The plea was as calculated as it was heartbreaking — an American mother, pleading for the life of her own child, appealing to the power and ambition of the man who leads the most feared terror organization in the world.
Looking straight at the camera, Shirley Sotloff addressed the head of ISIS by his preferred title, “caliph of the Islamic State,” and said that he alone could show mercy on her son, a journalist reporting on “the suffering of Muslims at the hand of tyrants.”
Terrorism experts said Wednesday that the video was studied, carefully worded and tactically smart. What they could not say was whether it would work.
“She’s definitely done her homework,” said Colin P. Clarke, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp. research group who has studied insurgency for more than a decade. “This is probably what any parent would do.”
In the video, a minute and a half long, Sotloff asked the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to free her son, Steven, a 31-year-old freelance journalist who has covered Middle East conflicts for Time magazine and other news outlets.
ISIS has threatened to kill him unless the United States calls off airstrikes launched by President Barack Obama earlier this month to fight ISIS in Iraq. The threat came in the same video in which an ISIS fighter beheaded another American journalist.
Shirley Sotloff said in the video plea that she had learned about Islam since her son’s capture a year ago in Syria, including that “no individual should be held responsible for the sins of others.” She stressed that her son had no control over the U.S. government.
“I’ve always learned that you, the caliph, can grant amnesty,” she said. “I ask you to please release my child.”
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.”
ISIS, along with other rebel groups, is fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
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.
Shirley Sotloff began the video by saying: “I am sending this message to you, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Quraishi al-Hussaini, the caliph of the Islamic State. I am Shirley Sotloff. My son Steven is in your hands.”
She continued: “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Mohammed, who protected people of The Book.”
Clarke said that it was wise for Shirley Sotloff to mention her study of Islam and play to Baghdadi’s vision of himself as an Islamic scholar.
He said that the ISIS leader might see it as “a genuine appeal for her son’s life, couched in terms he understands.”
On the other hand, he said, Baghdadi could “shove it in the face of the United States, and say: If it weren’t for all these terrible things you’ve done, we would release someone like this. But because your behavior has been so vile, he’s got to suffer the same fate as Muslims worldwide.”
There is no way to know. Hopes were raised on Sunday when another American hostage, Peter Theo Curtis, was released by Islamic militants in Syria.
But Curtis was held by a group called the Nusra Front, which is known to be more pragmatic, and it was negotiated through the country of Qatar. ISIS is more opaque, and no country is known to have its ear.
There is also a major open question that could help determine ISIS’s next move — whether the United States launches airstrikes against the militants in Syria, as it has hinted that it might.
Skinner said he at least did not believe there was any risk of further harm to Steven Sotloff posed by the video, considering that ISIS has already publicized his plight and threatened his life.
“You’re not going to make them mad,” he said. “They’re already psychopathic. He’s in as bad a place as a person can be. There is no making it worse.”
Of the mother’s plea, he said: “It’s the best play she has. And I would have done the same thing.”
First published August 27 2014, 8:03 PM