On July 15, 2013, Steven Sotloff arrived in Israel, a place he once called home. He planned on spending a week there, beginning with the wedding of his former roommate Benny Scholder, before heading off to report from Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and wherever else his vagabond reporting career might take him in the region.
It was familiar territory. In just under three years—from September 2010 to August 2013—Sotloff had published over 30 articles in 12 different publications while reporting from eight Middle Eastern countries. As a frontline freelancer, Sotloff often managed to be in the right place at the right time. He found and highlighted voices of marginalized people, and his writing rarely shied away from explaining deep-rooted and often ancient conflict. He witnessed violence and life under long-standing despotic regimes. He witnessed uprisings and civil revolutions, war and death. He was attacked and jailed. He found hope and he lost hope. He was often broke.
On the night he arrived in Israel, Sotloff crashed at the place of a woman he had connected with on CouchSurfing.com, a website that links travelers in need of shelter with those who want to share theirs for free. The next night, Sotloff went out for Scholder’s bachelor party. He ended up back at Scholder’s apartment, smoked a joint on his couch, and crashed.
The next day, Scholder, hours from being a married man, drove Sotloff from Gedera to Tel-Aviv, a 40-minute trip north. In Tel-Aviv, Sotloff went to the Renaissance Hotel and waited in the lobby for Cloe Larroche, his roommate while he was a student at the IDC Herzliya, in 2006-2007. Larroche, a flight attendant who lives in Canada, had also come in for Scholder’s wedding. The last time they had seen one another was in Miami a few months prior, in May. “The vibe between us was like brother and sister,” said Larroche. “We were so close.”
At the wedding, Sotloff drank hard, ate well, and danced with abandon. As he boogied, Larroche unbuttoned his shirt for fun, hoping that he wouldn’t notice. He did but he just rolled with it. “Classic Steve,” said Scholder. “He was laughing and partying and taking down tons of shots and being big and jolly, for the most part.”
At one point, Sotloff lifted up the groom and raised him on his shoulders with the help of a few others. “It’s not so simple for [my wife and me] to go over our wedding album,” Scholder said. “Literally, on every page there’s a picture of Steve.”
Afterward, Sotloff, Larroche, and two other friends went to a bar called Sex Boutique on Dizengoff Street, 10 minutes from the Renaissance Hotel. “I had this feeling in my heart, I was like, I want to make sure that we have a really, really good time cause I don’t know the next time I’m going to see him,” Larroche said. “I consciously thought, this might be the last time I ever see him, considering where he was working at the time. I danced with him a lot and we had a really good time.”
At around 5 a.m., Sotloff and Larroche went back to the Renaissance. Sotloff called room service to bring up more blankets, tipped them a few shekels, and prepped his bed on the floor. “He told me he was sick of his job, he was sick of being beaten up, and he was sick of everything—just the craziness of it all,” said Larroche. “He wanted to get a job back in North America that would bring him more stability. But he had another thing that he wanted to do. He needed to be there one more time or something.”
Sotloff told Larroche that he had written a will because he never knew what the next day would bring in his line of work. He told Larroche that she had been included in the will—as the heir to all his rolls of toilet paper. In the morning, Larroche kicked him out. She had to work a flight that night and wanted to sleep.
A few days later, Sotloff and his friend Michael Sapir went to the Wingate Institute in Netanya to watch an entire day of rugby as part of the Maccabiah Games. Then it was back to reporting. On July 23, Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haidar Shaye was released after spending three years in jail for reporting in 2010 about evidence of U.S. weaponry at an al-Qaida locale in southern Yemen that supposedly had been attacked by the Yemeni government. “Best news Ive (sic) heard in a long time,” Sotloff wrote on The Vulture Club, a private, invite-only Facebook forum where war reporters, photojournalists, and humanitarian workers share information.
On July 26, a member of The Vulture Club reported the assassinations of three politicians in Benghazi to the group; followed by a comment in which another member wrote, “And Two (sic) in Tripoli.”
One of them was Abdulsalam Al-Mesmari, a lawyer and activist who was an early and influential organizer of the uprisings against Qaddafi’s government in 2011. Two days prior to his assassination, Al-Mesmari went on Libyan television to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood—and Qatar’s support of the organization—for being largely responsible for Libya’s disorder. Al-Mesmari, who had two daughters, was shot as he left Friday prayers.
“Mesmari the lawyer from Etilaf? How?” Sotloff responded. “Abdussalam Elmessmary heavily influenced my belief early on that Libya was a country full of hope and progress,” Sotloff wrote on July 27. “He fell victim To (sic) that delusion yesterday.” A picture of Al-Mesmari, standing with his daughters who hold the Libyan flag, remains the only image visible on Sotloff’s Facebook page other than his own profile portrait.
By July 31 Sotloff had made his way to Antakya, Turkey, where riot police pepper sprayed him in the face and threw him to the ground. A plain-clothes cop detained Sotloff for trying to take pictures of the scene. His camera was confiscated and later returned to him with a wiped memory. The next day, he checked into Room 303 at the Hotel Istanbul in Kilis, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border. He was planning to cross into Syria the next day.
That night, Sotloff and Ben Taub, a photojournalist and writer who was staying in Room 507, shared a beer in Sotloff’s room, and then they headed out to a bar around 10 p.m. At the bar, Sotloff told a story about a near-death experience he’d had the last time he was in Syria. One rainy day, Sotloff had to use the bathroom as he was suffering from indigestion. He sat on the john, lit a cigarette, and a government sniper shot at him and missed. The wall exploded in his face.
“He loved telling the toilet story,” said Scholder. “Nobody else would get shot at while taking a dump, but Steve would. ‘I almost died but you can laugh because I couldn’t finish wiping my ass.’ ”
At the bar, Sotloff and Taub each drank Efes, a Turkish beer, which cost about 5 Turkish Lira, or about $2 each. They each had two and when it was time to pay the tab, Sotloff told Taub that he had left his money in his hotel room. Taub covered the tab for Sotloff, who was on his way to Syria.
“Don’t worry,” Sotloff said. “I got you on the way back.”
As a freelance reporter, Sotloff was living a long-held dream, thanks to the topsy-turvy journalistic structures of the Internet age, in which seasoned reporters with years of experience and local contacts, drivers, and expense accounts had either gone down with the sinking ships of “old media” or been thrown overboard in waves of cost-cutting by their desperate employers. In their place was a new generation of stringers, armed with cellphones and laptops, who worked without health benefits, and often without much experience or knowledge of the societies they were reporting on. And the Arab Spring made the Middle East a particularly ripe environment for freelance journalists—experienced and not—who were willing to report from the front lines of war and revolution.
‘I love doing what I’m doing. I wish it was more secure financially, and I wish it was safer. But I’m still drawn to it.’
Freelancers embedded themselves with rebel factions and interacted with protesters demanding change from oppressive regimes. And many publishers were happy to have their scoops. “The days of TV stations and newspapers fielding a globe-spanning staff of full-time correspondents are over as media organizations are cutting back and increasingly relying on freelancers,” wrote Sarah A. Topol in a prescient report for Newsweek about independent journalists who had risked their lives covering the Arab Spring. “The back-to-back uprisings of the Arab Spring have only exacerbated this trend, breaking news budgets and giving more opportunities to independent journalists. But these young reporters are often venturing into danger without the training and equipment afforded full-time staffers, such as helmets, flak jackets, satellite phones, first-aid kits, or even health insurance.” For every foreign bureau that closed, there were a hundred stringers willing to put themselves in dangerous situations for a few hundred dollars, a byline in a once-prestigious typeface, and most of all, the chance to be a reporter.
Sotloff quickly got hooked. He ventured to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, and finally to Syria. He witnessed uprisings against despotic regimes. He witnessed civil wars and revolutions. He lost friends and colleagues. He saw death, and then death came to him—in a way both stunningly unimaginable and tragically predictable.
On the September afternoon after Steven Sotloff’s memorial service was held, friends and family gathered inside his family’s home in Pinecrest, Florida, a suburb of Miami, about a 10-minute drive from the temple. Sotloff’s younger sister Lauren was there with her boyfriend and surrounded by friends. Sotloff’s cousin Emily Weiss came as well. Earlier, Weiss told the congregation that her grandmother once remarked that she had the same spirit as Steven. “I promise to live my life not in fear but to the fullest, just like you wished for,” she told the crowd.
Larroche, Joey Sadon, and Loren Baum had flown in to represent Sotloff’s college friends in Israel. Sotloff’s mother Shirley told Larroche that she really appreciated them being there. Those who remained in Israel, including Scholder, were Skyped in later to speak with Sotloff’s parents. Also there was Barak Barfi, Sotloff’s longtime friend and reporting partner, who was acting as the Sotloff family spokesman and handling all media inquiries.
During the shiva, people ate and drank and reminisced about their shared and weighty loss. “The way it seemed to me was that it was difficult for people to get out of the habit of enjoying each other’s company,” said Baum. “It was deeply intense and it was deeply sad, but in was also in a strange way kind of a party. Like how Steve would have wanted.”
Larroche gave a speech. She recalled their days living together. She remembered Sotloff as a tough yet loving man; a family man and a great friend. She talked about his laughter. “I never met a person who disliked you,” she said. “I am sorry that all efforts failed. The hatred of your captors is beyond all reason. I miss you, man.” A small group gathered in the backyard by the pool to toke up, in tacit homage.
President Barack Obama wanted to call the Sotloffs during the shiva as well. Israeli businessman Moti Kahana, who attended the ceremony, remembered, “I’m at the house and Barak said, ‘President Obama called’—his people. They said, ‘We’re going to call in a few minutes and the president wants to say to the whole family, I’m sorry, blah blah blah. And Barak said, ‘No. We’re not going to take that phone call.’ I thought, Tell him to call. But he told the family we’re not going to take the phone call, just to show Barak was not going to take President Obama’s phone call. That’s Barak. The governor (Rick Scott) called, Barak was kissing his ass cause he’s Republican.” Barfi denies this. But Sotloff’s father Arthur told me forcefully that by then it was his feeling that the Obama Administration should have no say since it had offered little in the way of rescuing his son.
That day, Sept. 3, 2014, Barfi, acting as the Sotloffs’ spokesperson, gave a speech in front of their Pinecrest home. “Steve was no hero,” he said. “Here was a mere man who tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness. He indulged in South Park but was just as serious about filing a 3 a.m. story. He had a fondness for junk food he could not overcome.” Barfi continued:
Today we grieve, this week we mourn. But we will emerge from this ordeal. Our village is strong. We will not allow our enemies to hold us hostage with the sole weapons they possess: fear. Our prayers go out to the family of Jim Foley.
For me personally, I failed you, boy scout. I left you in the field to suffer your fate. I will carry this burden until I meet you. But I will never forget your kindness. Watch over me.
We ask the media to respect our wish for privacy as we mourn Steve’s passing. I have a few words in Arabic for the Arabic media.
As Barfi spoke fluent Arabic in the background, the video footage moves on to a shell-shocked Arthur Sotloff, flanked by Kahana who puts his hand on the elder Sotloff’s shoulder. A photographer approached them and Mr. Sotloff snapped back to life to hold up a photo of him and his son at a Dolphins game. The photographer took a photo of the photo. Next to Arthur, another mourner held up a picture of Dan Marino in action.
“This is my son,” Arthur Sotloff said.
“How will you remember him?” a female journalist asked.
Arthur Sotloff appears to shake his head, then pulls the picture down and clasps his hands together over his waist. He holds the picture back up, and the media snap away again, and ask for comment. “Everything that was said was said,” he replied. After hugging someone, he walked away.
Barfi went on. “I have a message to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,” he said. “You said Ramadan is a month of mercy but where is your mercy? You speak of Islam and the Holy Quran but I know the Quranic verses. … I am ready to debate you. I come in peace, I don’t have a sword in my hand, I am ready for your answer.”
Larroche later said that Barfi’s speech in Arabic was in poor taste. “Some family members of Steve’s really, really hated that he did that,” she said. “They thought it was extremely disrespectful. I kind of share that opinion as well. Because he said Steve died as a martyr. We’re sitting shiva right now. It’s inappropriate.”
“Barak didn’t fit in,” said Baum of Barfi at the shiva. “He’s a little bit of a—I don’t know him outside of this terrible occurrence—he seemed to be feeling a lot of depth of emotion and that had kind of maybe narrowed his view. I think that he was devastated and taking everything very personally, but it may have been the case that in addition to mourning Steve he was mourning his own failure, his own lack of success in this endeavor.”
“This is very difficult territory,” continued Baum. “It doesn’t matter who was right and wrong, because the outcome was the same.”
