On September 2, 2014, the militant group Islamic State released a video that purported to show the beheading of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, who held joint American and Israeli citizenship. The following day, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed the video was authentic.
Sotloff was the second American murdered by Islamic State in a span of only a few weeks. On August 19, the group posted a video claiming to show the beheading of U.S. freelance journalist James Foley and threatening to do the same to Sotloff. Islamic State claimed to have executed the journalists in retribution for U.S. military intervention in Iraq. In August, the U.S. had launched air strikes in Iraq in an attempt to prevent militants from taking control of key areas, news reports said.
Sotloff, who wrote for outlets including Time and Foreign Policy, was abducted along with his Syrian fixer and driver in August 2013 shortly after crossing the Turkish-Syrian border, according to a Syrian familiar with the abduction who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. The Syrians were released in the following days, but Sotloff remained captive for more than a year, along with several other international journalists held hostage by Islamic State.
At the request of the family, CPJ did not publicize the case until the release of the video purporting to show Foley’s murder. In a video released on August 27, 2014, Sotloff’s mother, Shirley Sotloff, pleaded with the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to show mercy and release her son.
As with Foley, it is not clear exactly where and when Islamic State murdered Sotloff.
In November 2015, Aine Lesley Davis, a member of the Islamic state cell dubbed “The Beatles” that is suspected of having overseen the murder of Sotloff, as well as Foley and other hostages, was arrested in Istanbul, according to news reports. Davis was subsequently convicted on terrorism charges in Turkey in May 2017 and sentenced to seven years and a half years in jail, news reports said at the time.
In January 2016, the Islamic State-affiliated online magazine Dabiq confirmed that Mohammed Emzawi, who was nicknamed as Jihadi John and appeared masked in the videos of the murders of Sotloff, Foley, and Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, had been killed in a drone airstrike in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on November 12, 2015, according to news reports.
In early 2018, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces arrested the two remaining members of the cell, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, while they were trying to flee to Turkey, according to a report by Sky News citing SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel. Kotey and Elsheikh remained in SDF custody until October 2019, when they were transferred to U.S. military custody, according to news reports.
Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department announced at an October 7, 2020, news conference that Kotey and Elsheikh were on route to the United States from Iraq to face trial for the murder of four U.S. hostages: Sotloff, Foley, and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, according to news reports.
In August 2020, then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr had waived the death penalty for Kotey and Elsheikh if they were convicted of the murder of the four U.S. hostages in exchange for British classified evidence against them, according to news reports.
Kotey and Elsheikh face charges of conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death, hostage taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens outside of the United States, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization resulting in death, according to the BBC.
Kotey and Elsheikh appeared before a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, via video link from prison on October 7, 2020, according to news reports. In media interviews, they had previously denied involvement in the murders of Sotloff, Foley, Mueller, Kassig, and other Western hostages, according to reports.
Kotey pleaded guilty on September 2, 2021, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, in a plea bargain that called for a life sentence, according to news reports and a statement by the U.S. Department of Justice. A judge handed down the life sentence on April 29, 2022.
On April 14, 2022, after an 11-day trial in the Alexandria district court, Elsheikh was found guilty of lethal hostage taking and conspiracy to commit murder in the kidnappings of Foley, Sotloff, Kassig, and Mueller, according to the Department of Justice and news reports. He became the only member of the IS cell to be convicted of those crimes, according to those sources. He was handed a life sentence on August 19, 2022.
On August 11, 2022, Davis was charged at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London with offenses under the U.K.’s Terrorism Act, according to news reports. Davis, who was arrested in the U.K. the previous day after being deported there from Turkey following his release, denied being part of “The Beatles” cell.