JERUSALEM – Steven Sotloff, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State, held Israeli citizenship and had strong connections to the country, an Israeli official and acquaintances said Wednesday.
Sotloff studied at an Israeli college, wrote for an Israeli news magazine and visited the country less than a month before he was abducted in Syria, the acquaintances said.
His ties to Israel were kept under wraps during the year after he was seized, particularly after it emerged last month that he was being held by militants from the Islamic State. It was unknown whether his captors were aware of his links to Israel or of his Jewish faith. His executioner made no mention of Israel or Sotloff’s religion during the video that showed Sotloff’s murder, calling the killing retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. In the video, Sotloff referred to himself only as an American citizen.
Israeli officials were tight-lipped about Sotloff on Wednesday, saying they did not want to inject Israel into the confrontation with the Islamic State. However, there was a fleeting confirmation of his dual nationality.
“Cleared for publication, Steven Sotloff was Israeli citizen RIP,” tweeted Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Other officials refused to elaborate, citing the sensitivity of the subject.
Word that Sotloff had studied in Israel at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college north of Tel Aviv, helped fill in gaps of what is known about the Miami native, who previously had been described as a one-time journalism student at the University of Central Florida who freelanced for Time magazine and other American publications.
The Interdisciplinary Center confirmed Wednesday that Sotloff had studied there from 2005 to 2008 and had completed an undergraduate program in government studies.
Jonathan Davis, vice president for external relations at the college, recalled that he had interviewed Sotloff when Sotloff applied. Davis said he found Sotloff to be “a very inquisitive person and interested in everything that moves.” The government studies program includes courses in counterterrorism, diplomacy, conflict resolution and international relations, Davis said.
Sotloff, a burly man who had played rugby during his university years in Florida, sought out a rugby squad in Israel and befriended Michael Sapir, a lawyer, who introduced him to his amateur team in Raanana, a town north of Tel Aviv. Sotloff trained with the team but was unable to play because of an old back injury, though he continued to socialize regularly with the other players, joining them for barbecues and beer, Sapir said.
When Sotloff became an Israeli citizen is uncertain. Officials declined to address the topic, and Sapir said he knew only that Sotloff had told him that he was thinking about it.
Sotloff apparently left Israel after his studies but traveled to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey and Syria for freelance work as the Arab Spring unfolded. For a while he based himself in Yemen, where he studied Arabic, and traveled with a Yemeni cellphone.
Sotloff contributed 13 articles to Time between Nov. 26, 2012, and Aug. 9, according to a compilation of his work posted on the magazine’s website.
His writing appeared more often in the Jerusalem Report, an English-language Israeli news magazine, to which he contributed about 20 articles under his name from 2010 through 2013, according to Avi Hoffman, the publication’s managing editor.
Oren Kessler, a former Arab affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, cooperated with Sotloff during a two-year email correspondence after receiving a Facebook message from him sent from Libya in 2011.
In a tribute to his slain colleague published by Politico Magazine, Kessler recalled their relationship, citing messages they exchanged.