In early November, I visited Meriden, New Hampshire. Winter had all but set in. Morning frost coated everything in a dusty white patina—tree farms and horse stables, mobile homes and sheet-metal fabricators. It was peaceful there, and the air was clean.
Meriden is home to Kimball Union Academy, a 200-year-old private boarding school where parents send their kids for “formation.” At KUA, where the campus features a building dating to George Washington’s presidency, students enter into a supportive and wide-ranging educational system based on Character, Curriculum, and Community, the slogan printed on its brochure. They can raise pigs, learn in a hydroponic greenhouse, play rugby, rehearse for a production of Cabaret, or practice Mandarin. The student body is just 350—22 percent is international—and the average class size is 11. One year of tuition for boarders costs nearly $50,000, a sum akin to the tuition of nearby Dartmouth College. It was here that Steven Sotloff finally became comfortable in his own skin.
On April 21, 1999, the Kimball Union admissions department received an application signed by Steve Sotloff, who whisked the cursive ends of each name back to cross the t’s. “My life has been similar to a rollercoaster,” Sotloff began in his application essay. In the first grade, Sotloff attended school in his hometown of Pinecrest, Florida, at Temple Beth Am, where his mother has been a pre-school teacher for over 25 years.
Shirley Sotloff, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in Miami Beach, Florida. After high school she attended Miami Dade Junior College, before deciding that it wasn’t for her. She found work with a real-estate attorney, for whom she worked for 10 years, until her son Steven was born. “When I was about to enter grade school, she decided to become a teacher,” wrote a 15-year-old Sotloff in April 1999. “She thought working school hours was the ideal situation for my sister and myself.”
Sotloff’s friends, particularly from the IDC Herzliya, were all quick to point out how close he and his father Art were. “My dad was never a real hardworking guy until after he joined the navy,” Sotloff wrote in the same application essay. “He didn’t do very well in school. He fooled around too much. He worked at many different drug stores and bussed dishes and cleaned tables for many diners. Fearing the Vietnam draft would call upon him, he joined the Navy. After that he worked at different jobs before a friend offered him a job at a small business in Miami. My father happily took advantage of the offer. He worked hard and his efforts paid off. My dad, a man of little college education became one of the best known, respected businessmen in South Florida in his field.” About his son, Arthur Sotloff once said: “We thought alike, we spoke alike, we look alike. We were like one person.”
The younger Sotloff, though, never liked school. “After first grade, I had problems getting along with other kids,” Steven wrote, in his KUA application. “Schools were skeptical when it came to keeping me and giving me another chance or asking me to leave their school. I didn’t know what I could do to change.”
By the fifth grade Sotloff was rooming at Forest Heights Lodge in Evergreen, Colorado, a therapeutic treatment center and school for “behaviorally and emotionally dysregulated boys between five and fourteen years old.” In order to restore “maximally adaptive social and emotional functioning,” Forest Heights Lodge students are required to live there through the summer, as well.
At Forest Heights Lodge, Sotloff worked with Ray Curtis, the director of social services who was focused on an attachment-oriented method of treatment. “Our program is really just common sense,” Curtis said in 1992, three years before Sotloff arrived. “Kids need to be touched, kids need to be hugged, kids needs to be nurtured. They need to feel loved and feel worthwhile.” Staff members at Forest Heights Lodge, the article states, “become these children’s surrogate parents.” “I was at the peak of my troubles,” Sotloff would later write of his time there. “Ray Curtis, the nicest and most trustful man I ever met, helped me get through all of it.”
Rabbi Terry Bookman, the longtime rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, who also sent one of his own children to boarding school, said that Sotloff was a “rambunctious” kid. “He didn’t always color between the lines,” he said. “I would say boarding school saved my [own] son’s life. Some kids needs that extra structure and it worked for [Steven].”
For the eighth grade, Sotloff enrolled at Rumsey Hall School, a junior co-ed boarding school in Washington Depot, Connecticut. He was active and calculated that he spent 40 hours a week playing football, baseball, “b-ball,” and skiing. “I like history,” he wrote, “because it allows me to learn about my past. I like science because it teaches me about my surroundings. I like English because I love literature.” Former Rumsey Hall teacher Jeffrey Magnoli, the son of the school’s headmaster, remembers Sotloff as a well-behaved bundle of energy. “[He was] the glue that held the student body together,” he said.
In the spring of 1999, his final year at Rumsey Hall, Sotloff applied to Kimball Union Academy, where one of his friends was already enrolled. “Due to a few setbacks,” he wrote, with the spelling mistakes of a youth, “I am applying later then most of the other kids. I have raised my grades greatly in the past month and it doesn’t seem to be short-lived. I hope to continue to improve my grades by continuing to put more and more effort into my work. … Kimball Union offers me the resources I need to do so.” At the end of the application, Sotloff attached a photograph of himself. He appears to be seated outdoors with his hands resting together between his legs, and he’s slouching a bit. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a loose white T-shirt with a V-neck sweater vest over it, and a Yankees cap. The brim is curved perfectly—a point of concern for teenage boys—and it doesn’t quite touch the temples of his oval-shaped glasses. He looks handsome and peers straight-faced into the camera.
Kimball Union accepted Sotloff, who at the age of 16 was on his third boarding school in less than two and a half years. “I think in Steven’s case he was pretty much an unmade bed,” Mike Schafer, the current head of school, told me. But Sotloff would soon attach to the place; an attachment that lasted well into his adulthood. When Sotloff later heard of plans to cut funding for the football team at his alma mater, he made his disapproval known in a letter to Schafer. “Mr. Schafer,” the email read. “Unless you have a physical substitute for football and this type of challenge, this is a horrible decision. If it weren’t for Kimball Union and football, I would not have the skills or the commitment to do this work, and if it weren’t for the pressure of football and the demands placed on me by my coaches, I would not be able to handle what I am managing to handle here,” reporting in the Middle East.
In a subsequent correspondence with Schafer, Sotloff wrote, “KUA will always hold a place in my heart. Perhaps because I’ve always held out some hope that I would return as a teacher and coach football, or perhaps because I thought my son would one day play for that team, I let my emotions get the best of me.” He then continued, using the moniker for KUA, “I’m in Libya now (covering the Arab revolutions for TIME Magazine, among others thanks in large part to the excellent education I received on the Hilltop).”
In the late summer edition of Kimball Union Magazine, Sotloff reported about himself: “I, STEVEN SOTLOFF, have been in Libya.” He was terse perhaps because he knew that his school was dedicating an entire sidebar to updating alumni about his burgeoning career:
Steven Sotloff’s ’02’s business card says it all: TIME, Steven Sotloff, Libya Correspondent.
Few of his classmates might have guessed that Steven, in the space of just a few years, would be writing regular reports from Sitre in the Libyan desert and Tahrir Square in Cairo. … His travels have taken him from the West Bank to Tunisia and back and all of the countries in between. Steven recently returned to The Hilltop to talk to students during the biennial Global Fair in April 2012. He mesmerized students with unvarnished reports of what is happening half a world away.
The magazine included a picture Sotloff had sent in. In the picture, he grips the handles of a massive machine gun that’s mounted to what appears to be the bed of a truck. He’s wearing pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a beard, sunglasses, and a keffiyeh to fight the desert sun.
A year later, Sotloff was captured in Syria. A year after that, he was publicly murdered as a geopolitical prop.
Outside Schafer’s office stands the Meriden Congressional Church, erected in 1898. A rainbow sign affixed to its stone sidings reads God is still speaking. In the fall of 1999, around the time the Sega Dreamcast was released, Sotloff arrived as a sophomore on “the Hilltop,” the centerpiece of KUA’s gorgeous 1,300-acre campus. He checked into Bryant Hall dormitory, a 100-year-old colonial-style building that sleeps 32 and features “a portico with a Palladian window and a lunette window on the upper stories.”
When students arrive at KUA they’re each assigned a faculty adviser who serves as personal mentor during the school year. Faculty advisers support students in a number of ways, by providing academic and social guidance. As a freshman Sotloff’s faculty adviser was Gino Riffle, who was in his twenties when the two were paired. Riffle also took on the role of dorm parent, football coach, and math teacher to Sotloff and was responsible for communicating with Steven’s parents, Art and Shirley, to share concerns with them that he might have, and vice versa. “They were definitely involved with Steven’s life,” Riffle said. “But I do think that part of the reason they sent him to an independent school was to get a different type of education where it wasn’t their direct involvement overseeing his education. There was some tension there in the sense that there’s tension between a lot of 15-year-olds and their parents. [Steven] didn’t love school.”
Riffle said that Steven needed to learn how to keep his personality in check. “I enjoyed making ‘scenes’ in department stores,” Sotloff wrote in his application to KUA. “I also acted out in school as well as at home. I guess I didn’t know whether it was because I couldn’t control it or wanted attention. I think it was a mixture of both.”
In an essay that Sotloff wrote while a student in Israel, he noted that he had “documented ADD,” and that he was deaf in his right ear, conceivably both causes of his behavioral issues. “He had outbursts,” Riffle said. “He had his moments where you definitely knew he was upset with you or something going on his life. He definitely shared that—a lot. He’d be mad. He’d be vocal. He’d be argumentative. He wasn’t violent in any way. But if he felt he was right he was definitely going to let whomever it was telling him he wasn’t right, know.”
Every fifth weekend, Riffle would invite kids to watch football in his apartment, which was attached to Sotloff’s dorm. To prepare for the ravenous pubescent crowd, Riffle stocked up on chips and cheese and salsa to make nachos. Sotloff would show up wearing slippers, a Miami Dolphins jersey, and Zubaz pants like those worn by Dolphins QB Dan Marino. “He could devour three plates of those nachos in 20 seconds,” Riffle said. “That boy could eat.” Because Sotloff’s home was far away in Miami, he stuck around on weekends. As a result, Sotloff was amped when Dolphins games were broadcast, and if they played poorly, he would let everybody—Riffle, the other kids, the television—know what he’d do differently. These are the moments that Riffle, who is no longer at KUA, said he learned to recognize Sotloff’s way with words. “When the Miami Dolphins lost, he went into his rants about different players, the coaches, the owners, the general manager about how he could do a better job. His language was very colorful.”
Over time, conversations between them grew from discussing football to talking about Sotloff’s emotional states. “With Steven it was constant conversations about giving him different approaches to tough times in his life, or when he felt he was wronged or being singled out for something, and giving him different strategies to work through those,” Riffle remembered. “It was a long road.”
In the fall, Sotloff played football and was coached by Riffle and Brian McMahon, a science teacher, who also coached rugby. McMahon, or “Coach Mac,” grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, and spoke in a thick South Shore accent, which he said had mutated because of his extensive travels, including to England, Egypt, and Turkey in the late 1990s, when the PKK was a force. At the beginning of every football season, McMahon would make the players pick a rock from an old wall in a field, which would be with them the entire season. He’d require them to run from spot to spot carrying their rocks, benching their rocks, squatting their rocks. McMahon recalls that people would look at them and wonder—What the hell are they doing?—to which Sotloff would reply, he said, “Yeah, this is bizarre, but we’re doing it for a reason! This is how we work out! We need our rocks!” One stormy night, in the final game of the season, the KUA football team played at archrival Vermont Academy, a team they hadn’t beaten in nearly a decade. “You couldn’t see anything,” said McMahon. But KUA was victorious. “I remember seeing the look on [Steve’s] face, that this is just the greatest day.”
Sotloff’s ultimate athletics passion was rugby. “He just fell in love with it,” said McMahon. As a “rugger” during his junior and senior years, Sotloff played prop, an unheralded position on the front line, involved in driving rucks and mauls. McMahon says that he was the perfect shape for the grueling position. “He was such an anchor,” McMahon said. “He was aware of the mechanics of the game. For a kid that never played the game—it’s a hard sport to master in basically one spring.”
During Sotloff’s senior year, the KUA rugby squad played in the New England Championships versus a program from Portland, Maine, that had “like 50 million kids on their side,” said McMahon. “They’re usually untouchable and we beat them and their coach was so angry and it made our kids so happy and Steve was happy.”
As a senior, Sotloff roomed in Dexter Richards Hall, or “the DR.” Tom Kardel, Sotloff’s Spanish teacher and dorm parent in DR, recalled Steven arriving at KUA as a sophomore boy “like any other.” In 1999, Kardel and David Weidman, his partner and now the school’s academic dean, were made heads of the DR, a 52-bed dorm that Kardel said had a reputation not unlike that of Animal House. At the time, the DR boys were required to check in with the on-duty dorm parents at 7:30 or 8 p.m. to say where they were going for study hour. Steven, as a senior, would have had “campus privilege” and could have gone anywhere he wanted, such as the library or a classroom—as long as he was back by 10 p.m. By 11 o’clock it was lights out. Kardel and Weidman, along with a handful of other dorm parents, took turns making sure the boys were checking in when they had to and not staying up all night. Virtually every night, between study hour and lights out, Kardel and Weidman would open their huge two-floor, three-bedroom duplex, light up the fireplace in the living room, and let the boys hang out. Some students would check in, grab a snack, and be on their way again. Sotloff would show up in his Miami Dolphins pajamas to hang out with the other kids, watch episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and play the card game Mao. “You’re supposed to start out by saying, ‘This is like life—there’s a lot of rules and no one will explain them to you, you just have to figure them out as you go along,’” said Kardel, explaining the game. “Nobody could explain to you, nor could you talk about what the rules were, you had to figure them out as you went along.”
When news of Sotloff’s capture broke, Kardel said that many of his former students began sharing old stories with him on Facebook that he didn’t remember, including a time when he threw Sotloff out of class. “I’m sure that happened,” said Kardel. “I threw him out of class for not having his socks on or for having mismatched socks. Did I throw his bag out the window because he wasn’t paying attention in class? Sure. But I did that to other students too. Anything to get their attention.” Sotloff also took Kardel’s Honors English class. “I think that he was much more intelligent than he let on when he first arrived,” said Kardel. “I think as he got older here he was much more comfortable being smart, or being OK with being smart in a classroom.”
Sotloff was voted as having the “Best Laugh” in his senior yearbook. KUA classmate Tad Dinsmore said that Sotloff’s laughter was so memorable that he would get these images of his friend detained in an orange jumpsuit, “laughing like he would.” (Dinsmore described it as a really addicting, high-pitched cackle.) One of Sotloff’s high-school nicknames was “Sotty,” which stuck. Another, less charitable, was “Slobloff,” or “Slobby Steve.” “He would kind of put whatever he could find on his plate and eat it all down,” recalled another classmate, Stefan Christopher. “At times it was a little bit repulsive. He was just a little bit of a slob all the time.”
Sotloff’s parents would send him packages during the Jewish high holidays, including matzah and other kosher foods. “I remember, he taught me how to say Manischewitz,” said Christopher. “That’s how I kind of learned about Jewish culture.”
Schafer, who is Jewish, said that the move to the KUA, where he estimates 15 current students and three faculty members are Jewish, may have influenced Sotloff to consider his Jewish identity in a new light. Sotloff also loved rap. In his yearbook, he quoted DMX’s lyrical philosophy of love; Mobb Deep on being comfortable in one’s own skin, and on togetherness; and KRS-ONE on being the best and then some. In fact, at the senior show, around graduation—with the entire KUA community present, including family and friends—Sotloff rapped to Tupac’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” while his friend Haruki Fukuhara, a Japanese student who was voted “Most Free Spirited,” break-danced beside him. In the song, Tupac and Snoop Dogg harmonize during the chorus: “It ain’t nuthin’ but a gangsta party.” Sotloff changed the lyrics to, “It ain’t nuthin’ but a KUA party.”
“It was awful,” said Weidman, the former dean. “He’s a high school Jewish boy from Miami trying to be all black.”
“It was terrible, wasn’t it?” said Sandy Ouellette, a longtime nurse at KUA. “That’s all I remember about it.”
“What I remember is he always had his arms around everybody, he was always like draped on people,” said Weidman. “He had all different types of friends. It’s a rare person that does that.”
Classmate Brian Vaughn recalled that on Sept. 11, 2001, Sotloff, then in his senior year, was “the one that came running out of the student center and informed all of us what was happening. And then we spent the next six hours watching the event.” Dinsmore recalled that Sept. 11 had a profound effect on Sotloff, who said then that the day was going to change the world. (“I remember thinking about that when Steve was being held by ISIS,” Dinsmore told me.)
That year, Sotloff re-started the school’s defunct paper, The Kimball Union, and served as co-editor. Sotloff won an intramural journalism award for his work. “He took the reins,” recalled Riffle, a mentor for Sotloff at the paper. “That was the passion that all of the sudden started to give him confidence and started to make him realize that he could make contributions and realize how bright he was.”
In January, I traveled from New York City to Tel Aviv to continue retracing Steven Sotloff’s footsteps. When I arrived at JFK, a group of college students—a few with kippot, a few with AEPi branded sweatshirts—were sitting cross-legged in a circle that lined the interior of the cul-de-sac gate. Packed into mini-cliques, the students giggled and yawned and caught glimpses of their trip-mates. In the center, a male and female guide tandem, no more than a few years older than their troop, conducted a clapping exercise to get the students’ attention. I scoffed when the male leader announced that a form would be going around for each student to sign, representing a collective promise to not drink alcohol. I pictured a 19-year-old Sotloff among them.
In 2003, as a sophomore at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Sotloff cashed in his birthright for a free trip to Israel. It’s possible this is when he caught the Israel bug; two years later, he quit UCF and was accepted by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Sotloff went all in, choosing to become an Israeli citizen by making aliyah rather than living on a student visa. According Rabbi Bookman in Florida, his parents were not thrilled with the decision. “A lot of Jewish parents, even the ones who love Israel—they want somebody else’s kids to make aliyah,” he said.
Two compounding forces influenced Sotloff’s decision. He reflected on them in a 2007 essay titled, “Home Sweet Home,” which was part of his application to an honors program at the IDC. He had long been fascinated by the Middle East, he wrote, and the events of Sept. 11 had fueled his desire to learn more. He also desired to explore a space in his identity that he felt was decidedly unrealized: his Judaism.
Sotloff’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he wrote that he had been affected by his grandfather’s passing and funeral, which occurred when Sotloff was 9 years old. Although he had been brought up in a Jewish home and had attended Hebrew school at his local synagogue, Temple Beth Am, Sotloff felt like he had been deprived of a Jewish childhood, since he was constantly away at non-Jewish boarding schools in New England.
On Sept. 22, 2005, Sotloff boarded a flight from Miami to New York wearing an orange polo shirt, khaki shorts, and a wristwatch. He was seated next to Brian Blondy, the only other person making aliyah that day. “We were both very proud of what we had done,” wrote Blondy, in the Times of Israel. “When he finally arrived, he was happy and relaxed.” Sotloff and Blondy, who had also been accepted by the IDC and would join Sotloff in the debate society there, rapped about sports and the Middle East throughout the 10-hour connecting flight. When they arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, two Nefesh B’Nefesh representatives greeted them. Three days later, Sotloff procured an official Israeli identification card.
Art Sotloff told me that he was not happy when his son told him he had decided to make aliyah. “I said, Good luck. I’m not going to help you. I’m drawing the line there.” Art told me he was bothered because he had paid for his son to attend private schools his entire life, and he was done paying for them. And lo and behold, of all the schools in Israel that his son could have chosen, he picked IDC, a private school that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. In the end, though, Art obliged.
According to his 2007 résumé, right before making aliyah, Sotloff worked simultaneously at the Miami Herald in an undefined role from February to May of 2005, and for ABC News from January 2005 to August 2006. In January 2005, Sotloff traveled to Ramallah to cover the Palestinian elections for the Central Florida Future, although there is no evidence of an article written by Sotloff about this subject in the newspaper’s archives. Art Sotloff said that Steven had received a very small grant to travel to the Middle East from the paper. A month later, Sotloff, “on assignment,” covered the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, a training of sorts for the forthcoming uprisings of the Arab Spring, which he would report on five years later. There, he met Leah Stern, a fellow Miamian and journalist.
“I’ll never forget his smile and the mischievous twinkle in his eye,” she later wrote in The Huffington Post. “We shared a bottle of single malt whiskey and a Cuban cigar and joked (even reveled) about how two American Israeli Jewish journalists were inconspicuously camping out in a remote watering hole, in Lebanon of all places, and how dangerous and even illegal it was.” It’s uncertain for whom Sotloff was working—the Miami Herald, ABC News, or for himself (on spec?)—and where his work appeared, if at all. In any case, it also appears that Sotloff stayed in Israel for quite some time, at least through the summer, before returning stateside, only to return again. According to Michael Sapir, a member of the Ra’anana Roosters, a rugby team near Herzliya, Sotloff had practiced with the squad for two months before classes at the IDC began.
This trip to Israel may well be when Sotloff first met Barak Barfi, who then worked as a producer and reporter for ABC News affiliates in Lebanon. Barfi was based in Jerusalem when, in May 2004, he wrote an article for The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication, in which he outlined the opposition faced by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—“eyeless … (and) desperate for a tangible achievement”—as a result of his plan to disengage from Gaza. Barfi’s accompanying bio stated that he covers the Middle East for the Agence Global, with a focus on Palestinian politics.
Scholder, who roomed with Sotloff in Herzliya in 2008 after they had graduated from the IDC, said that he was uncertain exactly how Sotloff and Barfi first met but recalled that Sotloff, at some point, “took down a poster—like a name and number that was posted on a message board—of someone who was looking for an assistant.” On his résumé, Sotloff wrote “media assistant” as his role for ABC News, a role he continued into the summer of 2006 while he was at the IDC Herzliya. “Steve’s best friend at that time was Barak,” said Scholder, adding that he was the only person Sotloff knew outside of the school.
According to Larroche, Sotloff met Barfi in 2005. “I heard Barak’s name a lot,” she said. She recalled being in Sotloff’s old room, before they moved in together in 2006, and that Sotloff used to tell to her stories about Barfi. “[Steve and Barak] were walking in front of the American embassy in Tel-Aviv and the guard told [Barak] to not walk there, or something, cause it was like a protected path, and Barak told [the guard], ‘Fuck you,’ or something like that. And Steve just laughed cause he couldn’t believe the balls that Barak had to do things like that. That was in 2005, they were already really close.” For his part, Barfi said that the story was false, that the event occurred in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, and that the misunderstanding led to him to tell a guard, “Don’t tell me where I can and can’t walk. You don’t own the road.”
The narrative of Barak bucking the system continued in another story: “Barak would get on the bus without ever paying,” said Larroche. “Like he would come on the bus from the back door, and when Steve would try to do that, Steve would get caught and get thrown off the bus.” Barfi denied this.
In 2006, during their second year at the IDC, Larroche said Sotloff would often take trips with Barfi. “He’d go to the West Bank or whatever. I didn’t know exactly what he was doing,” she remembered. “Professionally, Barak was just sending Steve on a lot of assignments. Maybe he was just helping him get into the world of journalism.”
“[Sotloff] came to Jordan when I worked on an assignment,” Barfi told me. “We put him up in a five-star hotel. We paid for meals. Me and Steve got along really well and he wanted to be a journalist and I took him on board on some things. I took him to Jordan. He didn’t do anything there.”
Larroche didn’t actually meet Barfi until 2007, and when she did, it was not a pleasant experience. “He has such arrogance in him, it’s unbelievable,” she told me, and then added: “Something about him was really fishy, really weird.” Scholder echoed her. “I think a lot of [Steve’s] friends felt like he was being used a bit by this guy,” said Scholder, who said he found Barfi “totally shady.” “Steve would go and drop everything to go somewhere with Barak.”
Sadon also told me he felt this way. “It always seemed to me from my perspective that [Steve] was like Barak’s gofer,” said Sadon, the friend from IDC. “He was running around for him, running errands for him, and I was always curious, like, ‘What are you getting out of this?’ Like he was at this guy’s beck and call. Basically it always seemed like he was always stepping out and it didn’t seem like there was a good explanation for it. You have to pay your dues and it seems like in journalism, this may be par for the course.”
A close friend of Sotloff’s during his time at the IDC, who wished not to be identified, told me that Sotloff may have been involved in selling hash, a claim seconded by Scholder and two other sources. But Barfi vigorously denied this and any impression that Sotloff was working for him. “I would ask that you verify that any source places me in a room where a drug transaction occurred that included more than an eight [sic] of an ounce,” Barfi wrote in an email to Tablet. “I do not purchase or sell drugs, but is possible that I was present when other purchased small amounts for their own consumption and hence cannot rule that out. I would also ask that your verify any sources that had me consume illicit drugs. If you cannot produce such sources and give me a chance to refute them, then there is no reason to speak with your team. I would ask that you verify that any source places me in a room where a drug transaction occurred that included more than an eight of an ounce.”
“Sure, Barak had a little bit over him,” Art Sotlff said in an interview with Tablet. “But that’s only because he was older and a little more experienced. But Barak loved Steven and cared deeply about him.”
