The last tweet before Steven Sotloff disappeared showed that his hometown was never far from the foreign correspondent’s mind.
Sotloff had written for TIME magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat and more. He reported from Libya after the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, trying to piece together what happened that night when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. One of his pieces tried to reconstruct the attack with firsthand testimony from the Libyan guards on duty at the time.
A few days before his abduction, he tweeted that he had been hit by pepper spray unleashed by riot police in Antakya, a Turkish town near the Syrian border with a notable Christian population. At the time, the Erdogan government was responding harshly to peaceful protests advocating a more democratic Turkey.
On July 31, 2013, he tweeted about the death of infamous heart-eating Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar, referring to him as “Hannibal Lecter wannabe.”
The 31-year-old freelancer who became fluent in Arabic listed his location as الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا — the Middle East and North Africa.
After photojournalist James Foley was beheaded on camera in a video released by ISIS on Tuesday, his executioner reappeared on camera holding Sotloff by the back of his orange shirt.
“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” warned the terrorist.
The very fact that Sotloff had been kidnapped surprised media. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.
Sotloff’s parents live in the district of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is also chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
“They’re my neighbors. We live in a suburb of Miami, the village of Pinecrest. They reached out to us last year, August, around this time, saying that their son had disappeared, a freelance journalist,” Ros-Lehtinen told MSNBC today. “And then I met with them in Washington and been in contact with the Department of State, with everyone, the ambassador of Syria, to see what could be done, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International.”
Ros-Lehtinen said it’s “very difficult” to determine what the next move should be.
“We pray. And like the mom said, he’s still alive. There is still hope. There is a lot that we can do. They have a petition. They want the folks to sign the petition,” she said. “And it’s a — they’re a very private family… So they’re asking everyone from their family and friends to not give statements to the press, because it’s so delicate, these negotiations.”
The petition to the White House asks that President Obama “do everything possible to free American reporter Steven Sotloff from ISIS in Syria and save his life.”
“Steven appeared at the end of a video in which reporter James Foley was beheaded. In the video, Steven is seen at the end declaring that he will be next,” states the petition, which still needs more than 91,000 signatures by Sept. 18 to trigger a White House response. “We, the undersigned call upon you, President Obama, to take immediate action to save Steven’s life by any means necessary.”
“I can say that the White House is involved. We’ve been in touch with them. And this has gone to the highest level,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
She said that Florida Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) and Ted Deutch (D) have also been helping on the case behind the scenes.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday that they would not get into the details of whether or not they believe Sotloff is still alive.
“The State Department, the FBI, officials from the intelligence community and the White House and others have been in touch with the Foley family and the Sotloff family,” Harf said. “We have remained in close contact with them.”
Obama has not mentioned Sotloff by name. In his Wednesday statement on Foley’s beheading, the president said “we keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families.”
“We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for,” Obama said.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on the Foley murder didn’t mention the threat against Sotloff at the gruesome video’s conclusion.
“There is evil in this world, and we all have come face to face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil,” Kerry said. “ISIL is the face of that evil, a threat to people who want to live in peace, and an ugly insult to the peaceful religion they violate every day with their barbarity.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said he knows the Sotloffs “have been working tirelessly to secure the release of their captured son.”
Ros-Lehtinen admitted she is torn about suggestions that, in the wake of Foley’s beheading, the U.S. should entertain the idea of negotiating with ISIS for Sotloff’s life and the lives of other Americans. ISIS made a $100 million demand for Foley before his death.
“As a member of Congress, I would say, no, because that only puts it makes every American a target because they depend on outside money, although they are very rich themselves,” she said. “As a mother and as a grandmother, I would say please do everything possible to save my son or grandson. So it depends on if I were the parents… and I don’t speak for them. I would say do everything. And maybe all options are on the table. I don’t know. I pray for Steven.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the bottom line is “you may not be buying the death of the people ransomed, but you’re buying other people’s death.”
“If it was a member of my family, I’d be in there saying pay the ransom. Which is why we don’t have members of the family making these tough calls,” added the House Intelligence Committee member on MSNBC. “…The broader point is that it just doesn’t work. I mean, if you look at the Europeans who are paying ransoms, is that stopping Europeans from being kidnapped? No, it isn’t. It’s not stopping them from being murdered, either.”