Slain U.S. journalist held Israeli citizenship, wrote for Israeli magazine


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Steven Sotloff, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State, held Israeli citizenship and had strong connections to the country, an Israeli official and acquaintances said Wednesday.

Sotloff studied at an Israeli college, wrote for an Israeli news magazine and visited the country less than a month before he was abducted in Syria, the acquaintances said.

His ties to Israel were kept under wraps during the year after he was seized, particularly after it emerged last month that he was being held by militants from the Islamic State. It was unknown whether his captors were aware of his links to Israel or of his Jewish faith. His executioner made no mention of either during the video that showed Sotloff’s murder, calling the killing retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. In the video, Sotloff referred to himself only as an American citizen.

Israeli officials were tight-lipped about Sotloff on Wednesday, saying they did not want to inject Israel into the confrontation with the Islamic State. However, there was a fleeting confirmation of his dual nationality.

“Cleared for publication, Steven Sotloff was Israel citizen RIP,” tweeted Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Other officials refused to elaborate, citing the sensitivity of the subject.

Word that Sotloff had studied in Israel at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college north of Tel Aviv, helped fill in gaps of what is known about the Miami native, who previously had been described as a one-time journalism student at the University of Central Florida who freelanced for Time magazine and other American publications.

The Interdisciplinary Center confirmed Wednesday that Sotloff had studied there from 2005 to 2008 and had completed an undergraduate program in government studies.

Jonathan Davis, vice president for external relations at the college, recalled that he had interviewed Sotloff when he applied. Davis said he found Sotloff to be “a very inquisitive person and interested in everything that moves.” The government studies program includes courses in counterterrorism, diplomacy, conflict resolution and international relations, Davis said.

Sotloff, a burly man who had played rugby during his university years in Florida, sought out a rugby squad in Israel and befriended Michael Sapir, a lawyer, who introduced him to his amateur team in Raanana, a town north of Tel Aviv. Sotloff trained with the team but was unable to play because of an old back injury, though he continued to socialize regularly with the other players, joining them for barbecues and beer, Sapir said.

When Sotloff became an Israeli citizen is uncertain. Officials declined to address the topic, and Sapir said he knew only that Sotloff had told him that he was thinking about it.

Sotloff apparently left Israel after his studies but traveled to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey and Syria for freelance work as the Arab Spring unfolded. For a while he based himself in Yemen, where he studied Arabic, and traveled with a Yemeni cellphone.

Sotloff contributed 13 articles to Time between Aug. 9 and Nov. 26, 2012, according to a compilation of his work posted on the magazine’s website.

But his writing appeared more often in the Jerusalem Report, an English-language Israeli news magazine, to which he contributed about 20 articles under his name from 2010 through 2013, according to Avi Hoffman, the publication’s managing editor.

With Israeli reporters having only limited access to the Arab world, Sotloff’s offerings were a valued resource for the magazine.

“Basically he was our premier Middle East correspondent out there,” Hoffman said. “He was very reliable, very daring. He was a guy who went out to speak to people in the trouble spots. He didn’t sit around a bar and talk to other journalists.”

Sotloff’s last article for the magazine, on the protest movement that led to the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, was a cover story that ran in August 2013, just as he went missing.

Hoffman said he did not suspect anything was amiss when he stopped hearing from Sotloff and was unaware until last month that he had been abducted. The episode was not publicly revealed by Sotloff’s family. “If you work with freelancers like we do, they keep in touch when they want to submit something,” Hoffman said. Otherwise, “you don’t hear from them.”

After Sotloff appeared in an Islamic State video that showed the slaying of James Foley, another American journalist, Hoffman said he was careful to avoid any comment about Sotloff or his association with the magazine.

Sapir said that he last saw Sotloff when he visited Israel in July 2013 and the two spent a day watching rugby matches in the Maccabiah Games, a gathering of Jewish athletes from around the world. Sapir said he was gripped by Sotloff’s accounts of the turmoil he had seen across the region, and his friend seemed driven by a desire to be a witness to history.

About two weeks after the trip to Israel, Sotloff disappeared in Syria.

“He turned out to be a remarkable man with a great amount of courage to take on the adventure he embarked on,” Sapir said. “He went out into the field to live it, to see it firsthand, and then he became a journalist, writing about what he was experiencing. He made a journalistic career out of thin air.”

Oren Kessler, a former Arab affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, cooperated with Sotloff during a two-year email correspondence after receiving a Facebook message from him sent from Libya in 2011.

In a tribute to his slain colleague published by Politico Magazine, Kessler recalled their relationship, citing messages they exchanged.

He wrote that when he once asked Sotloff what a journalist with an obviously Jewish name was doing in places like Libya and Yemen, his colleague replied: “I don’t really share my values and opinions. I try to stay alive.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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