“He was just this figure in [Steve’s] life that was just dominating and I didn’t really understand that,” Scholder concluded. “That’s what’s bothered us—because we didn’t see that Barak cared about Steve. In retrospect, obviously Barak cared a great deal about Steve.”
Sotloff’s own sensitivity to living things was clear. “When we were living together [Steve] was always buying things,” said Larroche. “I don’t know where he got the money, because he was broke, and later he got more broke. But, when we were living together, he was super, super generous. He shared his weed. He shared his alcohol. He shared his food, of course. He shared his couch.” At one point, Sotloff and Larroche took in a kitten that was roaming around the bottom of their building. “Steve has a really big heart when it comes to animals,” said Larroche. When they both went away for the summer, Sotloff spent over $1,000 to put the cat in a care center for animals. “He just pulled out money randomly out of places,” she said. “I didn’t have the same heart that he did towards the cat. He was really amazing.”
Sotloff continued to spend time at Larroche’s apartment during their first year at the IDC. When her roommates moved out, Sotloff moved in. According to Larroche, Sotloff had his bar mitzvah in Israel around this time, when he was about 26 or 27. “We were living together and his parents had flown in from the U.S. during one of the summers of our school year. They went to Masada or something and he did his bar mitzvah there with his parents. He felt like he wanted to reconnect to Judaism cause he had never actually done a bar mitzvah.” Later, Art Sotloff showed me a picture of the bar mitzvah on top of Masada, which he had on his iPad. Steven looked happy, content. The tallit around his son’s shoulders, Art told me, used to be his own.
Sotloff made sure the transition from life in the United States to life in Israel was as smooth as possible, so he populated his life with the creature comforts he had grown accustomed to. “He brought with him a certain ‘standard of living’ that he refused to go without—among them a TV with cable, and a fresh water dispenser,” Larroche recalled. They loved the apartment, located on HaRav Kook Street in Herzliya, and would live together for two years—in 2006 and 2007, their final year at the IDC. It had a roof where they’d throw parties. Together, they continued to host Shabbat dinners. His friend Joey Sadon, who would later attend Sotloff’s memorial and shiva in Florida with Larroche, said that Sotloff was in his element during these gatherings. “Being far away from his home he took on that maternal role of just cooking and making sure everyone came together. He would sit you down and make sure you had a drink, food, a cup of coffee.”
Lots of cooking, however, produced a lot of dirty dishes, which became Larroche’s responsibility by default. “We would end up arguing about that,” said Larroche. “The kitchen was really messy.” As time went on, the fodder for disputes began to add up. They both took Ulpan—Hebrew classes for adult immigrants to Israel—but Larroche’s language skills were forming more quickly that Sotloff’s. “He’d be mean to me about it,” she said, “as if I tried so hard to sound like an Israeli, whereas he had this thick American accent when he spoke Hebrew. I don’t think he was ever good at languages.”
Still, Sotloff and Larroche would often pop their heads into each other’s bedrooms to talk, check in on one another. Once, Larroche asked Sotloff if he would protect her if something bad were to happen. “Fuck you,” he said to Larroche, who laughed it off.
In late 2007, toward the end of their roommateship, Sotloff popped his head into Larroche’s room again. She was lying on her bed. “Hey, you know about that question you asked me?” said Sotloff. “Of course I would. Of course I would protect you.”
“You knew he liked her,” said Dan Isaacsohn, their classmate. “She was a very attractive girl. It never happened. I don’t know why. I never got that much into it. He always wanted something to happen. That’s always something that was on his mind. She was definitely the woman in his life.”
Later, Sotloff started dating a young Arab woman in Miami—who goes by Luna Moon on Facebook—despite his traveling back and forth between Miami and various locations across the Middle East. The two dated off and on for some time. (Luna Moon didn’t respond to requests for comment.) “He found that girl who let him travel nonstop. He would go for months at a time sometimes, and he was still in a relationship with her. He would still write her emails and stuff like that, and when he’d come back, she was there for him. I think that’s what he needed, a girl that accepted a lot from him,” Larroche said, before joking: “I think he was going to end up with a Muslim girl anyway. He loves their hospitality. He told me when we were living together and he would go to the West bank. He would say, ‘The Muslim women, the Arabs, They’re the best.’ They made him feel like a king.”
Rabbi Bookman said that he and Sotloff had had several conversations about Israel, the Middle East, and the Muslim world, over the years. Bookman, who has a background in comparative religions, said that they would discuss passages from the Quran in relation to the Torah, such as the narrative of Ishmael versus Isaac. When Sotloff made aliyah and had decided to travel extensively throughout the Middle East, Bookman was not shocked. “I urged him not to fly on his Israeli passport,” he said.
“People have asked me: ‘How Jewish was he?’” Bookman said.
“If you talk about Judaism as ritual behaviors, probably not a lot. But if you talk about Judaism as values he was very Jewish. One of the values that I think is core to Judaism is that every person is created in the image of God—doesn’t matter what color, what gender, what sexual orientation you are. We’re all created in the image of God and I think that Steven felt that deeply. He wanted to put a human face on Muslims in the Middle East.”
In September 2011, Sotloff struck up a Facebook conversation with Oren Kessler, at the time an Arab-affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post who now works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. When Sotloff was murdered, Kessler wrote a column in which he described how while he’d struggle to find Arab sources who’d talk to him from a “perch in Tel Aviv,” Sotloff would fill him in from Libya, where he was on the ground in Benghazi. Kessler asked Sotloff what he was doing in Libya (and Yemen or Bahrain, for that matter), given that he had such an “obviously Jewish Name” and connections to Israel. Sotloff told him he’d tell people that his name—and therefore his heritage—was Chechen. He told Kessler that the first question he was asked by “everyone” in Yemen was about his religion. “I don’t really share my values and opinions,” Sotloff told him. “I try to stay alive.”
Sotloff wrote, “I ‘converted’ in my first week [in Yemen] so I wouldn’t have to deal with all that rubbish. LOL.” Kessler added that the “10-minute ceremony was meant to return [Sotloff] to his purported Islamic roots.” When Kessler suggested that the jig would be up if someone Googled Sotloff’s name, he replied: “Yeah, Google definitely isn’t my friend.”
Tuition at the Raphael Recanati International School, at which Sotloff was enrolled in Israel, currently costs almost $12,500 a year, not including housing. Sotloff was a good student and focused his studies on government, diplomacy, strategy, and counter-terrorism. He did not have midterm exams and was allowed to take final exams twice.
In 2007, the last year of his studies, Sotloff applied to the Argov Fellows Program in Leadership and Diplomacy, which is run by Dr. Alisa Peled, who has been at the IDC since 2003. Peled not only stayed in touch with Sotloff over email after he graduated, but she also kept a number of writings, including his application to the program. Sotloff took three courses with Peled during his time at the IDC: Globalization and Politics, for which he received a final grade of 87; a course about the political economies of the Middle East, and public diplomacy, for which he received a grade of 87; and Business and Governmental Relations, for which he received a grade of 97. According to Barfi, Sotloff also studied under Amnon Rubenstein, a former member of the Knesset who is the current dean at the IDC. Sotloff’s final GPA was 86.72.
In the last year of his studies, Sotloff wrote an essay for Peled’s program titled “The Arab Problem: Israeli’s Greatest Challenge in the World Today.” In it, Sotloff wrote that “integrating [Arabs] is the best (way) to keep Israel secure” and that “education is key to ending the conflict. … Efforts to teach coexistence,” wrote Sotloff, “are not naive.”
He was “very idealistic,” Peled said. She added that Sotloff was rejected from the program not because of his academic or writing abilities, but because he didn’t consistently attend classes and couldn’t be counted on, as he was already working on his reporting.
After Sotloff graduated from the IDC, he remained in Herzliya and moved in with Scholder and another friend, Benjamine Truman. Their first apartment was located on the top floor and included a front hallway when you entered it. In the hallway was a door that remained locked and the roommates had no idea what was behind it. “Every single day: get up, beers, J’s—Steve would not care if you published that by the way, it’s totally fine,” said Scholder. “It was just great.” At the time, both Sotloff and Scholder were unemployed, and their friends would come by to join in on the fun; Sadon lived on their couch for a time before entering the army.
“It was a mess, quite frankly,” said Isaacsohn. “What comes to mind (is) his kitchen, just how nasty it was. Even though it was messy as crap it still felt homey and comfortable to be there.”
Isaacsohn remembers a feeling of calm that washed over him when he hung out with Sotloff, especially one-on-one. The two would go to the roof, smoke, talk about women and family, and watch the sun set over the distant Mediterranean. They listened to Phish. Isaacsohn introduced him to the Disco Biscuits. He remembered Sotloff as a great listener, and as hilarious. Toward the end of his studies, Sotloff went to Lebanon during a conflict with Syria. When he came back, he hung out with Isaacsohn.
“All of a sudden I see this kind of bright light go off and I look at the wall and there’s a big head of Nasrallah—and Nasrallah’s the leader of Hezbollah—on the wall.”
“Steven, what the fuck is that?” Isaacsohn asked.
Sotloff cracked up. He handed Isaacsohn a lighter, which had a button attached to it. When pressed, the lighter radiated a picture of Nasrallah. “It was just like a little kid,” he remembers of Sotloff’s laugh. “A pureness and a giddiness to it.”
“ ‘I didn’t want to support Hezbollah,’ ” Isaacsohn recalled Sotloff saying, “ ‘but I had to buy this for you because it’s so funny.’ ”
Isaacsohn said that Sotloff used the Nasrallah lighter during tense conversations between friends. “Steven used it to chill everybody out. He bought this for a bunch of people. To this day it’s my favorite present I’ve ever gotten.”
Later Isaacsohn got a tattoo to commemorate his friend—a quote from the note that Sotloff had had smuggled out before he was killed: “Everyone has two lives. A second one begins when you realize you only have one.” Isaacsohn had this line inked onto his right forearm, on a tattoo of a crumpled piece of paper. The lighter Sotloff bought for him is inked there as well.
Larroche described a night when Scholder and other friends sat Sotloff down to explain to him, and convince him, of the Israeli’s perspective, including defending actions the Israeli State took of which he was critical. “Apparently Steven cried like, ‘Yeah, you opened my eyes to see Israel differently,’ ” said Larroche. “But after that he went right back to being left wing.”
Larroche said that Sotloff was simply more open-minded, that he was able, as a Jew, to go into the Arab world and appreciate its culture without feeling resentment. “He was fascinated by Middle Eastern culture and the Muslim world,” she said.
“The concept of a Jewish identity was very new to him,” said Scholder. “He was impressionable, but not naive. We used to say, ‘How can you be so critical to Israel, when your grandparents were Holocaust survivors, who would’ve given anything to live here?’ Israel is the only country in the world to try to help you ‘cause you’re a Jew.”
For Sotloff, living in Israel was a time of self-discovery—a journey that included his struggle to find footing as an adult in the real world. “It took him a long time to see himself as a part of us here,” Scholder said, “to see himself as an Israeli as opposed to being a traveler. I don’t think that after he left Israel that he ever thought of himself as Israeli.”
Barfi, who was a working journalist at the time, and whom Scholder described as Sotloff’s “mentor,” would sporadically visit Sotloff at their apartment. “Barak was instrumental in helping him find contacts in the professional world (and) in the Arab world as well.” Scholder said that if Sotloff needed help, Barfi wasn’t far away to “help him resolve his issues.”
“Eventually the time came for us to go our separate ways,” said Scholder, and Sotloff left the apartment to fly home to Miami. Scholder dropped him off at the airport, and he was sad. “Another one moving back to the old country,” he said. Three hours later, Scholder heard a knock on the front door. It was Sotloff. He walked through the door.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” Sotloff said.
“What happened?” said Scholder.
Sotloff told his roommates that he wasn’t allowed to leave Israel because he owed about 10,000-15,000 Shekels in back taxes.
“Eventually he scrounged up the funds, probably from me,” Scholder told the people gathered at IDC for Sotloff’s memorial. “I guess I’ll never get paid back.”
The Arab Spring
In his travels as a reporter during the Arab Spring, Sotloff was often accompanied by Barak Barfi. In January of 2010, Barfi published a “counterterrorism strategy initiative policy paper” titled “Yemen On The Brink? The Resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen” for the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he is currently a fellow. The paper explores the “lethal” role that al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had established in Yemen, which Barfi deemed a “fertile environment for Islamist extremism.”
