Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Steven Sotloff stood at a checkpoint east of the Libyan city of Sirte in the sweltering heat of August 2011, not far from where the late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was hiding, he probably did not think he would meet a similar fate to that of the Libyan dictator, his final moments splashed across TV screens around the world.
Sotloff, who covered the Middle East for TIME, Foreign Policy, and other American publications, regularly phoned his mother from regional hotspots. She constantly tried to persuade him to leave these dangerous places. He would tell her: “I am in Tahrir Square in Cairo now with my friends. We ate Kushari [an Egyptian dish of rice, pasta and lentils] and we are smoking shisha.”
Sotloff was studying Arabic in Yemen when the Arab spring erupted in Tunisia at the end of 2010. He quickly made his way there to cover the revolution against then-president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He left in a hurry, leaving behind his clothes and books, hoping he would return to continue learning Arabic, but the revolution moved to Egypt and then Libya, and so did he.
In a Libyan minibus taking journalists from Salloum on the Egyptian border to Benghazi, we all shared the same fear; not knowing whether or not the driver was pro-Gaddafi, and whether he would hand us over to government forces. Sotloff tried to use a few Arabic words he’d learned. He was told to shut up by an Egyptian journalist, to avoid raising suspicions.
Sotloff followed everything that was broadcast and printed about Libya, then looked for stories with a humanitarian angle, seeking to bring them to the world’s attention. As other journalists came and went, Sotloff carried on relentlessly. He would jump into the back of a 4×4 and travel with Libyan rebels into dangerous areas. While the rebels brandished their guns, Sotloff held his laptop—his own weapon.
The rebels drove on under the burning sun with help from NATO aircraft. The month of Ramadan arrived, and the days without food, drink and tobacco seemed very long. Sotloff, not a habitual smoker, would occasionally smoke a cigarette or two.
He wrote a long report about the reasons for the rebels’ failure to get beyond the areas of Wadi Al-Ahmar and Brega. “They are not trained,” he wrote. “One man is a school teacher who does not know the basics of the maintenance of an AK-47 to the extent that the weapon exploded in his face.”
Sotloff would often disappear, and he did this time too. Maybe he went to Yemen, Syria or the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He would be found where there was conflict. That was his passion: chasing stories about ordinary people, to learn how they survived such hellish situations.
I was in Tripoli when he suddenly surfaced again, in the form of a phone call from Benghazi. It was a business call, to coordinate an investigation into the details surrounding the attack on the US Consulate there in September 2012. No one knew who the attackers were, or whether the attack—which killed the American ambassador to Libya and three of his staff—was planned or spontaneous. We started searching for the guards who were inside the consulate when the attack took place.
After three days of searching the areas of Benghazi, Sotloff called me. “I need you straight away,” he said. “There is an injured man at his home in the Hawari district. He is one of the consulate’s guards and was injured in the attack.”
The father was sitting by his injured son and the family members were frightened. The father said they were instructed not to talk to journalists or investigators. After some persuasion, we managed to get the phone numbers of two of the guards who were in the consulate during the attack.
The two guards agreed to meet us at night on a beach to the west of Benghazi. We did not say a word in the car out of fear. We feared that we may be walking into a trap, because the guards at the US Consulate, to our surprise, were members of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, led by Islamist extremists.
We waited on the beach for an hour, when three guards appeared. We spent two hours asking detailed questions about the attackers, the way in which they stormed the building, and how the ambassador was killed. As we headed back to Benghazi, we sensed we were being followed, so we packed our bags and left the city hurriedly.
Asharq Al-Awsat published an exclusive based on the statements made by the guards, but I’m not certain if Sotloff published his story in any American newspaper, because what we had learned seemed to contradict elements of the US State Department’s version of events.
Once again, Sotloff disappeared without a trace. His mother called, asking me where he was. She asked me to advise him to go back to the US, to tell him she was very worried about him.
A few weeks later, the phone rang. It was Sotloff again. He had come to Cairo from the Occupied Palestinian Territories via Jordan. He told me about a story he wrote about a Palestinian man whose olive grove had been razed by the Israelis. Then he said: “Let’s go out and have some Kushari.” He was once nearly killed for his love of Kushari when he went out at night to get some, after I warned him to stay in his hotel due to the tense situation. I had to call the army, who saved him from a mob who thought he was an Israeli spy.
The last time he was in Cairo, he drew me a map of the route used by journalists to get into Syria from Turkey, under the protection of the opposition Free Syrian Army. He said a journalist should work on the ground, not in an office.
Then the news broke of his disappearance last August, until his name appeared again as the second American to be executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after James Foley, in revenge for US air strikes against the group’s positions in Iraq.
Sotloff appeared in a video last Tuesday wearing an orange shirt and trousers, kneeling down beside a masked man who held a knife. The armed man condemned US strikes against ISIS, and then beheaded him. He then brought forward a British hostage and threatened to kill him next.
Sotloff’s memorial service took place in a town on the outskirts of Miami, Florida. He was 31, funny, and loved practical jokes. He loved life and people with no regard for their religions, beliefs or political views.
His mother said: “I am proud of my son. He held on ’till the end.”