World & Nation

In video to militants, captive American’s mother pleads for his life

In what is becoming an increasingly public negotiation over the fate of American journalist Steven J. Sotloff, who is being held by the militant group Islamic State, his mother released a video Wednesday pleading for his release.

Shirley Sotloff appears in a professionally produced video and speaks directly to Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State.

“As a mother I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over,” she says. “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the prophet Muhammad who protected people of the book.”

Steven J. Sotloff, a freelance journalist captured more than a year ago, appeared at the end of a video released last week by the Islamic State that showed the death of another journalist, James Foley. In the video, a black-hooded militant forces Sotloff to kneel, grabs his collar and declares, “The life of this American citizen, [President] Obama, depends on your next decision.”


Authorities are attempting to track down the man in the video, who they say has an accent that indicates he is from London.

There had been a news blackout on Sotloff, but the video released last week initiated a flurry of interest in his case. Shirley Sotloff had not spoken much about his disappearance. In the new video, she is using the same medium as his captors to communicate.

“I want what every mother wants: to live to see her children’s children,” she says. “I plead with you to grant me this.”

Video is one of the many methods that families and terrorist groups have used to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world, at times going around official government channels. The family of James Foley, the journalist whose killing was reported last week, had started a Twitter hashtag, #FreeJamesFoley, and a website with the same name in an attempt to get their son back.


This week, according to the Guardian newspaper, the Islamic State started its own hashtag on Twitter, #StevensHeadinObamasHands, to draw attention to the fact that it still holds Sotloff and has threatened to kill him unless Obama stops military action against the Islamic State.

Groups like the Islamic State can use the attention given to their videos and tweets to gain support back home by suggesting they have influence on a global scale, said Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence director at the Pentagon now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Something like these media incidents -- they can use for their own purposes,” he said. “They give them a lot of status.

That’s evident in Shirley Sotloff’s response to the video, in which she calls Baghdadi the caliph of the Islamic State. She may be the first non-Muslim to refer to him by that title, the New York Times says, which implies that he is the head of a global state of Muslims.

Her video was provided to the New York Times by lawyers for the family, said Bruce Headlam, managing editor for video with the news company. The publication verified that the Arabic subtitles were accurate and edited some slides into the video to provide context to what Sotloff was saying.

The video also ran on the Al Arabiya television network.

Also Wednesday, Peter Theo Curtis, 45, who was released Sunday from captivity in Syria, spoke briefly to reporters outside his mother’s home in Cambridge, Mass. Curtis was being held by Al Qaeda-linked captors in Syria; his release was negotiated by the Qatari government.

The negotiations over his release were done behind closed doors, he said.


“There have been literally hundreds of people — brave, determined and big-hearted people all over the world, working for my release,” he said. “They’ve been working two years on this. I had no idea when I was in prison -- I had no idea that so much effort was being expended on my behalf.”

Curtis said he needed some time to bond with his mother and his family, but that he would talk to reporters and tell his story at a later date.

Twitter: @AlanaSemuels


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