On Tuesday, May 18, 2010, Barfi participated in a panel at The Brookings Institute Doha called “Yemen On The Brink: The Regional Response To Security And Stability,” in which he spoke about some of the findings in his paper. The panel was made up of Barfi; Faris Al-Sanabani, a publisher who was then the press secretary to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before his overthrow; and Stephen Seche, the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen at the time. Hady Amr, the director of the Brookings Doha Center who now works with John Kerry on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, moderated the panel.
Barfi’s paper was released days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Yemen-based Nigerian, failed to detonate plastic explosives sewn into his underwear aboard an airplane on Christmas Day 2009; the flight, originating in the Netherlands, was headed for Detroit, Barfi’s hometown. AQAP claimed responsibility. Though the U.S. government viewed AQAP as a threat, the Yemeni government, Barfi wrote, didn’t see it the same way, despite the fact that AQAP was a “regional jihadist hub.” To placate Washington, Yemen launched a series of “largely unsuccessful” airstrikes against AQAP.
“Having failed to decapitate the organization, the strikes will embolden AQAP, win it support among a previously wary Yemeni population, and attract new foreign recruits keen on combating the Americans,” he wrote. In his panel, he said, “Unfortunately, the problem with the United States-Yemeni relationship is that the United States is only interested in Yemen when it poses a security threat. But it poses a security threat because the U.S. has neglected. It’s a vicious circle. And the United States needs to be in Yemen for the long run and not dilly-daddle, like it did after 9/11. Go in, took out a couple al-Qaida leaders, and then it disappeared in cut and run and leaving the state as it is.”
In November Barfi published another paper about AQAP in the CTC Sentinel, which is hosted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In it, Barfi examines the “soft power strategy” employed by AQAP, which has “focused its efforts on combating foes (the Yemeni and Saudi governments, and the United States) that gain it the most admiration among Yemenis.” This, he writes, “is a clear cause for concern since it may mean that the group will not contribute to its own demise as was the case with al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq.”
Barfi had spent the year prior conducting research in Yemen for his first paper, in which Steven Sotloff is given credit as a “research assistant.” Sotloff was also in Doha in May 2010, presumably with Barfi.
On May 29, 2010, Sotloff applied to the Arabic language program for non-native speakers at Qatar University. (A former classmate from the IDC believes that Sotloff may also have considered studying Arabic in Oman, as well.) Sotloff was also vying for a scholarship at Qatar University and needed a letter from the IDC. To get it, he reached out via email to Jonathan Davis, the school’s vice president for external relations at the IDC, who read me the email. In his application essay, Sotloff describes his love for Lebanese and Syrians especially, and for the “forbidding” Arab world, where he wanted to spend a large portion of his life. “Yemen is an ideal place for me at the moment because very little English is spoken there, and it will force me to practice in the souks and beyond,” he wrote. “It also offers an Arab culture that has been largely untouched by the modern world, and perhaps this can give me a better understanding of the Arab people.”
In July 2010 Sotloff reached out to Laura Kasinof, a former Yemen-based stringer for the New York Times, via Facebook. “Hey Laura!” he wrote. “My name is Steven. I am on my way to Yemen this week to study Arabic, which is about a month sooner than I thought I would be going. I am looking to meet some locals there and would like to explore the place as soon as I land. If you are still there, I would really like to meet up. If not, I am hoping you could put me in touch with a couple of nice people.”
Kasinof told me that she had chosen to set up shop in Yemen in 2009 because there were no Western journalists present at the time. Kasinof studied Arabic as an undergraduate student at NYU before moving to Cairo to work as a teacher; she said that she stumbled into journalism. She recently published a book that documents her first-hand experiences during the Yemeni revolution, beginning in January 2011 and ending in February of 2012, when Abd Rabbah Mansur al-Hadi was sworn in as president-elect.
Sotloff and Kasinof both took lessons with private tutors, typically in the morning, at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. They’d run into each other in the school’s hallways or in the kitchen for some Yemeni tea. “[Steven] was one of the only other American faces there,” Kasinof said.
From time to time Sotloff and Kasinof also interacted at parties or khat chews with other foreigners. A pervasive Yememi afternoon tradition, khat chews take place in a mafraj, a cushion-lined room in which a small group of people sit and chew the plant that produces an effect like “a double espresso on an empty stomach,” as Kasinof put it. For hours they’d chew khat, lounge about, hang out on their computers, and talk, and Sotloff would pick her brain about Yemeni politics and society.
Ann Marlowe, a writer who later spent time with Sotloff in Libya, and who has reported from Afghanistan 18 times, said that unlike, say, Kabul, where there’s a lively expat scene, Yemen is not a fun place for Westerners. “It’s a place where you hang out with Yemenis who may not share your idea of what a fun evening out is,” she said. Marlowe said that Sotloff was mature for his age, someone who “conducted himself like a person who’d gotten past that phase in his life.”
In Yemen, Sotloff primarily spent time with locals. He dressed in a jellabiya, a robe-like garment, typically white in the scorching summer, that’s common in the region. He ate rotisserie chicken with rice, or fahsa, a Yemeni lamb stew, with bread, which he’d use to dig down and scoop it up. “He tried to assimilate to a larger extent,” said Kasinof.
Sotloff published just one article from Yemen, for The National Interest on Nov. 2, 2010, just a few days after two bombs, located in two separate cargo planes originating in Yemen, were discovered prior to detonating; the packages were addressed to two separate synagogues in Chicago, and al-Qaida in the Arab peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility.
Sotloff’s piece, headlined “What Yemen Wants,” asserts that at the time, most Yemenis were likely unaware of the attention the foiled attack had garnered in Washington, as the story was mostly censored in the local press. How the Obama Administration would choose to respond to AQAP, which had attacked the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2008, perhaps by continuing its policy of drone strikes in the region, would “risk further alienating an already hostile Yemeni population and driv[e] them into the arms of AQAP, the local al-Qaida affiliate the Obama administration is so focused on neutralizing.” Yemenis, he wrote, “are much more concerned with a sectarian rebellion in the north, a secession movement in the south and the economic crisis that has crippled the country.”
On Sept. 10, 2010, Sotloff published his first article as a freelance journalist from the Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf that’s sandwiched by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The article details the tension between Bahrain’s ruling Sunni family and Shia, the majority population. “Despite the fact that they make up more than 80 percent of the labor force,” he wrote, “[Shia] have been predominantly prevented from working for the country’s largest employer, the security forces, which have only a three-to-five percent Shia makeup.” This, wrote Sotloff, had enabled the monarchy to drive sectarian reform, which had vexed the Shiite majority.
A month and a half later, on a one-month fellowship with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Sotloff reported on the elections in Bahrain for the Christian Science Monitor. He began his article with an account from a carpenter named Mazen, a Shiite from the poor neighborhood of Sitra where 23 young protesters, intermittently clashing with Khalifa’s security forces, had been arrested. “We thought we were heading toward reform,” Mazen told Sotloff. “None of that was real. We are worse off now than we were 10 years ago.” Writing ledes that cast everyday citizens like Mazen as voice of the oppressed soon became Sotloff’s signature style.
On March 28, 2011, Barfi and Sotloff appeared in a YouTube video called “Barack Bahrian ايهم القاسم – البحرين – باراك بارفي صحفي امريكي. In it, Barfi, an “American journalist,” conducts interviews with Bahraini protestors in Lulu Square. They form a circle around Barfi and show him grenades that the police had used to disperse the crowds. Sotloff is among that crowd and appears at the 1:45 mark. He appears again at the end of the video (3:21). This time he watches television from a chair wearing mesh shorts, a red Nike T-shirt, glasses, and a beard. He says something indiscernible and burps—perhaps from the Corona he’s drinking—while Barfi types away on his Macbook.
In February 2011, Sotloff wrote four articles from Cairo, where pro-democratic protesters had been gathering in Tahrir Square since Jan. 25, demanding the ouster of the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had held office for nearly 20 years. On Feb. 8, now known as the “Day of Egypt’s Love,” over 1 million people flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square—and thousands more in Alexandria—to continue their call for Mubarak to step down in lieu of accepting political concessions, or waiting for the new election cycle in September. That day, Sotloff wrote a blog post for “Threat Matrix,” a part of The Long War Journal, a publication put together by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for which he was now an “adjunct fellow.” He wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood, “working in the shadows of (Egyptian) society,” and juxtaposed the group’s aloofness to the protests with that of the Egyptian Army. Though both “appear to be standing idly by, they have in fact made calculated decisions … shrewdly considered strategy,” he wrote.
Sotloff’s focus on connecting foreign policy to the uprising in Egypt might have been a byproduct of “the prevailing hostility toward Westerners,” which he experienced first-hand and wrote about in a story published on Feb. 28 by The Jerusalem Post, which is no longer available online. Supporters of Mubarak’s regime, he wrote, believe that the civil rebellion “is a foreign conspiracy promulgated by the foreign media.” In the same article, Sotloff wrote about his experience at a checkpoint, where he was questioned then taken by truck to a military facility. He was detained in handcuffs for hours and had a Kalashnikov held repeatedly to his head. “Egyptians outside yelled ‘Israeli’ and ‘Jew,’ ” he wrote. “They told me I would be executed.”
Stephanie Freid, a Middle East correspondent for CCTV, remembered Sotloff as a “ballsy” reporter. “He could get in there and sit down and smoke a hookah with these tribal guys,” she said. But Freid also said that reporting in Egypt was “terrifying to him,” which he himself later recounted in conversations with fellow journalists. “People pulled his beard and accused him of being Hamas,” she said. “That stayed with him. Literally at times he felt like he was running for his life.”
On July 8, five days after Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power and jailed by the army, Sotloff published a dispatch from Nasr City where he was embedded with Muslim Brotherhood. Sotloff’s article begins with a personal anecdote, during which his Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal, with a “pallid look,” cautioned him against visiting the Muslim Brotherhood’s encampment in Nasr City. “Don’t go there,” Sotloff was told. “They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger.” But Sotloff rejected Kamal’s warning, opting instead to shake his friend’s hand and “hea[d] straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.”
Days of Rage
In 2011, Sotloff and Barfi both reported from Libya, a country that was in the throes of an 8-month civil war between Moammar Qaddafi’s government and numerous rebel groups, including al-Qaida and the National Transition Council. Sotloff was reporting for The Jerusalem Report, an Israeli-owned magazine, while Barfi wrote mainly for The New Republic.
On Tuesday, Feb. 15, hundreds of Libyan demonstrators gathered outside police headquarters in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, to protest the arrest of Fathi Terbil, a human rights activist.
“No God but Allah,” they chanted. “Moammar is the enemy of Allah.” A fast-growing opposition organized online, a trend seen throughout the Arab Spring, inspired by protests in Egypt and Tunisia, calling for an uprising on Feb. 17 against Gaddafi’s 41-year reign. Activists called it a “day of rage.” By Feb. 26, the U.N. Security Council, European Union, and the Obama Administration levied sanctions against Libya, including an arms embargo and the freezing of Qaddafi’s assets; a little over a week later, NATO began 24-hour surveillance of Libya. In March, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation against Qaddafi and his cronies for war crimes.
As the uprising continued so did the violence, as hundreds of loyalists and rebel forces were killed, including civilians who were used as human shields. By early March, protests had spread to a number of major cities across Libya, including rebel-held Ajdabiya, Derna, and Misrata, where anti-government forces controlled the airport, as well as to oil port towns of Ra’s Lanuf and Brega. By March 15, however, rebels lost a second battle for Brega, where they had been victorious 12 days prior. After they lost Brega, anti-Qaddafi forces retreated 50 miles east to Ajdabiya, which itself lay just 100 miles from Benghazi, the rebel capital. By March 17, loyalists had taken control of Ajdabiya and rebel fighters retreated to Benghazi. The same day, the U.N. Security Council imposed a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace.
In April, rebel forces rolled out from Ajdabiya, heading west to capture strategic Brega once again. Steven Sotloff was with them.
Though Sotloff had filed numerous reports from Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya for The Jerusalem Report from January 2011 to mid-2012, only one story appears to be available online—a report from Brega, Libya. His article, “Rag-tag Revolution,” paints a picture of rebel forces as they take a break in the action, eating rolls of bread and wiping sandy sweat from their brows.
“We are on the march and we won’t stop until we reach the capital Tripoli,” a 24-year-old rebel fighter named Ahmad al-Ubaydi told Sotloff.
Another dissident, 32-year-old Mustafa al-Tartuni, a plumber, told him, “Gaddafi gives us two choices—love me or I will kill you. I don’t want to live under this oppression anymore. I want to be free.”
