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.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
More children under five survive

    Death rate for children under 5 has plunged, UN reports

    In a break from the recent slate of doom-and-gloom reports of catastrophes, wars and destruction, a United Nations report released Tuesday says the number of children under 5 who die each year fell by 49 percent between 1990 and 2013, from 12.7 million to 6.3 million, saving 17,000 lives every day.

  • FARC rebel ambush kills 7 police in Colombia

    Colombia's police chief says leftist rebels have killed seven police officers and injured five in an ambush in the country's northwest.

  •  
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the first in a series of high-profile Capitol Hill hearings that will measure the president's ability to rally congressional support for President Barack Obama's strategy to combat Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, in Washington, Sept. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    War on Islamic State will be long, difficult, top defense officials tell Senate

    In their first public briefing since President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the nation’s two top defense officials on Tuesday provided few details of their plans and no guarantees of success.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category