Last night, CNN offered a chilling lesson for war correspondents in terrorist-laden regions — your sources may see you as a commodity rather than as a vehicle for telling their stories. A spokesperson for the family of Steven Sotloff told Anderson Cooper that ISIS paid other rebels in Syria as much as $50,000 to hand over the man they later butchered on video for propaganda purposes, after getting tipped off that he had crossed the border. It ended up being a double-cross:
The family of slain American hostage Steven Sotloff believes ISIS paid as much as $50,000 to rebels who alerted the militant group that the journalist had entered Syria, a spokesman told CNN.
The family had learned from “sources on the ground” that a member of a moderate rebel group reached out to ISIS, Barak Barfi told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on Monday.
“Somebody at the border crossing made a phone call to ISIS, and they set up a fake checkpoint with many people,” Barfi said. “Steve and his people that he went in with could not escape.”
It’s not just a lesson for journalists, but also for the US government about the nature of so-called moderate rebels in Syria:
Barfi said the tipster was one of “the so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support.”
The Sotloffs are unhappy with the Obama administration for the way it handled the abduction, although Barki didn’t get into specifics. All he would say was that the Sotloffs didn’t get much cooperation from White House officials, and that the relationship was “very strained”:
“Once Steve appeared in that video, the Sotloff family made one simple request of the administration — and they were rebuffed on that,” Barfi told CNN. He declined to elaborate on the request, citing the safety of those who are still being held hostage.
He said the relationship between the Sotloff family and the White House was “very strained.”
“We do not believe they gave us the cooperation (the family needed),” he said.
That sense of betrayal goes beyond just a rebuffed request. They have grown angry over the specific revelations being leaked, and claim that the information is being spun between the White House and the intelligence community, and they want it to stop. If it doesn’t, Barki issued a warning to both sides:
“We know that the intelligence community and the White House are enmeshed in a larger game of bureaucratic infighting, and Jim and Steve are pawns in that game. And that’s not fair,” Barfi said.
“If there continues to be leaks, the Sotloff family will have to speak out to set the record straight.”
The journalists attempting to cover this war have to network to find reliable partners on the ground to access the real stories of the conflict. That’s true in every asymmetrical war; there are no established chains of command with any formal commitment to human rights in the current regional conflict. That’s one reason why Americans were skeptical of US intervention against Bashar al-Assad on the basis of “responsibility to protect,” and the rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra vindicate that viewpoint. Now we’re looking at intervening against ISIS to check its genocidal ambitions, but an American intervention last year would have benefited ISIS at the expense of Assad.
The Sotloffs will have a very interesting story to tell when they are ready to do so, and it sounds like that day may be coming sooner rather than later. In the meantime, his colleagues should re-appraise the risks with the information Barki shared last night.
Update: The White House disputed the account of how Sotloff fell into the hands of ISIS:
The United States has no information indicating beheaded American journalist Steven Sotloff was “sold” to Islamic State militants by moderate Syrian opposition rebels, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.
Sotloff family spokesman Barak Barfi told CNN on Monday night the family believed Islamic State paid up to $50,000 to rebels who told the militant group the 31-year-old journalist had entered Syria.
“Based on the information that has been provided to me, I don’t believe that is accurate,” Earnest told a news briefing.
He cited an FBI investigation of Sotloff’s death, including “how Mr. Sotloff may have come into the hands of ISIL,” another acronym for Islamic State.