Video: Mother of American hostage begs ISIS "caliph" for his life

If you missed it yesterday, watch it now. Her son, Steven Sotloff, is the ISIS hostage who was paraded in front of the camera at the end of the James Foley beheading video with the promise that he’ll be murdered too if Obama doesn’t stop the bombing. Watching it is painful in every way — painful as a reminder of her son’s horrendous predicament, painful in the sympathy you feel for a mother who can only wait and wonder, and painful as an American to see a fellow citizen forced to beg this colossal degenerate for mercy. Before I pressed play, I thought I’d be watching an emotional appeal; it turns out this is much smarter than that. What Shirley Sotloff’s doing here is basically transactional, offering Baghdadi public recognition of his legitimacy as caliph from an American in return for safe passage for her son.

Counterterror experts think it’s a brilliant ploy. I wonder if she had any help behind the scenes from the feds.

Her language throughout the video was deliberate. In presenting her son as a reporter bearing witness to a fight against tyrants, the mother was invoking a powerful idea in Islam, said Patrick M. Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a security consulting company.

“The way that translates in Arabic is really powerful,” he said. “Tyrant is a really, really big image in Islamic history. They’re always fighting against tyrants. The Syrian civil war was to rise up against a tyrant.”…

Skinner also said that Shirley Sotloff was smart to appeal to Baghdadi’s sense of power. Little is known about the ISIS leader, but he has designs on establishing a caliphate, or global Islamic state.

“From an emotional and a rational side, it’s a brilliant move,” he said.

Some of this is basic hostage negotiation tactics — address the kidnapper by name to try to build some sense of rapport, talk up the hostage’s good qualities to emphasize his humanity, etc — but the bit about Islamic teachings is obviously tailored for the occasion. I’m trying to imagine the most evil response ISIS could cook up. They could kill Sotloff anyway, but that would suggest Baghdadi doesn’t have as much control over his goons as a true caliph would. Arguably, it’d be a greater show of power at this point to spare him than to kill him. For maximum evil, what they could do is spare Sotloff and kill one of the two other Americans they’re holding hostage, one of them a woman, in his place. The parents of those hostages haven’t released videos, maybe because they haven’t thought of it or maybe because they’ve been warned against it: According to the NYT, the Sotloffs were told by ISIS not to reveal the fact that Steven had been captured or else they’d kill him. Shirley Sotloff put this out yesterday only because ISIS itself revealed that they were holding him in the Foley video. If you’re the parent of one of the other two hostages, what do you do now? Put out your own video and risk angering ISIS by making an issue of their disappearance or keep quiet and pray that the Sotloffs’ gain in getting their son back isn’t your loss?