The Man Who Took Steven Sotloff Into Syria ... and Lost Him
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Foreign journalists grab the attention in a war zone, but they’d get nowhere without local help.
By Alfred Hackensberger
The cars were waiting for them. Just a few miles from Azaz, the Syrian town on the border of Turkey, they attacked. Three cars blocked the minibus’ way on the road to Aleppo. Within seconds, 15 fighters with Kalashnikovs surrounded them, ready to fire.
Any resistance from the four armed men in the minibus would have meant sudden death. The gunmen pulled them from the vehicle and carried them off to a prison of the Islamist terror militia Islamic State in the north of Aleppo. Among them was Steven Sotloff, the U.S. journalist with an Israeli passport.
I hope that Steven’s mother forgives me. I’m so very sorry.
“I hope that Steven’s mother forgives me. I’m so very sorry,” Yussef tells OZY, after the video of Sotloff’s beheading was broadcast on the Internet on Sept. 2. For security reasons, we’ve withheld Yussef’s full name.
For Yussef, the kidnapping on Aug. 4, 2013, was the worst day of his life. He was Sotloff’s fixer, someone who organizes interviews with rebels, takes care of logistics and is responsible for security.
Without help from people like Yussef — brave, wily, sometimes reckless, often partisan — foreign journalists would be blind. Fixers play a critical role in the flow of information from war zones. They’re usually unsung. Up to 78 journalists have been killed in Syria in the last four years, more than 80 percent locals, including Syrian freelancers and fixers. They know English and the lay of the land and can open doors. After a random hookup with a visiting journalist, the name and contact is passed through the network of reporters, who compete fiercely but help each other out at the same time.
“Losing” a journalist. Well, that’s what a fixer like Yussef is supposed to prevent.
Only one month before Sotloff’s kidnapping, Yussef traveled the same route, bringing journalists safely to Aleppo and back to the Turkish border.
“I knew immediately it was the Islamic State,” says Yussef. “There were Tunisians, Moroccans, Libyans and a few Syrians among them.”
The rebels took him to a textile factory that the terror militia had transformed into a prison, along with his brother and his two cousins, whom Yussef had brought as armed escorts. “For the first two days, we were locked in some kind of sleeping quarters, then moved to one of the offices.”
He knew Sotloff had been brought there, but never saw him again. Yussef and his relatives were interrogated twice.
They would be delighted to catch me again.
“They asked me if I worked for the fiendish Al Jazeera, France 24 or Al Arabiya, who distort the truth and talk badly of IS,” remembers Yussef, referring to the TV broadcast channels. He adds with a smile: “They also wanted to know whether I had worked with women.”
Luckily, they were ill-informed and Yussef simply denied everything. After 15 days, he and his relatives were freed. His captors liked that he had fought for the Al-Tawhid Brigade, which attacked the Syrian government in Aleppo. Back then, there wasn’t yet as much rivalry between the rebel groups. Today, the moderate rebels and the radical Islamic State group are at war.
Before they set Yussef free, the Islamic State fighters warned him to give up his job as a fixer, or he wouldn’t get off so lightly the next time. Shortly afterward, Yussef left Syria and brought his family to Istanbul.
He began working with journalists again after the Islamic State had been driven from Idlib and Aleppo by the more moderate groups. “If the IS were to catch me today, I would immediately follow Steven into paradise,” says Yussef. “There’s no doubt about that. They would be delighted to catch me again.”
Now 27, Yussef was a fervent supporter of the Syrian revolution. He joined the first protests against the regime of Bashar Assad. When he was finishing his studies in economics in Beirut, the rebels seized part of his hometown of Aleppo. He left the Lebanese capital and joined the Al-Tawhid Brigade. For six months he fought at the front line, suffering minor injuries twice.
Then he stopped. “The rebels are disorganized, chaotic and don’t want to learn how to fight properly,” complains Yussef.
One experience led to him lay down his weapons. His group attacked a government post, and some were supposed to attack the regime’s advancing tanks. “When the tanks came, our men had disappeared,” he says. “They sold the anti-tank weapons and disappeared from Syria with the money.” This almost cost him and his comrades their lives.
He’s tried repeatedly to organize military training for rebels. “They don’t even know the basic things, such as giving covering fire when crossing a street with enemy snipers or that you have to carry sufficient water in the heat of summer.” All the ideas he presented were rejected as too expensive. “They’d rather buy a car and let their people die.”
Some begin to cry and to pray when being shot at; others don’t mind.
Yussef now has a 2-month-old son. He still travels to Aleppo to earn money. “I am honest and, unlike others, I don’t claim to work for the revolution.” The revolution descended into disaster anyway, he says. There are thousands of groups, and very few of them want democracy.
Yussef says he enjoyed working with reporters, from everywhere. “Some of them wanted to go to the front line at all costs; others were frightened,” he says. “Some begin to cry and to pray when being shot at; others don’t mind.” With one photographer from China, who didn’t speak a single word of English, he had to communicate in gestures. “He only understood ‘come’ and ‘go.’ ”
He’s played a different role, too. “We gave blood samples from the chemical weapon attacks to French journalists,” he says. “As a result, in France they were able to announce their certainty that the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons.”
Yussef plans to travel to Aleppo to collect his belongings from his apartment. But if journalists were to come, he would accompany them again. Despite the great risk. “After a lot of ransom was paid for European hostages, lots of people want to earn money this way.” But he promises not to lose another journalist. “We’ll go with a large escort.”
- Alfred Hackensberger, OZY Author Contact Alfred Hackensberger