Despite their passion, Sotloff saw that the rebels lacked discipline and leadership. “They do not even know how to use their Russian-made weapons,” he wrote. The second half of Sotloff’s story is a report from Benghazi, the rebellion’s headquarters, where people were distributing signs celebrating Libya before the rule of Qaddafi, whom some had deemed a “Zionist agent.”
“Outside, children at traffic lights sell stickers of the flag of the Libyan monarchy Gaddafi overthrew in 1969. Others sell posters of Umar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan who led the fight against Italian colonial forces before being hanged by them in 1931.” Sotloff described the governmental groups that National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abd al-Jalil had established in Bengazhi to ensure a smooth transition when Qaddafi fell.
“In doing so,” wrote Sotloff, “they have largely avoided the chaos that paralyzed Iraq when the Americans overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.”
In April, Barfi published a very similar account to Sotloff’s—of the rebels “somewhere on the road between the cities of Ajdabiya and Brega, amid the wreckage of charred tanks destroyed by Western airstrikes”—signaling that they were at least reporting from the same front.
In Benghazi, Sotloff stayed at the Ouzo Hotel where hundreds of other journalists were also situated. Among them were Muneef Halawa, photojournalist Jeremy Relph, and writer Ann Marlowe. Marlowe described the high-rise Ouzo as a perfectly acceptable, Holiday Inn-type hotel, though she recalled that it was at the time rather dirty, since the hotel’s cleaning staff had left.
The month of April in 2011 was a historically trying time for journalists in Libya. On April 5, a day when Qaddafi’s forces shelled Brega with rocket fire, GlobalPost reporter James Foley, American journalist Claire Morgana Gillis, and Manu Brabo, a Spanish photojournalist, were detained on the edge of town by loyalists, while their colleague Anton Hammerl was killed. On April 20, rebel-embedded photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in an attack by Qaddafi’s forces in Misrata, Libya’s besieged third-largest city. Shrapnel from a mortar shell reportedly hit Hetherington in the groin, causing him to bleed to his death in the back of a pickup truck before he could receive treatment. His death inspired his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger to found Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues (RISC), which provides freelancers with the training and equipment necessary to treat their colleagues’ injuries. “None of the journalists or rebels around him knew what to do,” wrote Junger, who added that though Hetherington’s injury was severe, he could have been tended to.
From time to time in April and May, and again in July, Marlowe and Sotloff grabbed meals together. They stayed in touch intermittently over email as well, and Marlowe recalled their discussion as professional; she said that Sotloff’s Arabic was good. “I’m horrified that he didn’t get a chance to become an older guy,” she said.
One night in Benghazi, Halawa, a former stringer for The Wall Street Journal, offered to share his room with Sotloff after seeing him preparing to sleep in the Ouzo lobby. Sotloff, he learned, was more or less broke. “I didn’t realize he was down to $6 in his pocket,” he said.
Relph, 41, also interacted with Sotloff, who was then with Barfi, in Misrata and Tripoli, stayed in touch with Sotloff online after they parted ways. “You could tell he valued people,” he said. “[Steven’s] a guy you can sit down with and shoot the shit and time flies,” he said. Relph, who reported from Afghanistan, said that among male journalists in war zones, there’s a lot of “macho bullshit,” that they “throw their weight around,” though this was not characteristic of Sotloff. “Steven was modest,” he said.
Rebel-held Misrata had been the target of loyalist forces since March 6. Despite a ceasefire, on March 18, Qaddafi’s forces attacked the city with tanks and heavy artillery, including snipers. The fighting continued through March and peaked again once Qaddafi’s forces attempted to retake Misrata, unsuccessfully, on April 26.
In Misrata, Relph and Sotloff stayed at the Gostik Hotel, where one wing was in perfect shape “and half the hotel was completely bombed out.” Relph said that it became a “freelancer hotel,” which had running water, and guests were staying for free. “Everybody was hopeful, everybody was pitching in to do whatever they could,” said Relph. Relph would see Sotloff getting breakfast or lunch. He recalled eating chocolate bars and canned tuna and loads of white bread. Sometimes there’d be camel stew, “a nice treat.”
On May 13, Qaddafi announced in an audio recording, “I tell the coward crusaders—I live in a place where you can’t get to and kill me. I live in the hearts of millions.”
On May 29, Sotloff, likely in Misrata, emailed Kasinof to let her know that he was interested in returning to Yemen. Three days later, Relph ran into Sotloff on the al-Dafniya front line, about 15 miles west of Misrata. He recalled that one group of rebels were discussing their plans for the day. “Every day [the rebels] would announce, ‘Oh we’re going to make a big push and today’s the day we to do it.’ ” he said. “It was like that every single day, so if you believed any of those time you’d be an idiot. The rebels reminded me of publicists.”
Because there was so much unpredictable downtime, Relph had a run of The Larry Sanders Show and he gave it to Sotloff, who ripped through it “in record time.” Later, Relph told Barfi about Sotloff’s binge-watching spree and said that Barfi just shook his head in a type of brotherly disbelief. “Those two were inseparable,” said Relph. “You didn’t expect to see one without the other.”
On June 27, Sotloff posted for the first time on the war reporter’s forum The Vulture Club. One member, Jack Hill, asked: “Anyone had experience of not getting past the last check point in Ajdabiya heading towards Brega? Tried yesterday and failed miserably … ”
James Foley was second to reply: “Careful on that last checkpoint, not always worth it.”
Sotloff then chimed in: “I got through. The car in front of me was ambushed about half a click in front of me. Got all shot up. Be careful!”
By mid-August rebel forces, backed by the now-recognized government of the National Transitional Council, had made their way to Tripoli. Opposition forces went for Qaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound during the Battle of Tripoli on Aug. 24, forcing Qaddafi on the lam. On Oct. 20, Qaddafi was captured by rebel forces, who shot, battered, and bayonetted him in the anus on the roads of Sitre, his hometown. After the fall of Tripoli, Relph ran into Sotloff and Barfi at the Corinthian Hotel, which he said had been commandeered and trashed by journalists. Relph had managed to crash in another person’s room at the time. He’d provide a room number to the hotel staff, who would grant him access to the breakfast buffet. Then he’d walk out the back entrance, a freelancer’s “dine and dash.”
On Sept. 4, 2011, Relph and Sotloff had a humorous and “otherwise largely boring” exchange on Facebook, which he said is an accurate reflection of the inevitable and frequent periods of downtime that come with covering conflict. At the time, Sotloff was staying at the Benghazi Radisson.
Jeremy Relph where you at now?
Steve Sotloff in my room
where are you?
Jeremy Relph ah
Steve Sotloff ah the infamous cafe
Jeremy Relph mmm
i need to do some work soon
as opposed to just pitching stuff
Steve Sotloff u still down there with the ladies
Jeremy Relph they’re in rachel’s room and i’m minding their stuff
which is a shitty job
Steve Sotloff yea
u should just leave
Jeremy Relph hahaha
Steve Sotloff watching aj now
ntc says they have given up on negotiations with bani walid
Jeremy Relph oh okay
Steve Sotloff but they still want to avoid bloodshed
Jeremy Relph i wonder how close they’ll let journos get
it could be another non story
and how misrata got
Steve Sotloff aj looked close but u can go to surrounding villages also
Jeremy Relph so you’re still looking forward to going?
Steve Sotloff we dont need to actually hit the city to know whats going on there
and what the mentality is there
Jeremy Relph true
Steve Sotloff wanna grab lunch?
i think theyre serving lunch today
Jeremy Relph sure
Steve Sotloff alright ill be down i
“Oh, and the lunch in question,” said Relph, “he bought for me.”
Two days later, Sotloff asked members of The Vulture Club: “Anyone know of transportation from Tripoli to Malta or Benghazi?”
Sotloff returned to the United States in the fall of 2011. In September and October, Sotloff was in Detroit with Barfi. Together they watched the Tigers beat the Yankees in the Division Series but then get ousted in the League Championship by the Texas Rangers. Then it was home to Miami. Art Sotloff told me that his son would come home for two weeks in between reporting trips, and then he’d say, “I gotta go, Barak needs me.”
On Nov. 5, 2011, Sotloff created an account at TeamBeachBody.com, with a goal of losing weight. He blogged about his progress seven times, with his last post occurring on Jan. 25, 2011. His profile, which locates him to Miami, Florida, reads:
I am someone who has been losing 25-30 lbs each spring-summer, and then put on 30-35 each fall winter. I’ve been stuck in this cycle since my first year of college. I do 6 months of hard work in the gym: circuit training, kick boxing, spinning, basketball with friends. But at some point, I stop working out for one reason or another. When I stop working out, I stop eating properly. I am hoping that the P90X workout and meal plan allow me to meet my goals and stay there.
On Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3:06 p.m., Sotloff wrote his first blog post:
I have definitely not been over eating, and I am second and third guessing most of my choices. I don’t want to sabotage myself after all. I eat according to the portion plan, and I am trying to stay under 2500 calories a day.
On Monday, Nov. 14 at 11:26 a.m., Sotloff wrote his second blog post:
This week was a good week for me! I felt leaner and stronger. Clothes that didn’t fit me only 2 weeks ago are loosening up on me. I am confident that I can see this program through to 90 days.
On Monday, Nov. 21 at 11:28 a.m., three days before Thanksgiving, Sotloff wrote his third blog post:
Thanksgiving is Thursday, and I’m very apprehensive about the amount and type of food that will be available and the annual party I go to. I will have to restrain myself hard, keep to a plate of meat and turkey, a small portion of taters and stuffing, some veggies and no cake, cookies, crackers, candy, chopped liver, or alcohol. WISH ME LUCK!
On Nov. 27, three days after Thanksgiving, Sotloff told The Vulture Club that he was planning to return to Libya and asked its members for advice. “Can any of you recommend someone who can take care of the visa process for me?” It’s unclear exactly when Sotloff returned to Libya from Miami, but it appears that he took the trip in December of 2011 after a break of roughly two to three months from reporting from the Middle East.
On Dec. 13, three days after the Tripoli airport was closed due to a militia attack, Sotloff asked members of The Vulture Club: “Are Corinthia and Mahari still the only hotels open in Tripoli? Anyone suggestions for reasonably priced hotels there with internet?” It appears that Sotloff may have posted this from Benghazi because two days later he told The Vulture Club: “People in Benghazi unhappy with the NTC. Nice sized protest tonight. Much bigger one expected tomorrow.”
On Dec. 30, TIME published Sotloff’s report from Tripoli, where well-armed regional militias were largely defying the Libyan (NTC’s) army’s call to join its forces and return any weaponry they had procured over the past eight months in the toppling of Qaddafi’s forces. At the Tripoli airport, Sotloff interviewed Radi Jalban, a member of a militia from Zintan, whose brigade had captured Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son in November. “Why do we need to turn in our weapons and register our guns?” Jalban asked. “We liberated the country, and it is our right to carry weapons.”
On Jan. 3, two days after partying on New Year’s Eve in Tripoli, Sotloff blogged on TeamBeachBody.com at 12:52 p.m. He hadn’t posted in over a month. His first post from overseas provides insight into his struggles to keep his weight down while reporting in the Middle East.
The countries I worked in have little in the vegetable department, and lots of fatty meats and white breads. This is what I largely consumed. However, I didn’t gorge myself, and only ate when hungry. I didn’t really work out so I think that kept my hunger levels down as well. I also had some local moonshine.
By February, Sotloff was back in Libya. On Feb. 7 he vetted a Benghazi fixer/driver named Mohammed Elkish, for Andy Carvin, now an editor with First Look Media, on The Vulture Club. “He’s good people!” Sotloff wrote. On March 14, Sotloff published an article on the website The Diplomat titled, “China’s Libya Problem,” which listed his bio as a “Yemen-based writer and an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.” Sotloff, however, had not been attributed as adjunct fellow since February 2011, and the article certainly did not include any on-location reportage from Yemen.
On March 7, one week prior, Barfi co-wrote a story with Jason Pack for The Jerusalem Post titled, “Prompt action needed to tackle Libyan militias.” The article places Barfi in Tripoli where the NTC, Libya’s interim government, was “failing to cement its authority,” and rival militias were “vy[ing] for dominance.” At the time, Pack was a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University. Barfi is listed as a research fellow at the New America Foundation. A month prior, they co-authored a paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, titled, “In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya.” Sotloff’s Dec. 30 article for TIME, a report from Tripoli, is cited in the notes.
Sotloff decided to return to the United States in order to speak at Kimball Union Academy’s Global Fair on April 19. The day prior, Sotloff took a U.S. Airways flight from Detroit, where he was staying with Barfi, to Manchester Airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. KUA had agreed to pay for his flights in the United States, as well as for baggage and a rental car. Sotloff paid $25 for baggage each way. At 3:35 p.m, Sotloff rented a car from Enterprise at the Manchester Airport and drove to his high school, where he hadn’t been in 10 years.
