How Steven Sotloff + James Foley Fell Prey to the Islamic State

How Steven Sotloff + James Foley Fell Prey to the Islamic State

Why you should care

Because the high-profile murders of journalists are just another horrific facet of a land that’s being ravaged by violence.

Steven Sotloff and I did not know each other. But I knew the country and the conflict he was trying to show to the world.

When Sotloff was kidnapped I was only a few minutes’ car drive away, dozing in a safe house between the Turkish-Syrian border and the city of Aleppo, waiting for my fixer to return with breakfast. It was August 2013, and the moderate opposition, known as the Free Syrian Army, was getting hammered by regime airstrikes and shelling, and somewhat jealously eyeing the emerging Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which was well-equipped with guns, ammo and money from wealthy Gulf donors. Most Western journalists had given up covering Syria because ISIS was actively hunting down reporters. I was there to report for the German paper BILD on the war that had been ravaging Syria for more than two years then.

“Stay safe — don’t wanna see you in some YouTube video” had become a common, now darkly prophetic, line between parting journalists in the hotels on the Turkish side of the border.

Stay safe — don’t wanna see you in some YouTube video.

We all knew that on the crossing in the Turkish town of Kilis, there were spotters working for ISIS, watching us while we stamped out of Turkey and headed into Syria. We all knew that on the other side, in the town of Azaz, ISIS had established a dangerous presence, roaming the streets in pickup trucks, watching all the strategic intersections one had to pass to drive on to besieged Aleppo.

Man sitting in bulletproof vest on chair holding a camera

Julian in the Old City of Aleppo.

The drive through Azaz was nerve-wracking, rife with potential kidnappers — some motivated by money, others by ideology — waiting behind every corner of that sleepy, filthy town. Street vendors sold cigarettes and SIM cards in a place once famous for olive oil and soap handmade from olives. Now, it smelled of black-market diesel being sold out of canisters and barrels along the road. This was where hardened jihadis came to gather, from all over the world. Battle-worn Jordanians who had fought the Americans in Iraq, Chechens with bushy red beards and AKs at the ready.

That was what Steven Sotloff stepped into on that day in August. From what I know, he must not have made it past Azaz.

“We have to leave, man,” my fixer said to me when he entered our safe house that afternoon. He carried bread and a plastic bag filled with the wonderfully sweet figs of the hills that roll from Turkey into Syria. “We eat breakfast and then I get you out of Syria. You are not safe here anymore.”

“Why?” I asked, noticing a rare seriousness in his face.

Daula kidnapped another journalist just down the road,” he answered, using the Arabic word for “state” that ISIS goes by in most parts of Syria.

I rose from my mattress on the floor, with every muscle aching from another sleepless, uncomfortable night.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“I’m trying to find out,” my fixer said.

He got on his iPhone, checking Twitter, Facebook and Skype, while I stared out of the only small window that sober room had, looking at a brown field where a mild breeze was kicking up clouds of dust.

After half an hour of silence, my fixer showed me a Skype chat on his phone. Someone had produced a name: Zotlof.

“Don’t know him,” I said with impassivity.

My guards were constantly swinging their heavy guns toward the ISIS Toyotas, signaling to them that I was under their protection.

All journalists in war zones operate on the assumption that bad things are what happens to other people. I almost feel ashamed to say it, but that day, Steven’s disappearance was just more than proof of that concept. Something bad happens, you block it out, you carry on.

My fixer, though, was frantic. Determined to get me back into Turkey as soon as possible, he was making calls for the rest of the day to find out about ISIS checkpoints along the road to Azaz where Steven had been abducted. His plan was to get us two pickup trucks full of armed fighters from the FSA and then speed down that road toward the safety of Turkey during prayer time, when many of the checkpoints were not manned.

But I wanted to do yet another story before leaving Syria. We argued. My fixer said I was crazy, but finally he agreed to help me with that story that would put us right in the sights of the people who kidnapped Steven.

Person sitting on chair next to building

A boy is in the city of Minnagh. He returned to his bombed out school after a year of fighting that leveled the city and expelled all its citizens

Early the next morning we drove to Minnagh, a small town that sat next to a military airport. A year of constant fighting between rebels in the town and regime forces defending the airport had annihilated Minnagh. Not a single house had been spared. The town was a gray desert of rubble, controlled by a shaky alliance of moderates — mostly Syrians — and extremist ISIS troops, mainly foreign fighters. The FSA had relied on ISIS firepower to finally capture the airport from the regime a few days earlier.

My fixer had arranged for my protection. Walking through Minnagh, I was surrounded by three pickup trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns and a dozen fighters forming a bubble around me. Journalists like Steven and me had been relying on people like this throughout the Syrian uprising: decent, hospitable locals fighting the regime to create a better Syria.

Only minutes into Minnagh, where all the remaining trees and bushes stood gray from the dust of bombed buildings, two Toyota trucks covered in mud camouflage started circling us like sharks. One of the trucks was flying the black flag of ISIS. I could see the bearded fighters inside the trucks, watching us, preying, waiting for that one unguarded moment they needed to ambush us and disappear with yet another Western hostage.

The situation turned into an hourlong floating standoff as I made my way through Minnagh, taking photos of a boy who returned to his bombed-out school; my guards were constantly swinging their heavy guns toward the ISIS Toyotas, signaling to them that I was under their protection. Finally, they loaded me on one of their trucks and drove me to the border at breakneck speed.

When I crossed into Turkey that day, I was done. I couldn’t go back.

What happened to Steven and what I luckily escaped that week is now covering Syria like a black blanket. Facing a strong likelihood of abduction, most journalists have withdrawn from Syria. Locals die unnoticed. ISIS — and the despicable Assad regime — has won. They have turned Syria into the darkest place on earth.

Julian Reichelt is the chief editor of BILD.de and was a war reporter in Syria from 2012–2013.

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