- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal., Kate BrannenKate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter.
This story has been updated.
In releasing a video showing the murder of a second American journalist, the militants of the Islamic State made clear that they have no interest in negotiating with Barack Obama’s administration or its allies over the fate of other missing Westerners despite implying that they’d release those prisoners if Washington stopped its intensifying air campaign against the group.
On Tuesday, Sept. 2, the Islamic State released a video that purports to show the beheading of reporter Steven Sotloff, whom the group threatened to kill exactly two weeks ago when it released another video showing the murder of journalist James Foley. In that message, the group said that Sotloff would die unless the United States halted airstrikes. But some U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe that Sotloff may have been killed at the same time as Foley, meaning the group never intended to release the Florida native or negotiate for his freedom.
Before the Sotloff video was released, a U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic State to make it appear as if the video had been recorded after the one showing Foley’s murder. In the video released Tuesday, Sotloff’s murderer gives no definitive indication of when he killed Sotloff. He mentions airstrikes on the Mosul Dam in Iraq, which began Aug. 17, but those started before the video of Foley’s death was released two days later. And U.S. intelligence officials believe that Foley may have been killed as early as Aug. 15, meaning his killing was not a response to the Mosul Dam attacks. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, declined to comment on whether the Defense Department believes Sotloff was killed at the same time as Foley.
Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in August 2013, had written for numerous publications, including Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Foreign Policy, including two dispatches from Syria. One, from December 2012, chronicled the toll that the civil war was taking on civilians in Aleppo. Another, published in January 2013, reported on thousands of Syrians displaced by the fighting and living in a makeshift tent city.
Sotloff’s abduction came nine months after that of Foley, who was taken in November 2012. The Islamic State has since made a series of outlandish demands that Washington has taken as evidence that the group never intended to release the two journalists. In Foley’s case, the Islamic State demanded more than $130 million, a figure that Foley’s former editor at the GlobalPost, where he worked as a freelancer, said no one ever took seriously. "It was a sum that no one could meet," Phil Balboni said in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air. Friends of Foley and his family did attempt to raise a smaller sum, but it’s not clear how much they were able to collect, and direct negotiations with the Islamic State never actually took place.
The terrorist group has also called upon the United States to release a suspected al Qaeda member, Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in Texas for the attempted murder of U.S. officials in Afghanistan. But for the United States to do so would contradict long-standing and well-known U.S. policy against offering concessions to terrorist groups, and there was virtually no chance the administration would consider swapping an American-educated militant — Siddiqui studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a doctorate from Brandeis University — who was arrested with documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs and how to weaponize Ebola.
Last week, Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, released her own video pleading with the Islamic State to release her son, even addressing the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by his self-appointed title of "caliph." The video, which also appealed to Baghdadi’s faith in asking him to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed by showing clemency, fell on deaf ears, a further indication that the group’s real aim may be to provoke the American public and turn American public opinion against the Obama administration’s campaign against the Islamic State.
Sotloff’s killer also mocked the U.S. president, declaring, "I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State."
Based on his voice, Sotloff’s killer seems to be the same man who murdered Foley on camera. British authorities have been trying to identify that person over the past two weeks. And while officials haven’t yet publicly confirmed his name, a 23-year-old British-Egyptian rapper from west London named Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary is believed to be the prime suspect.
If the Islamic State’s real aim is to diminish support for U.S. airstrikes, it isn’t working. Polls have indicated that Americans generally support military action against the Islamist extremists in Iraq. And the U.S. air campaign hasn’t relented. As of Aug. 20, one day after the Islamic State released the video of Foley’s murder, the United States had conducted 84 airstrikes against the group, according to figures from U.S. Central Command. Since then, it has conducted another 39 strikes.
At the end of the Sotloff video, the killer threatens to execute another captive, who, the killer claims, is British citizen David Cawthorne Haines. That claim couldn’t be immediately verified. But if true, it would show that the Islamic State is broadening its terrorism campaign to include British civilians, a move that could well prompt a military response by the United Kingdom. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he is weighing whether to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and potentially in Syria. Without naming Cameron specifically, Sotloff’s killer warns "governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone." That threat seemed timed to coincide with deliberations in London.
While the authenticity of the Sotloff video was not immediately confirmed, Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokesperson, said that U.S. intelligence agencies are "working as quickly as possible to determine" if it’s genuine. If so, Meehan said, "we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends."