Monday, September 8, 2014

Saving Steven

The inside story of how a group of volunteers stopped the Islamic State from discovering the truth about Steven Sotloff.

Steven Sotloff wasn’t my friend. Like most observers, the first time I heard about him was August 19, 2014 when his life was threatened on camera by the Islamic State following the beheading of fellow journalist James Foley. I casually caught up on what was known of his abduction the year before and looked at the still shots of him in the middle of the desert, stone-faced with a shaved head, wearing an orange jumpsuit, being threatened with death by an English-accented militant who probably had a western upbringing similar to Steven's.

I did a quick Google search and, to my surprise, couldn’t find much. I found it suspicious how little information there was of this supposedly hungry Middle East journalist on the web. Living in Israel, where the fate of kidnapped Israelis is widely reported and the subject of major national awareness campaigns, I attributed this to apathy on the part of Americans. It shocked and even revolted me that Steven had been missing for more than twelve months and no one anywhere, not even in his hometown, seemed to know or care. Little did I know this was nothing more than an elaborate illusion.

The day after the video went viral, I was hanging out at a friend’s apartment when I received an abrupt phone call from Gregg Roman, an old buddy of mine from my days in the Israel Defense Forces. Gregg, the Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation, is a seasoned expert on security and politics in the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on a number of news channels, including Al-Jazeera. 

Gregg tried making small talk with me for about fifteen seconds before he cut to the chase. He asked me if I’d heard of Steven Sotloff. I said of course. He asked me if I knew Steven Sotloff personally. No, I didn't. Why would I know Steven Sotloff of all people?

 “This is confidential information,” Gregg said. “You can’t tell anyone. Steven Sotloff is a friend of mine. From when he lived in Israel.”

My stomach tightened.

“Steven studied with me at the IDC (the Inter-Disciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya). He’s a proud Jew and he’s an Israeli citizen.”

I didn't know Steven Sotloff personally, but through this experience I felt like I did. My friends who knew him say he was one unforgettable guy. He is extremely missed.
Gregg explained that he was serving as a spokesperson for the Sotloff family. He briefly told me how Steven’s family kept silent about his abduction because of IS threats to murder him if his situation was made public. Steven’s family feared, rightfully, that if his Jewish and Israeli identities were known to his captors, he and every other captive would be summarily executed. In the Arab Middle East, any link to the Jewish people or Israel, no matter how tenuous, will raise suspicion that one is a spy. Spies get tortured and eventually murdered. And the problem was Steven’s connections to the Jewish people and Israel were not tenuous whatsoever.

The Sotloff family and their immediate network made a heroic effort to remove every trace of Steven’s connection to the Jewish people and Israel from the Internet. Requests were made (and granted) to remove articles he’d written for Israeli newspapers or about Israel from the Internet. His Facebook and Twitter profile and activity were deleted, as were online comments by anyone wondering about his whereabouts or his background. Anyone who was aware that Steven had been kidnapped was asked to maintain a strict code of silence and refrain from speaking about his circumstances with anyone. 

To people like me who didn’t know him, it was less like Steven Sotloff disappeared and more like he never existed.

After Steven suddenly appeared in the video of James Foley’s execution, the cat was out of the bag for lack of a better expression. People who knew him started asking how he got into this mess. People who didn’t know him started trying to get to know him and began digging around his background and personal history. 

Steven’s parents feared that Steven’s true faith and identity would be plastered all over the news. To prevent that, they and their advisors agreed that an additional channel needed to be created; a channel separate from official government efforts to free Steven and also from those who merely had personal relationships with Steven. That was how my friend Gregg Roman got involved. The family informed Gregg of the situation and asked him to set up a channel using whatever resources he could muster up.

Gregg began making phone calls and within a day had assembled a group of roughly a dozen unpaid volunteer experts in public relations, broadcast media, social media, kidnapping and ransom, and key languages. Gregg asked me to come on board as the group’s Arabic language coordinator. 

“I know you’re super busy and you have a million other important things going on right now,” Gregg said haltingly.

“I’ll do it,” I interrupted. 

An hour later after midnight I joined a conference call with Gregg and many of the other volunteer experts. Very few of us knew Steven, but now he and his life were at the top of our priority list. In a matter of minutes, Steven became much more than a friend to me. He became a righteous cause.
The people on that phone call were individuals with vast networks of connections in media, the Jewish community, and in countries hostile to the United States and Israel. Each of us was given explicit instructions for our specific tasks. Many of these people literally dropped everything and began working on Steven’s case full time.

A major topic of early discussion was on how to keep the local Miami Jewish community, where Steven’s parents were active members, silent. The American Jewish community has a strong track record of fighting virtuously and publicly for great causes. The case of Steven Sotloff, however, was not a cause that could be made public. 

A closed Facebook group was created called “BRING HIM HOME” that gave people involved with our efforts a forum to share information and coordinate. A hundred or so additional volunteers joined the group and made very important contributions. Those with specific expertise continued to communicate via conference call and directly through Gregg and other family spokespeople. 

