WASHINGTON — Ignoring his mother’s plea for mercy, the Islamic State posted a video Tuesday showing the beheading of Steven Joel Sotloff, the second American journalist executed in two weeks by the extremist group in reprisal for U.S. airstrikes against its fighters in northern Iraq.
Sotloff’s slaying was certain to pile new pressure on President Barack Obama to devise a strategy for dealing with the brutal group in its sanctuary on Syria’s side of the border. Obama admitted last week his administration had not yet developed such a plan, triggering widespread derision.
Sotloff, 31, of Miami, appeared to have been executed within the past two days as his killer referred to U.S. airstrikes that on Sunday helped Iraqi forces break a two-month-long Islamic State siege of Amerli, a town populated by minority ethnic Turkmen.
He also appeared to have been killed by the same suspected British militant who had beheaded American freelance photojournalist James Foley, 40, of Rochester, N.H., on Aug. 19. The video of Foley’s slaying ended with the militant threatening to kill Sotloff unless Obama halted the U.S. airstrikes — which now total more than 120 — that began Aug.8. Sotloff’s capture last year in Syria had been kept secret until he appeared in that video.
Bernadette Mehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. intelligence community was working “as quickly as possible” to verify the authenticity of the video. A statement issued by Barak Barfi, a Sotloff family spokesman, appeared to confirm that it was genuine.
“The family knows of this horrific tragedy and is grieving privately,” said the statement.
The video of Sotloff’s slaying was first detected by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private organization that monitors extremist Internet postings. Titled “A Second Message to America,” it began with a clip of Obama on Aug. 20 condemning Foley’s killing and vowing to “act against” the Islamic State “standing alongside others.”
Like Foley, Sotloff, a freelance writer for Time magazine and other publications, then spoke to the camera as he knelt in a bleak, desert-like setting. His black-clad executioner stood at his side, a knife in his left hand, only his eyes left uncovered by the black scarf swathing his face.
“I am Steven Joel Sotloff. I’m sure you know exactly who I am right now and why I’m appearing before you,” said Sotloff in a calm, steady voice. “Obama, your foreign policy of intervention in Iraq was supposed to be for the preservation of American lives and interests. So why is it that I’m paying the price of your interference with my life? Am I not an American citizen?”
Sotloff was clad — as was Foley — in a surgical scrubs-like garment of orange, the same color as the uniforms in which detainees who were abused at the former U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison were dressed.
It wasn’t clear whether Sotloff was speaking his own words or those dictated by his captors. His statement ended in a virtual taunt of Obama.
“From what little I know of U.S. foreign policy, you could not win an election without promising to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and to close down Guantanamo,” said Sotloff. “Here you are now, Obama, nearing the end of your term without having achieved any of the above, deceivingly marching us, the American people, into a blazing fire.”
After Sotloff ended, the killer was seen standing behind him and beginning to slice into his throat. The video then cut to a picture of Sotloff’s bloodied head sitting atop his corpse.
The killer addressed the camera, speaking in what sounded like the same British accent as that of Foley’s executioner. He referred not only to the U.S. airstrikes at Amerli, but U.S. attacks that have driven the Islamic State back from the Mosul Dam, which Iraqi forces and a Kurdish militia recaptured the day before Foley’s execution.
“I’m back Obama and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence in continuing your bombings in Amerli and the Mosul Dam. Despite our warnings, you Obama have yet again through your actions killed yet another American citizen,” said the militant. “So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knives will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
The video ended with the killer standing next to another kneeling, orange-clad hostage, identified as David Cawthorne Haines, a British citizen, who apparently is the next to be killed. The militants warned other governments — which include Britain — to quit a U.S.-led coalition that has been arming the peshmerga, the militia of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, against the Islamic State.
“I take this opportunity to warn those governments who’ve entered this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone,” he said.
Haines reportedly is a former British soldier who worked for a number of humanitarian organizations as a security adviser.
Although British officials have yet to identify the suspect in the Foley killing, British news reports have said he is thought to be Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, 24, a former rapper who traveled to Syria last year to join the Islamic State.
Sotloff was killed a week after his mother, Shirley Sotloff, a teacher, released a video plea for her son’s life. She addressed her request directly to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the shadowy head of the caliphate — or religious state — that the Islamic State declared on the huge swaths of northern Iraq and Syria it has overrun since mid-June.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the administration had dedicated “significant time and resources” to trying to rescue Sotloff.
