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Despite dangers, U.S. journalist Sotloff was determined to record Arab Spring's human toll

A video purportedly showing U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff kneeling next to a masked Islamic State fighter holding a knife in an unknown location in this still image from video released by Islamic State September 2, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Islamic State via Reuters TV
A video purportedly showing U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff kneeling next to a masked Islamic State fighter holding a knife in an unknown location in this still image from video released by Islamic State September 2, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Islamic State via Reuters TV

By Warren Strobel and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even for a freelance journalist covering the tumult in the Arab world, Steven Sotloff's travels seemed nonstop.

In October 2012, the American reporter was in Benghazi, Libya, covering the aftermath of the deadly raid on the U.S. diplomatic compound there. In December, he was in northern Syria, writing about the lives of destitute, displaced Syrians and the war, according to his published reports and his communications with colleagues and editors.

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

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

Islamic State said in a video released by a monitoring group on Tuesday that it had beheaded Sotloff, 31, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the group, the second such killing of a U.S. journalist in two weeks. His family said in a statement they believed he had been killed.

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

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

"He wanted to get the story, he wanted to peel away the layers," said Denton, who met Sotloff over coffee in Washington in May 2013, and published two of his dispatches from Cairo the following July.

SUDDEN DISAPPEARANCE

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

One individual familiar with the case said the family's theory had been that Sotloff was grabbed by a criminal gang, and later transferred or "sold" to Islamic State. This could not be confirmed by his family, which declined interview requests.

His plight burst into the open on Aug. 19, when he appeared at the end of an Internet video depicting the execution of fellow American journalist and hostage James Foley.

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

Colleagues said Sotloff was well aware of the dangers of reporting from Syria but was determined to return there nonetheless. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering Syria's civil war since it erupted in 2011, and more than 80 have been kidnapped, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

"He was very eager to go to Syria," said Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank who crossed paths with Sotloff several times in the Middle East.

Mutual friends in Lebanon tried to discourage Sotloff from going to Syria, Smith said. "He was very insistent," he added.

Preparing for the trip, Sotloff asked a fellow reporter in June 2013: "What type of lawlessness in Aleppo? Should I keep my eyes open for anything regarding safety?"

"Can you meet with ISI," he asked, using an earlier acronym for Islamic State. "And the quality of life? Is there still plenty of food available? Gas?"

Little is known about Sotloff's year in captivity before his murder, although there have been persistent reports that Western hostages were abused, and some were subject to waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning.

Didier Francois, a French journalist who was held hostage by Islamic State fighters and released this year, told Reuters he had been held with Sotloff for nine months, as well as with Foley, suggesting foreign captives were kept at a common site, at least for a time.

A person familiar with contacts between Sotloff's family and his kidnappers said the captors originally demanded a ransom. "They wanted money," said this person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

JOURNALISM AND BASKETBALL

Sotloff, who grew up in the Miami area, attended Kimball Union Academy, a boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, from 2000 to 2002. He revitalized the school's newspaper and received a journalism award upon graduation, the Academy said in a statement on Tuesday.

He studied journalism at the University of Central Florida from 2002 to 2004 and wrote for an independent student newspaper. He did not graduate.

"Devastated and crushed. Steve was an amazing friend. Lucky to have him in my life. Heart is heavy for his family," Emerson Lotzia, who roomed with Sotloff at UCF, said via Twitter.

Sotloff was an avid basketball fan. When it came to journalism, he focused on human angles, whether it was a mother of nine in a refugee camp in northern Syria or protesters in Cairo's Nasser City neighborhood demonstrating against the military's ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

"Coups depicted as revolutions, peaceful protesters painted as fanatics and disgruntled citizens hailed as revolutionaries," he wrote in World Affairs in July 2013, "have transformed Egypt into a circus where the main attraction is the uncertainty of heading into the unknown."

(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Ken Wills)

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