," he told a fellow journalist. "I've been sleeping at a front, hiding from tanks the past few nights, drinking rain water."

In August 2013, telling colleagues he understood the dangers, Sotloff returned to Syria, slipping across the border from Turkey. He was soon kidnapped and fell into the hands of Islamic State, the militant group that wants to establish a jihadist hub in the heart of the Arab world.

Islamic State said in a video released on Tuesday that it had beheaded Sotloff, 31, in retaliation for US air strikes, the second such killing of a US journalist in two weeks after the execution of James Foley. President Barack Obama said his country would not be "intimidated".

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that the masked, British-accented jihadi appeared to be the same person shown in the Foley footage. In the new video, the organisation also threatens to kill another hostage, this one identified as a British citizen, David Cawthorne Haines.

Colleagues and acquaintances recalled Sotloff as a generous man fascinated by journalism and the changes gripping the Middle East, and determined to tell stories from the perspective of average people, not army movements on the battlefield.

"He struck me as a very, very decent guy ... he wasn't chasing headlines, he wasn't hyping a pitch," said James Denton, publisher and editor of the Washington-based journal World Affairs, one of several publications that printed his work. Others included TIME and Foreign Policy.

The precise circumstances of Sotloff's abduction in the first week of August 2013 remain unclear, as does the identity of his original kidnappers.

One individual familiar with the case said the family's theory had been that Sotloff was grabbed by a criminal gang, and later transferred or sold to Islamic State. His family declined interview requests.

His mother, Shirley Sotloff, issued a direct video appeal last week to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State's leader, to spare her son. Her son, she said, was an "honourable man" who "always tried to help the weak".

Colleagues said Sotloff was well aware of the dangers of reporting from Syria but was determined to return there anyway.

Additional reporting by Associated Press