From the moment the “BRING HIM HOME” group was created, it was literally active non-stop. People scoured the Internet and social media for any reference to Steven’s Jewish or Israeli identity. Any time an ambiguous post was uploaded onto any social media site that could have any connection to Steven, people worked vigorously to have it deleted. News outlets and individual journalists who got wind of Steven’s story were asked to keep their information to themselves. Articles in the Daily Mail and the New York Times reporting on Steven’s Jewish roots were immediately removed. 

My role focused on monitoring Arabic media for any mention of Steven or any conspiracy theories about him. I scanned mainstream Arabic news portals such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, A-Sharq Al-Awsat, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and Al-Watan for any written reports or videos analyzing Steven and his background. I searched Steven's name in Arabic on Google using multiple variations to find any posts or blogs that may have featured him as a topic. I followed the Islamic State on Twitter and read the frequent posts published about the targeted bombing by US forces. Steven, though, was largely (and thankfully) ignored.

I was actually very surprised at how little there was written directly about Steven across Arabic media. When I was a journalist for the Times of Israel newspaper, I wrote a bi-weekly column about Arabic media. I knew that many stories in the Arabic press are simply lifted from American and even Israeli media outlets and re-written for an Arabic audience. Many of the major Arabic dailies, such as A-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, are not even based in the Middle East, but in London. Furthermore, originality has never been a phrase used to describe Arab journalism, except perhaps in the case of Al-Jazeera.

The lack of discourse was eye opening, but as I conducted more research, it started to make sense. Most Arabic media outlets typically represent the regimes the Islamic State seeks to topple, so very few mainstream Arab journalists are currently on the ground reporting from Islamic State territory. Nearly all their information is coming from western news bureaus. As a result, I was unable to find any piece in the Arabic media related to Steven with a different take than their western counterparts.
For days, we volunteers kept a watchful eye on anything and everything in the news and participated in conference calls to pass along updates whenever we could. Certain members of the group were involved in additional channels to try to secure Steven and the other hostages' release. Details of these efforts cannot be divulged at this time. 

On August 27 Steven’s mother, Shirley Sotloff, released her video addressing Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Our group of volunteers was briefed on the video the day before. Our efforts had been to keep Steven’s story off the radar to prevent people from asking questions. Steven’s mother’s decision to release an appeal for her son’s life was obviously going to complicate that. No one knew if her decision to address the Islamic State directly was the right choice but no one could fault her for doing everything she could to save her son.

When Shirley Sotloff’s video was released and went viral, our efforts went into overdrive. Every word of her appeal was dissected. There were questions and debates about whether people would assume Steven was Jewish by her comment that “the Prophet Muhammad protected the people of the book,” which refers to Jews and Christians. 

The days passed and the energy and imperative to keep Steven’s identity out of the news began to feel nearly normal. Whatever else any of us had going on in life was abandoned in favor of contributing whatever we could to a person who, in spirit, became like family to us. From the beginning we knew the chances of saving his life were slim. It was unimaginable to give up trying.

On Day 14, September 2, I was scanning the news at work when I saw the first report.  The Islamic State had brutally beheaded Steven Sotloff. The reports were unsubstantiated at first, though it didn’t take long for the US to confirm the authenticity of the video of the execution. I felt numb, weak, and sick.

I was apprehensive about how this would affect Gregg, whose wife was in labor with their second child at the time of the report’s release. Surprisingly, it only took a few minutes before Gregg appeared on the Facebook group and, as calm as ever, reminded everyone that despite Steven’s murder, our job was not finished.

“Just because Steven is no longer with us doesn’t mean the world can find out who he really was,” he said in a conference call later that evening. “If IS finds out post-mortem that Steven was Jewish and Israeli, that puts every other captive in IS’ hands at risk. If Steven was Jewish, then he was an Israeli spy. If Steven was an Israeli spy, then every other captive is an Israeli spy. Steven’s identity being revealed could expedite the executions of every other captive.”

We continued our efforts believing the lives of other innocents were in our hands. I don’t recall which media source first published details about Steven’s Jewish upbringing, but once it was out, we all knew it wouldn’t take long for details about his life in Israel to emerge. When those details did emerge, there were efforts to reach out to journalists to silence their articles like we had done less than two weeks earlier.

“News of his background has gone viral,” one Israeli journalist told me when I called her up to sternly ask her to pull her article. “It’s on every website in the world and we’re not going to be the only source not to publish.”

When the Israeli government publicly confirmed that Steven was a citizen a few days ago, our volunteer efforts officially ceased and the Facebook group “BRING HIM HOME” became a forum for mourning.

Everyone involved in the effort takes pride in the fact that the Islamic State was seemingly unaware of Steven's Jewish or Israeli heritage at the time of his murder. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Steven personally, but after this two week saga, I find myself also in mourning for a dear friend.

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