“This is something that the administration has obviously been watching very carefully, since this threat against Mr. Sotloff’s life was originally made a few weeks ago,” Earnest said. “Our thoughts and prayers, first and foremost, are with Mr. Sotloff and Mr. Sotloff’s family and those who worked with him.”
A July 4 U.S. Special Forces raid to rescue Foley from a camp near the Islamic State’s headquarters in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa failed as he had been moved.
Foley and Sotloff spent extensive time in the Middle East covering the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring. Sotloff wrote some of Time magazine’s initial coverage of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. He also chronicled the humanitarian disaster afflicting millions of people inside Syria.
After attending high school in New Hampshire, Sotloff studied at the University of Central Florida, but left before graduating to pursue his journalism career.
The Islamic State has set up a quasi-administration of social services and Islamic courts, which mete out crucifixions and other punishments for alleged transgressions of Islamic law. Its fighters also have committed numerous atrocities, including beheadings, mass executions, rape and selling women captives into slavery, according to human rights groups and online videos.
The Foley and Sotloff videos were professionally made, underscoring the sophistication of the group’s propaganda operations, which spread such materials on social media to attract new recruits and terrify the millions of people living under its rule.
Michael Quigley, a national security expert at Human Rights First, said the Sotoff video and others like it appeared aimed at turning U.S. public opinion against Obama’s decision to intervene in Iraq less than three years after the last U.S. combat troops left, ending the eight-year U.S. occupation.
“I think what they’re trying to do is to get the American people say it’s not worth it,” said Quigley, who served as the National Counter-Terrorism Center’s lead analyst on al-Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist group from which the Islamic State emerged.
But the Islamic State’s effort actually may be backfiring because of widespread public revulsion at Foley’s murder. A public opinion poll published last week by YouGov.com, a market research firm, showed that 63 percent of Americans now back military strikes against the Islamic State inside Syria, compared to a year ago, when 62 percent opposed U.S. military action there.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced that he would file legislation giving Obama clear authority to order U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
Obama departed Washington on Tuesday afternoon for a NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales, without commenting on Sotloff’s execution. While the Russian-backed insurrection in Ukraine was to take center stage, Obama was expected to consult on the summit sidelines with other world leaders on dealing with the Islamic State.
The president has sought strenuously to minimize U.S. involvement in Syria, where the more than 3-year-old civil war pits President Bashar Assad’s Iran-backed forces against the Islamic State and weaker insurgent groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate, the Nusra Front. Most of the groups also are fighting the Islamic State.
But Obama is being forced to reconsider his policy by the Islamic State’s massive territorial seizures, its murderous atrocities and growing threat to U.S. allies in the region, Foley’s murder and the acknowledgment by top U.S. officials that the group can’t be crushed without addressing its presence in Syria.
After Foley’s death, Obama authorized the first U.S. surveillance flights of Islamic State targets in Syria and launched an effort — to be spearheaded by a diplomatic tour after the NATO summit by Secretary of State John Kerry — to build an international coalition to fight the group through military, humanitarian and other means.
The execution of Sotloff could help Kerry garner support, Quigley said.
“The diplomatic pressure will go up. John Kerry has a mission ahead of him. What else motivates the secretary of state more than … losing one of our own,” he said.
Obama also has said he intends to increase support for moderate Syrian opposition groups, who have long complained of receiving very little help from the United States.
At the same time, Obama said last week that he hadn’t yet developed a strategy for crushing the Islamic State inside Syria, drawing intense criticism from Republicans, former diplomats and some regional experts.
Earnest pushed back at the criticism on Tuesday.
“There are certainly people who will take advantage of the opportunity to do some Monday morning quarterbacking here,” he said. “But ultimately, when you’re the commander in chief, the decision resides with you to make best use of American military force to protect American interests.”
For more than two years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Syria as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
At least 70 other journalists have been killed and more than 80 have been kidnapped while covering the conflict, according to CPJ figures. The group estimates that around 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria, most of them Syrians. They include Austin Tice of Houston, a freelancer for worked for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other news outlets.
Hannah Allam, Anita Kumar, Daniel Salazar and Samantha Ehlinger contributed to this report.
©2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.