PINECREST, Fla. (CBS News/CBS Tampa/AP) — The family of a journalist slain by Islamic militants says Steven Sotloff dedicated his life to portraying the suffering of people in conflict zones, but was “no war junkie.”
Family spokesman Barak Barfi told reporters gathered outside the family’s suburban Miami home Wednesday that Sotloff “tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness,” and to give voice to the weak and suffering in the Arab world.
And speaking in Arabic, Barfi declared that Sotloff had been “martyred.”
A video released Tuesday by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, shows the beheading of Sotloff, 31, who was kidnapped in Syria last year.
Barfi said Sotloff was drawn to the stories of the turbulent Middle East.
“He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none,” Barfi said.
“From the Libyan doctor in Misrata who struggled to provide psychological services to children ravaged by war, to the Syrian plumber who risked his life by crossing regime lines to purchase medicine, their story was Steve’s story. He ultimately sacrificed his life to bring their story to the world.”
But Barfi said that Sotloff “was no hero.”
“Like all of us, he was a mere man who tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness. And if it did not exist, he tried to create it.”
Barfi said Sotloff’s family was grieving, but have pledged to “not allow our enemies to hold us hostage with the sole weapon they possess – fear.”
Barfi also addressed a message about Sotloff to the Arab world, speaking in Arabic.
“He traveled to the Arab world because he loved the Arabs and all the Muslims and he wanted to send their message to the whole world,” Barfi said, according to a CBS translation.
Barfi also directly challenged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, quoting from the Quran.
“I tell you: You said that Ramadan was a month of mercy, but where is your mercy? I know the verse: ‘Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors.’ Abu Bakr, I am ready to debate with you,” said Barfi.
Meanwhile, Israel confirmed Wednesday that Sotloff had Israeli as well as U.S. citizenship.
Sotloff’s Jewish faith and Israeli citizenship were not widely known before his death, in part because Israel’s military censor apparently kept a lid on the story for his safety. His killers may not have known about his background either, since they made no mention of Jews or Israel in the footage released Tuesday.
Sotloff, who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines before he was captured, became the second American newsman to be beheaded by ISIS in two weeks, killed in retribution for U.S. airstrikes against the group.
Following the execution of journalist James Foley, Sotloff’s mother released a video pleading with her son’s captors to spare his life.
The video of Sotloff’s execution horrified Americans and journalists around the world and touched a nerve in Israel, where news that he had connections to the country dominated newscasts and brought condolences from Israelis who knew the Miami-area native.
“Steve was part of a group of young Jewish Americans who are enamored with Israel and enamored with the Arab world,” said Ehud Yaari, an Arab affairs commentator for Israeli Channel 2 who had met Sotloff. “They were dying to know and enter all the dangerous places, and that’s how he behaved.”
Danielle Berrin, a reporter for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, was shocked to see her childhood friend from Jewish day school in the ISIS video.
“I was terribly stricken when I saw it. But that face, the minute I saw his face. I went back to my childhood and I saw that same face that I remember,” Berrin told CBS Miami. “I was devastated in an instant.”
The Steven Sotloff she remembers was a cheerful 8-year-old boy.
“I remember him as a completely fun loving beautiful spirit, really joyful, kind of goofy, mischievous,” said Berrin, “He just like had a glow about him. He was a beautiful soul.”
Sotloff attended the University of Central Florida, where a vigil to honor him was held Wednesday night.
Matthew Van Dyke, a documentary filmmaker and friend of Sotloff, said he was a cautious journalist who did everything the right way.
“He learned Arabic, he lived in the region for a time, he really got to know the people, the culture. He had a lot of friends and contacts in the region,” Van Dyke told CBS Miami. “This was a region that was important to him. He wasn’t someone that just jumped from conflict to conflict all over the world. He was sort of a regional specialist and he knew what he was doing.”
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