On Wednesday, April 18, Sotloff checked in to Dad’s House, KUA’s bed-and-breakfast-like guesthouse. That evening, Ouellette and a few others visited him in a downstairs area where everybody was congregating, including other guest speakers, to make Sotloff feel welcome. At night, the fair began with an opening ceremony on the campus quad, in which a “peace flame” was lit. A large dinner was served, followed by a guest speaker, and then everybody danced to Salsa, into the night.
Sotloff’s first presentation was scheduled for 9 a.m., the first slot of the day. He wore a scruffy beard, and Weidman and Ouellette describe his outfit as a loose Army-fatigue-green and striped 1960s poncho-trench coat with pockets, along with khakis and sneakers. “He just looked comfortable,” said Weidman. But Sotloff was nervous, and it showed during his first presentation, which was not received as well as he might have hoped.
“He was intimidated to come back to his alma mater and be the expert on anything,” said Ouellette, who had been at KUA for around 30 years. “He didn’t know how the kids would receive it, he was afraid they’d be bored and that it would be over their heads.”
After his first presentation, Sotloff walked around campus and listened to the other speakers since he would not be on again until after lunch. He met Ouellette outside the post office and began to show her pictures on his phone from his time in the Middle East. “He was just surrounded by groups of kids that were laughing and hanging off of him and he was just—he had this big smile in these pictures. The one that I remember the most, he was surrounded by about 12 kids just hanging off of him and laughing and he was right in the center and laughing with them. He seemed to be really proud of that.”
In his second presentation, Sotloff killed it. “[The attendees] all said that it was fabulous,” said Ouellette, “that he was very at ease. He was really in his element, he loved it.” Schafer’s daughters, who are both KUA students, attended. “A lot of the Jewish kids on campus went and a lot of the Middle Eastern kids,” he remembered. “He just captivated with the stories.”
“You see, that’s the dichotomy,” said Weidman. “When he was here, by and large he was not a serious kid. And then he went through this transformation. He wasn’t the joker that I remembered.”
Afterward the presentation, Schafer spoke with him. “I said, ‘Wow, you’ve been in some pretty hairy situations.’ And he said, ‘Well, I didn’t share a few other stories that I have.’ ” Sotloff told Schafer that he had been kidnapped and held at gunpoint, the barrel of the weapon held to his head. He told Schafer that he had to conceal his Jewish faith. “I actually asked him, ‘Do you want to be doing this, in this part of the world?’ He said, ‘I love doing what I’m doing. I wish it was more secure financially, and I wish it was safer. But I’m still drawn to it.’ ”
Ultimately, he decided on one more run of reporting in the Middle East, beginning in Libya.
On Aug. 9, 2012, TIME published Sotloff’s interview with then-Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib. Once again, Sotloff was reporting from a country that remained embroiled in a civil war, as numerous armed factions, including those loyal to the late Qaddafi, and “100,000 militiamen who spearheaded the drive to overthrow Gaddafi,” continued to fight. A new Libya, El-Keib told Sotoff, would represent a democratic “social mosaic.”
“When I was growing up, we had Italians and Jews in my neighborhood,” El-Keib told Sotloff in the wee hours of the morning from his hotel suite. “We had churches there, synagogues. It was part of our cultural heritage.”
Two days later, on Aug. 11, Sotloff asked The Vulture Club: “Anyone in Egypt, Libya or Turkey have an extra armored back plate for rent/sale?”
On Aug. 24, Sotloff published again a report in TIME from Tripoli. He Tweeted the story—“Whodunnit in Libya?” he wrote—his first Tweet ever. In his next Tweet, he trumpeted: “I’ve finally arrived at the Twitter sphere.”
Over the course of two days in Libya, three car bombs exploded, resulting in two deaths. Sotloff turned his attention to the rebel fighters, many of whom were still galvanized by their ouster of Qaddafi a year prior. Sotloff interviewed Masoud Bwisir, a quasi-celebrity rebel with a 1-year-old child, who “wrote one of the unofficial anthems of the revolution.” Bwisir, wrote Sotloff, was headed to Syria to join the fight against Assad, a growing trend amongst battle-tested rebel Libyans that had “become a torrent.”
In August Sotloff asked Nicole Tung, a photojournalist he had previously crossed paths with in the region, for contacts in Syria, and to get a sense of the working environment there. “I’m hearing the situation is deteriorating for journalists but that sounds a bit vague,” he asked her. What’s your take? Hope you’re happy and safe.” Tung gave him information about hotels and told him that it was really dangerous, and that he should bring armor.
On Sept. 2, Sotloff was reporting from the outskirts of Aleppo, where a majority of the rebels fighting Assad groups had come from.
Getting shelled in villages outside Aleppo. Regime uses L39s and possibly MIGs. Shelling every night. Some kill civilians
— Steven Sotloff (@stevensotloff) September 2, 2012
He continued, “More civilians fleeing villages. Only about 10% of residents stay behind. Italians bringing in aid.”
Two days later, Sotloff was “hunted by Syria Jets outside Aleppo,” and he took video. It begins with gunshots playing the background, as Sotloff records a jet flying overhead in front of a cerulean sky. Ten seconds in—boom.
Someone nearby says, “Allāhu Akbar.”
“That came from—that came from the around the corner here,” Sotloff says.
Then a familiar voice is heard: Barak Barfi’s.
“That was a cannon,” says Barfi. “What’d you get? Did you get it?”
On Sept. 10, Sotloff published two stories in TIME from Antakya, Turkey, less than 70 miles due west of Aleppo. He had traveled to Harbiyya, a village south of Antakya, but still in the Hatay province, that was divided among orthodox Sunnis and Alawites (and some Christians). He interviewed Assad supporters in a carpet shop in the village of Harbiyya “who have no qualms about their support for Assad” in spite of what the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called “‘attempted genocide’ of defenseless civilians.”
Sotloff found a similar spirit of support for Assad among twentysomethings in Antakya, the Hatay capital.
“We watch television at night and see the [rebel] terrorists hanging Alawi soldiers and yelling, ‘God is Great!’ ” 25-year-old student Ilena Coksoyler told Sotloff. “We are afraid for the Alawis in Syria and afraid that the foreign terrorists will try to do the same here in Turkey.”
Sotloff’s second story published on Sept. 10, 2012, examined dissent over Assad among the Syrian Alawites. He interviewed a Syrian rebel captain named “Umar,” who was formerly aligned with Assad’s government. Umar told Sotloff that he now considers Assad a “butcher” after forces attacked civilians in his hometown.
On June 5, 2012, Sotloff seconded a recommendation for Nicole Tung for a fixer in Lebanon on The Vulture Club. Six days later he asked the online collective an outlier of a question: “Does anyone know of any good lawyers in Nigeria?” In my research, I have not come across any information that connects Sotloff to Nigeria. I did, however, find an article published on Sept. 12, 2011, in TIME, in which Barfi is interviewed by writer Karen Leigh, now the managing editor of SyriaDeeply.org, about al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group aligned with Boko Haram in Nigeria. (Leigh interviewed Barfi on other occasions—for TIME about Bahrain in March and September and October [Bahrain/Saudi Arabia focus] of 2011, and for The Atlantic in February 2012. Leigh told C-Span in September 2014 that she knew Steve Sotloff, but did not go into detail.)
A year later, on Sept. 11, 2012, two U.S. compounds were attacked in Benghazi, killing four Americans—two CIA operatives and two diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. A senior AQIM member, Moktar Belmoktar, has been linked to the crime because he received a phone call in which the person on the other end said, “Mabruk, Mabruk!” or “Congratulations” in Arabic. Western intelligence officials believed that the call referred to the attack.
On Sept. 12, Sotloff published a recap of what was known about the attack for TIME, the first of a series of eight articles he published for the magazine in a two-and-a-half-month period. He began by recalling the “many ill omens” that preceded the “carnage” the night before at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which he called “the birthplace of the Libyan revolution.” He then looked back at the violence that had broken out in Benghazi months prior, beginning when a convoy carrying U.N. official Ian Martin was attacked by a bomb. This was followed by an attack on the British ambassador, then an explosion outside the U.S. Consulate in June, as a response to an American drone strike that killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, a high-ranking al-Qaida official. These events reached a crescendo when Libyan protesters marched on the U.S. Consulate, ostensibly enraged by a U.S.-made movie that made fun of the Prophet Mohammed. Stevens was there, visiting from Tripoli. (An editor’s note, added May 8, 2014, says that the protests Sotloff witnessed did not actually occur, according to a report by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.) “Elements in the crowd,” wrote Sotloff, then assaulted the consulate.
“Bullets were flying everywhere,” onlooker Ibrahim Shabani told Sotloff. Libyan forces tried to protect the building from Islamists, who blew up the building with their RPGs. Inside the compound, Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and two CIA men died. The ambassador, Sotloff wrote, had succumbed to toxic smoke inhalation. “Not knowing who he was, Libyan rescuers reportedly rushed Stevens’ limp body to the Biladi Medical Center but it was too late to save him,” Sotloff wrote. “They then brought his body to the airport where American authorities located him about dawn. The U.S. has not confirmed his death from asphyxiation.”
On Sept. 14, Sotloff Tweeted: “Black Flag up on flagpole in US Embassy Tunis.” The next day, Sotloff was back across the Mediterranean in Antakya, Turkey. He wrote to The Vulture Club: “To those in Antakya, I’m selling a flack jacket/helmet. PM me for details.”
On Sept. 17, Sotloff Tweeted a video that alleged to show Ambassador Stevens’ motionless body being dragged apparently by Libyans. Sotloff tweeted: “Video showing US Amb. to #Libya Stevens was rescued by a crowd thrilled by his survival. Hold your head up high Libyans.”
On Sept. 29, almost a year after Qaddafi was killed, Libyans turned in Kalashnikovs, RPGs, anti-tank cannon, and other arms taken from “unguarded weapons depot(s)” during the revolution. In exchange, civilians received a raffle ticket for a chance to win an iPad or a flat-screen television. And though the military claimed success, journalist Abdel Sattar Hetieta “said that it was more of a staged media event than a sincere drive to get the country’s weapons off the streets and into military barracks. ‘It looked like a party.’ ”
On Oct. 21, TIME published a piece written by Sotloff titled, “The Other 9/11.” In it, Sotloff was able to reconstruct the events in question by interviewing the guards of the consulate who were working the night that it was attacked. They were hiding, “fearful of reprisal from the still unkown perpetrators of the attack,” noted the editor, but Sotloff got to them. This story—the access to the guards—landed Sotloff an appearance on Fox News the next day, in which Sotloff backed down from his Sept. 12 story.
“First of all there was no protest outside the U.S. embassy on September 11,” Sotloff said through a satellite phone. “The night was quiet, they suddenly heard shouts of God is Great and the gunfire and explosions began within a minute or two. The guards were completely overwhelmed and it continued throughout the night. … It was an orchestrated attack.” Around this time, Tung ran into Sotloff taking notes near a press conference of a militia group. He was with Barfi.
On Nov. 7, Barack Obama was re-elected as U.S. president. Sotloff Tweeted: “#Obama back #Romney gone lets move on. Time to suck the venom from our veins.” Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 22, James Foley, a longtime freelance journalist and videographer from New England, was captured in northern Syria by militia forces aligned with Assad. Taken with him was John Cantlie, a British freelance photographer who had been captured once before—in Syria, five months prior—before he was rescued by the Free Syrian Army.
This wasn’t Foley’s first time as captive either. In April of 2011 during the Libyan revolution, Gaddafi’s forces took Foley and his colleagues, killing one, near Benghazi while he was embedded with rebels. He was beaten, and imprisoned for 44 days in numerous Libyan jails, before his release. Foley, who operated on the front lines of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, once called war reporting “a siren song.”
The day after Foley was kidnapped, Sotloff spoke with Ahmad Abu Khattallah, a long-bearded person of interest in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, whom Sotloff had interviewed over a two-week span, including at his home. The piece—and Khattallah’s non-answers—reflected the edgeless search for answers in the attack. A few days later, Sotloff Tweeted, “#Libyan security officials getting whacked and no one is doing anything about it.” He followed it with a link to his final piece for TIME, in which he details “a wave of assassinations targeting security officials … with no security organizations to ensure order and an ineffective justice system unable to prosecute suspects.”
“Libyans,” he wrote, “fear their country is slowly crumbling around them.”
