Remembering Steven Sotloff through his journalism

September 2, 2014

In this handout image made available by the photographer, American journalist Steven Sotloff (center, wearing black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Al Dafniya front line on June 2, 2011, in Misrata, Libya. (Etienne de Malglaive via Getty Images)

As a former editor at Time magazine, I had the privilege of briefly working with Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist believed to have been beheaded in Syria by Islamic State jihadists. Sotloff, a freelancer, disappeared in August 2013 while on a reporting trip in the environs of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

I can't pretend to know him particularly well. Nor can I fathom the depth of anguish felt by his family, who have tirelessly worked to win his freedom over the past year. And I don't have any great personal insight into what motivated him as a journalist and spurred him to venture, repeatedly, to such a dangerous part of the world.

What I can point to is the breadth and commitment of his work. Sotloff, when I knew him, was based in the Libyan city of Benghazi, from where he covered the country's own tragic spiral into chaos after the fall of the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi. He wrote important pieces about the proliferation of weapons there and the failures of its hapless central government in the face of rising Islamist militias and other factions.

They're worth revisiting, given that Libya is now in the grips of a low-level civil war. A range of Islamist, city and tribal militias are battling one another while two separate governments claim to be the country's true rulers. Both are laughably weak.

At a more hopeful moment in September 2012, Sotloff observed attempts by the then fledgling government in Tripoli to rein in the spread of guns in the country. Libya was awash with all sorts of arms, a flow unleashed by the emptying of Gaddafi's arsenals as well as contributions from outside powers aiding the Libyan rebellion. The new plan was to reclaim the guns with various incentives, including raffle tickets and electronics, as Sotloff reported from Benghazi:

In front of the seaside courthouse where protests sparked the revolution, three members of Libya’s Special Forces sitting at a table scribbled the names of the owners of the weapons turned over. In return the officers gave civilians a receipt, noting which arms were surrendered. As they did, two men lined up dozens of bullets used by anti-aircraft guns known as Dushkas. “I turned in several rifles because I don’t need them anymore,” says Omar Ali as the bullets tumbled like dominoes. Twenty-five boxes containing new flat screen televisions were stacked behind him along with more than 10 iPads.

But the efforts were failing and Libya's authorities had no power over the many militias who led the fight against Gaddafi but now refused to surrender their arms: "We don’t have to turn in our weapons," one Benghazi militia leader told Sotloff. The reporter concluded: "And as long as they don’t, the drive to collect the country’s weapons will be a stalled one."

In the post-Gaddafi vacuum, Sotloff reported at length for Time about the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. What American readers likely paid less attention to was Sotloff's diligent chronicling of the surge in assassinations and targeted attacks on the country's top security officials, all part of the larger unraveling of the Libyan state.

"Eight months of a revolutionary war in 2011 decimated Libya’s already deeply flawed civic institutions," Sotloff wrote in November 2012. "With no security organizations to ensure order and an ineffective justice system unable to prosecute suspects, Libyans fear their country is slowly crumbling around them."

Libya's feuding militias were also getting in the way of the creation of a functional national army -- the absence of which has been felt in the country's current crisis. "There are unsatisfied militias that don’t want things to succeed," a leading Libyan politician told Sotloff in 2012. "If an army is created, they will be the biggest losers."

Sotloff reported in many other countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Israel and Yemen. He spent his last years focused on the war in Syria and he covered the conflict from within the country and refugee camps along its borders. He wrote memorably in Foreign Policy about his experience in the bread lines of Aleppo, among people who "fear they are stage players in a war with no end in sight."

The piece was the product of a ten-day trip to Syria's war-ravaged commercial capital at a time when Syria's "moderate" rebels still appeared to lead the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was published on Christmas Eve. In an e-mail sent to a Time editor alongside a link to the Foreign Policy article, Sotloff wrote that the "situation is nothing like the media dispatches from the West depict it," alluding to the darker forces shaping the rebellion as well as the revolutionary fatigue of Aleppo's beleaguered populace.

"We are people not cattle," an Aleppo resident told Sotloff, as the pair watched fights break out in a long line for rations of pita bread. "But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us."

Sotloff would return repeatedly to bear witness, a mission that led to tragedy. He was never short of courage, though. In a dispatch he wrote for the World Affairs Journal, Sotloff described what preceded his own cordial meetings with members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, President Mohamed Morsi, was ousted by the Egyptian military in July 2013.

When I told my Egyptian friend Ahmad Kamal that I wanted to go to the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Nasser City, a pallid look gripped him. "Don’t go there!" he pleaded. "They are fanatics who hate foreigners. Americans like you are in danger there." After an hour of fruitless conversation over endless glasses of sweet tea, I rose, shook Ahmad’s hand, and headed straight to the lair where he believed I would be devoured.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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