The Complex

Steven Sotloff's Murder Proves the Islamic State Isn't Interested in Negotiating -- and Never Was

This story has been updated. 

In releasing a video showing the murder of a second American journalist, the militants of the Islamic State made clear that they have no interest in negotiating with Barack Obama's administration or its allies over the fate of other missing Westerners despite implying that they'd release those prisoners if Washington stopped its intensifying air campaign against the group.

On Tuesday, Sept. 2, the Islamic State released a video that purports to show the beheading of reporter Steven Sotloff, whom the group threatened to kill exactly two weeks ago when it released another video showing the murder of journalist James Foley. In that message, the group said that Sotloff would die unless the United States halted airstrikes. But some U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe that Sotloff may have been killed at the same time as Foley, meaning the group never intended to release the Florida native or negotiate for his freedom.

Before the Sotloff video was released, a U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said it wouldn't be difficult for the Islamic State to make it appear as if the video had been recorded after the one showing Foley's murder. In the video released Tuesday, Sotloff's murderer gives no definitive indication of when he killed Sotloff. He mentions airstrikes on the Mosul Dam in Iraq, which began Aug. 17, but those started before the video of Foley's death was released two days later. And U.S. intelligence officials believe that Foley may have been killed as early as Aug. 15, meaning his killing was not a response to the Mosul Dam attacks. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's spokesman, declined to comment on whether the Defense Department believes Sotloff was killed at the same time as Foley.

Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in August 2013, had written for numerous publications, including Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Foreign Policy, including two dispatches from Syria. One, from December 2012, chronicled the toll that the civil war was taking on civilians in Aleppo. Another, published in January 2013, reported on thousands of Syrians displaced by the fighting and living in a makeshift tent city.

Sotloff's abduction came nine months after that of Foley, who was taken in November 2012. The Islamic State has since made a series of outlandish demands that Washington has taken as evidence that the group never intended to release the two journalists. In Foley's case, the Islamic State demanded more than $130 million, a figure that Foley's former editor at the GlobalPost, where he worked as a freelancer, said no one ever took seriously. "It was a sum that no one could meet," Phil Balboni said in an interview with NPR's Fresh Air. Friends of Foley and his family did attempt to raise a smaller sum, but it's not clear how much they were able to collect, and direct negotiations with the Islamic State never actually took place.

The terrorist group has also called upon the United States to release a suspected al Qaeda member, Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in Texas for the attempted murder of U.S. officials in Afghanistan. But for the United States to do so would contradict long-standing and well-known U.S. policy against offering concessions to terrorist groups, and there was virtually no chance the administration would consider swapping an American-educated militant -- Siddiqui studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a doctorate from Brandeis University -- who was arrested with documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs and how to weaponize Ebola.

Last week, Sotloff's mother, Shirley, released her own video pleading with the Islamic State to release her son, even addressing the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by his self-appointed title of "caliph." The video, which also appealed to Baghdadi's faith in asking him to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed by showing clemency, fell on deaf ears, a further indication that the group's real aim may be to provoke the American public and turn American public opinion against the Obama administration's campaign against the Islamic State.

Sotloff's killer also mocked the U.S. president, declaring, "I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State."

Based on his voice, Sotloff's killer seems to be the same man who murdered Foley on camera. British authorities have been trying to identify that person over the past two weeks. And while officials haven't yet publicly confirmed his name, a 23-year-old British-Egyptian rapper from west London named Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary is believed to be the prime suspect.

If the Islamic State's real aim is to diminish support for U.S. airstrikes, it isn't working. Polls have indicated that Americans generally support military action against the Islamist extremists in Iraq. And the U.S. air campaign hasn't relented. As of Aug. 20, one day after the Islamic State released the video of Foley's murder, the United States had conducted 84 airstrikes against the group, according to figures from U.S. Central Command. Since then, it has conducted another 39 strikes.

At the end of the Sotloff video, the killer threatens to execute another captive, who, the killer claims, is British citizen David Cawthorne Haines. That claim couldn't be immediately verified. But if true, it would show that the Islamic State is broadening its terrorism campaign to include British civilians, a move that could well prompt a military response by the United Kingdom. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he is weighing whether to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and potentially in Syria. Without naming Cameron specifically, Sotloff's killer warns "governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone." That threat seemed timed to coincide with deliberations in London.

While the authenticity of the Sotloff video was not immediately confirmed, Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokesperson, said that U.S. intelligence agencies are "working as quickly as possible to determine" if it's genuine. If so, Meehan said, "we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends."

Photo via Getty Images News

National Security

U.S. Conducts Counterterrorism Operation in Somalia

The Pentagon conducted an operation against the al Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia in what amounted to a rare public acknowledgement of the quiet work it's been doing there, it revealed Monday.

Ever since al Shabaab's stunning attack inside an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi almost a year ago that killed scores of people and signaled a comeback of sorts for a terrorist group U.S. officials said was largely vanquished, the United States has ramped up its assistance in Somalia, even as the mission maintained a low profile. A small team of American advisors support the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, as well as Somali national security forces.

The Pentagon was mum on operational details and its announcement wording was vague as to whether the U.S. troops only conducted an airstrike or if ground forces had been involved.

"U.S. military forces conducted an operation in Somalia today against the al-Shabaab network. We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby stated Monday.

Citing reports from journalists in Somalia, The Washington Post indicated that there had been drone strikes near the port city of Barawe, a focus of effort against al Shabaab.

The United States has been providing financial, logistical, and material backing to AMISOM and Somali forces doing battle with al Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaida. American drones from nearby Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base the U.S. maintains in Djibouti, have also been providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

"The result has been a rather successful (if slow and grinding) campaign prosecuted by AMISOM and the Somalis against al Shabaab," Roger Carstens, a former special forces officer who spent more than a year on the ground in Somalia in the last few years, told Foreign Policy.

Carstens said that if the United States conducted an airstrike mission in Somalia, as it appeared to have done in Barawe, that would be an indication that it had in its sights a high-value target.

"As can be shown by the rather small number of U.S. military operations in Somalia over the past few years, the standard for an attack in Somalia has been pretty high," Carstens wrote FP in an email. "The target must be worthy of the U.S. stepping out from its preferred position (behind the scenes) to conduct a unilateral strike."

Since the United States has been working closely with Somali-based forces for months, it's possible the level of coordination between the U.S. and those forces was high enough that if it was an airstrike mission, it could have been conducted entirely from the sky and involved no U.S. ground forces. Carstens noted that if the operation in fact had occurred in Barawe, that area is still a "pretty tough neighborhood" and, therefore, American commanders may have wanted to rely more heavily on indigenous forces instead of using U.S. special operations forces on the ground and thus putting those forces at considerable risk. 

The memory of the 1993 downing of two American Black Hawk helicopters during a raid in October of that year that resulted in the deaths of 18 American servicemen still weighs heavily on American policy in Somalia and contributes to a risk-averse approach there.

Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. seemingly has increased its role in Somalia as it strengthens its capabilities with AMISOM and local forces.

"I would put the apparent increase in U.S. operational tempo in Somalia as a function of both better intelligence and a change in al-Shabaab itself," Pham wrote FP in an email late Monday. "The first is the result of an increased presence, both public and clandestine, that has resulted in information that can be operationalized," he wrote. The second shift is within Shabaab after it ‘abandoned Mogadishu' in 2011 and became more focused on terrorism, rather than insurgence, and began to pose a greater threat to the U.S. and its allies, Pham said.