On Dec. 2 he told The Vulture Club that he’d be doing a Tripoli-Cairo trip in a couple of weeks. In late December, Sotloff traveled to Aleppo, Syria, with Barfi. There were not many journalists around. “The whole neighborhood was essentially empty,” said Tung.
Sotloff and Barfi bunked in an apartment arranged by Abdullah al-Yasin, a popular fixer among journalists in Aleppo. Also staying in there was Tung; Patrick Wells, a video journalist; and Janine di Giovanni, Newsweek’s MENA editor; they were working together on a documentary titled, 7 Days in Syria. A few Syrians from the FSA were staying below them as well. At the time, journalists could expect to pay fixers anywhere from $100 to $200 a day, depending on services provided, such as food, transportation, translations, etc.
Al-Yasin was later killed on March 2, 2013; his younger brother wrote that the men who killed him were “a gang among those called the FSA.” Sotloff Tweeted: “My friend Abdullah AlYasin was executed 2day in Aleppo. He was a wonderful man who put others b4 himself. Gr8 loss. Yerhamu Allah!”
The apartment where the freelancers lived had three rooms, including a small kitchen. Sleeping arrangements varied. Sometimes Tung would share a bed with Di Giovanni or with Wells. Sometimes Barfi and Sotloff shared a room. “The guys all slept wherever,” said Tung, who shared the apartment with Sotloff and Barfi for about five days.
As rebel-held areas did not generally have electricity, and barely any running water, the December nights in Aleppo were cold. But this apartment had a generator that would run a heater at night when the electricity did work, as well as a two-way Internet connection. “It was actually pretty luxurious compared to other places we’d stayed,” said Tung. Out of necessity, Tung slept with earplugs at night to block out the hum of the generator. She did not like doing this because she preferred to hear what was going on. When the generator was finally shut off, around 3 or 4 in the morning, the cold would settle in. In the morning, they would use a lighter to spark a gas canister that heated up water, which they would mix with instant coffee. They’d share the coffee—“the most important thing,” said Tung. Around 6 or 7 in the morning, Tung, Wells, and Di Giovanni would head out with a fixer named Omar. Sotloff and Barfi would leave later.
“At the time the FSA would help with subsidizing flour to keep the prices low so that the people didn’t have to shell out more money for food,” said Tung. It was a dangerous time for both bakers and their customers. “The Assad government was purposefully targeting bakery lines,” said Tung. And because it was such a dire situation you would have (hundreds of) civilians lining up all day at any given time. The government would purposefully strike at these lines to kill as many people as possible. It was really horrific. There would just be streams of people laying dead or injured on the ground waiting for bread.”
Sotloff went to bread lines in Halfaya, about 80 miles south of Aleppo, and elsewhere, and wrote an intricate piece for Foreign Policy. In it, he detailed the 67 percent rise in the cost of bread, compounded by “skyrocketing” fuel costs, including the use of poor quality diesel fuel that was clogging the machines that produce the bread. “Increasingly,” wrote Sotloff, “shots are fired at customers,” including a Dec. 23 bombing by a fighter jet that killed dozens. He also wrote a dispatch from the bread lines that focused on “the FSA’s dismal track record with society,” an organization that had “promis[ed] to end the arbitrary arrests carried out by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to restore public order after months of fighting.”
At night, the five journalists would come back to the apartment and chat about their experiences in the field and about the situation in Syria in general. And they’d open their computers, check email, and go through files. They smoked cigarettes and conversed late into the night. They discussed the recent rise in journalist kidnappings—Foley had been taken just a month before. “It was a worrying time,” said Tung. Sotloff and Barfi would joke around, sometimes with Di Giovanni.
“Steve was funny,” wrote Di Giovanni, who has a son. “He was sweet. I thought of him as a younger brother, though he was extremely well-versed in the Middle East’s politics and culture, having lived in Yemen and Libya. He had a wicked sense of humor—hilarious tales of the absence of dating, takeaway food and the cinema during his time in Benghazi. The laughable humiliation of being unable to pick up chicks on his break in Istanbul while sporting his newly grown “jihadi beard” (grown because of a lack of water in Syria).
“Barak seemed like this sort of half grumpy guy, but not really. At one point they were talking about the damage that Scud missiles do and it made Steve laugh. It wasn’t all serious, but a lot of it was.”
“We got beat up in the Arab world together. We got beat up in places,” Barfi told me. “We would always try to find fun in the horrors we had.”
Aug. 4, 2013. Kilis, Turkey. At 7:30 a.m., Barfi wished Sotloff goodbye. He was headed into Syria, toward Aleppo, to pursue a story. They would never see each other again.
That morning, Sotloff set off with Yosef Abobaker, a fixer who said he had worked with more than 100 journalists in an 18-month span. He was charging Soltoff $80 a day. Sotloff had previously hired Abobaker for a three-day stint into Syria in 2012 and had interviewed his father for a story regarding the Syrian conflict.
When they entered Syria, Sotloff called Barfi to tell him that he had made it in, he told Anderson Cooper on Sept. 10, 2014. Six days later, CNN published an interview with Abobaker, who claimed that it was he who had called Barfi. CNN asked Barfi why he didn’t travel with Sotloff that morning, to which he replied, “I cannot go into details about that.” Sotloff gave Abobaker a gift—a camera. “Happy Birthday,” Sotloff said to Abobaker, who then looked at the road ahead.
“We were driving for only 20 minutes when I saw three cars stopped on the road ahead,” he told the New York Times. “They must have had a spy on the border that saw my car and told them I was coming.”
The border in question is the Bab al-Salama border, a crossing that had been commonly used by journalists on their way to Aleppo from Gaziantep, north of Kilis. But in June, two Frenchmen, Didier François, a war reporter, and Edouard Elias, a photojournalist, were taken at a “rogue checkpoint.”
Barfi later claimed that Sotloff was sold by “so-called moderate rebels” who had set up a “fake checkpoint.” He said that Sotloff had been on a list for being suspected of bombing a hospital. Barfi believed that Sotloff had been sold to ISIS for $25,000-$50,000. This was partly corroborated by Sotloff’s former editor at TIME, Janine di Giovanni, who said that one reason for Sotloff’s concern in going back to Syria was that he believed he was on a black list for having taken “footage of a hospital in Aleppo that had been bombed.”
One week before he was kidnapped, on June 27, Sotloff had a Facebook conversation with Nicole Tung, “Apparently I’m on a list at the Kilis crossing,” he told her. “I’m accused of spying and doing something to do with Dar al-Shifa [hospital in Aleppo], even though I didn’t enter Syria until weeks after it was destroyed. I’m hearing the A’zaz guys”—A’zaz is Syrian town on the Turkish border, directly southwest of Kilis—“make the list. Any idea who I need to talk to clear something up like this?”
And just before he took his ill-fated trip, Sotloff also expressed concern over Facebook with Hungarian journalist, Balint Szlanko, 35, who had experience covering the region. He remembered that at some point Sotloff had borrowed a flak jacket from Alice Martins, a Brazilian photojournalist.
“He asked me about rumors going around at the time, or rumors that he had heard, that his name was on some sort of blacklist by the Free Syrian Army,” said Szlanko. “People had been talking about him as the person being responsible for the bombing of the Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo which had burned maybe a half a year before that. He had heard that the FSA thought he was a spy.”
Szlanko asked around for him, talking with fixers and journalists alike, with Syrians and Westerners that he said he trusted. “I established that this was a misunderstanding, and his name was not on any list and he needn’t worry about this,” he said.
Szlanko said that during armed conflict, suspicions and rumors like these are commonplace, such as among rebel factions in Aleppo when the hospital in question was bombed. “None of it was really realistic,” he said. “It was just sort of a crazy rumor that goes around in the time of war—that everyone thinks you’re a spy.”
Still, Szlanko told Sotloff that he didn’t think that it was a good time to go to Syria.
“We had people going missing,” he said, referring to four French journalists who had been taken just a few months prior. “The whole ISIS thing—it was just beginning. They were all over the place. We knew by then that this is not the right time.” Szlanko himself had been planning to go into Syria but canceled his trip. “I just kept putting it off because it just didn’t feel right.” He told Sotloff so.
“This has been bugging me ever since,” he said. “I could never decide if I had been forceful enough in telling him, ‘Don’t go.’ ”
Szlanko said that he learned about Sotloff’s kidnapping either the day that he was taken or the day after. He’s not sure who told him but believes that it may have been journalist Emma Beals. (Beals declined to comment for this article.)
Abobaker said that about 15 gunmen with assault rifles got out of their cars and approached them. He asked them, “Who are you? What do you want?” They told him, “Just shut up.” In Arabic, they told Abobaker and Sotloff to cover their eyes. They struck Sotloff with a gun. Abobaker explained to him in English that he should close his eyes. They then hit Abobaker and told him to shut up. “Don’t talk English,” they said. They were taken to a textile factory near Aleppo and put into rooms, alone. One of Sotloff’s captors said to him, “Password.”
“After that I didn’t hear the voice of Steve.”
Abobaker’s captors accused him of being a spy and for working with the American government. But because Abobaker, a former fighter with the rebel Al-Tawhid brigade, had papers, they let him and his family go. He told CNN that no U.S. government officials ever asked him for information. Sotloff spent the next year and change in various prisons in Syria. He was deprived of food and water, but was later given chocolates. He learned new languages with the help of his fellow inmates, and they told stories and played games, including chess, to pass the time.
Among the very few early people that the Sotloffs confided in about their son’s capture was Bookman, their rabbi. He introduced the Sotloffs to all of the political contacts available to him, who in turn connected the family with people in Washington. “This is a very large and powerful community who are very well connected on the highest levels of Washington,” Bookman told me. Bookman said that a big break came in the spring of 2014 when the four French journalists, who were imprisoned with Sotloff, were set free because their government paid a reported $18M in ransom. “We were sharing all of our lives,” said Nicolas Henin, one of the released French journalists. “There is no privacy when you are stuck together in a room for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We were having meals together, sleeping next to each other. We were having discussions about everything: life, hopes, expectations.”
Also among those released was Pierre Torres, whom Sotloff used as a message carrier. Torres, given 24 hours advance notice of his release, used his memory to record Sotoff’s notes, which he then communicated with the family after his release. “He had like a personal message for different members of his family,” Torres said later. “It was the only way of doing it because there was no way of writing anything. The only thing I can keep with me was my memories.”
Bookman told me that the Sotloffs received a phone call from their son during his year in captivity, but the rabbi would not provide specifics about what was said or by whom, or about circumstances surrounding the call from either side.
Arthur Sotloff denied this happened.
‘Steve, Be Safe’
In January 2015, I visited Benny Scholder in Gedera, his hometown located about 35 miles south of Herzliya, Israel. The train from Rehovot was packed with Israeli soldiers visiting their families and loved ones. A light rain had steadied when Scholder picked me up. Music by Arik Einstein played softly on his speakers as we headed to a bar, and by the time we parked the car it was pouring buckets—it had been all week. We ran for it, toward a bar called, לוּל, or “chicken coop,” and sat down.
“I can’t talk about Steve without drinking,” said Scholder. “Not because it’s sad for me, but that’s how Steve would want it.”
Scholder was informed of Sotloff’s capture in the beginning of October 2013 when Lauren Sotloff, Steven’s younger sister, reached out to him. “We weren’t even back from our honeymoon and he had been kidnapped during that time,” he said. “[Lauren] was afraid of her father finding out that she told me because they were told by American authorities not to talk about it. At that point she had said al-Qaida [had captured him] because nobody at that time I think knew what ISIS was.”
Lauren Sotloff also told Larroche, via Facebook, a month or two later. “I said, ‘Steve? That makes sense I guess,’ ” Larroche said. “It’s awful, but it gave me a hell of a lot of time to deal with what was most likely going to be the outcome of his kidnapping.”
Scholder, who was once stationed in Jerusalem with the Israeli border police, said that he used to warn Sotloff while they were still in school about the dangers of reporting from the places he desired to go. He remembered Sotloff having been arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2009, before the events of the Arab Spring, likely one of the first times he was detained. “I know it killed his parents that he was doing this. Like, ‘Steve, just come home.’ He was traveling to these places. His dad was always like, ‘Steve, be safe.’ His dad was proud of him,” he said. “I told him, ‘Steve you’re gonna get your head cut off.’ And he got his head cut off.”
“So, for me when I found out he was kidnapped, I was shocked but it wasn’t panic. I was more like, ‘Shit, well, yeah, I guess that’s logical and awful, and we gotta do whatever we can to get him back.’ But I was told not to say anything, so I didn’t say anything.”
Read Part 2 of The Life and Death of Steven Sotloff here.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.