JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel confirmed on Wednesday that slain American journalist Steven Sotloff was also an Israeli citizen, while President Barack Obama vowed to build a coalition to “degrade and destroy” the extremist group that carried out the videotaped beheading.
Sotloff’s Jewish faith and Israeli citizenship were not widely known before his death – in part because Israel’s military censor apparently kept a lid on the story for his safety – and his killers may not have known about his background either, since they made no mention of Jews or Israel in the footage released Tuesday.
Sotloff, a 31-year-old from suburban Miami who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines before he was captured in Syria a year ago, became the second American newsman to be beheaded by Islamic State militants in two weeks, killed in retribution for U.S. airstrikes against the group.
The video horrified Americans and journalists around the world and touched a nerve in Israel, where news that Sotloff had connections to the country dominated newscasts and brought condolences from Israelis who knew the Miami-area native.
“Steve was part of a group of young Jewish Americans who are enamored with Israel and enamored with the Arab world,” said Ehud Yaari, an Arab affairs commentator for Israeli Channel 2 who met Sotloff. “They were dying to know and enter all the dangerous places, and that’s how he behaved.”
The killing also put pressure on the Obama administration to act more forcefully against the extremist group that has conquered a swath of Syria and Iraq.
“Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat,” Obama said during a visit to Estonia, using an acronym for the group.
“We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists,” the president said. “And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”
During an appearance in Maine, Vice President Joe Biden declared that the U.S. will pursue the militants to “the gates of hell.”
Obama also sought to clean up the political damage inflicted when he said last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State.
“It is very important from my perspective that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that’s going to work, that we’re very clear on what our objectives are, what our targets are,” the president said.
Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said on his personal Twitter account that Sotloff held Israeli citizenship. Israel’s censor cleared the information for publication Wednesday, suggesting the country had tried to conceal the news to protect Sotloff.
The Sotloff family could not be reached for comment on his citizenship.
Tech companies rushed to scrub the web of the gruesome footage after its release, deleting a YouTube video and closing accounts on Twitter and other sites, according to two Silicon Valley insiders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Sotloff’s family, friends and colleagues remembered him as an adventurous man who was fascinated with the Middle East. Friends said he moved to Israel in 2005 as a student.
Outside his parents’ home in the Miami suburb of Pinecrest, family friend Barak Barfi read a statement late Wednesday that said Sotloff was torn between living a normal American life watching “South Park,” playing golf and eating junk food and going to the Middle East’s trouble spots as a journalist.
“He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern day Lawrence of Arabia,” Barfi said. “He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none. From the Libyan doctor in Misrata who struggled to provide psychological services to children ravaged by war, to the Syrian plumber who risked his life by crossing regime lines to purchase medicine, their story was Steve’s story. He ultimately sacrificed his life to bring their story to the world.”
Michael Sapir, a former rugby teammate in Israel, said he last saw Sotloff in July 2013, shortly before he was kidnapped. The two watched a rugby match in Israel at the Maccabiah, the Jewish Olympics.
He said Sotloff shared stories from his adventures in the region. Sotloff, he said, was a true freelancer who reported what he saw because he was interested, and only later found places to publish the stories.
“He was fascinated with the Middle East,” Sapir said. “He’s a remarkable man with a great amount of courage, and I don’t mean courage like that his life is in danger, but very courageous to take on the adventure that he embarked on.”
The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college north of Tel Aviv, said Sotloff graduated from its school of government, studying there between 2005 and 2008. He previously studied journalism at the University of Central Florida.
Ilene Prusher, former deputy editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, said she edited Sotloff’s stories from around the Arab world during the revolutions that rocked the region in 2011-12. She said his writing was full of detail and color that conveyed the day-to-day experiences of people in the region.
“He didn’t just sit in a hotel room but was out in the field, meeting lots of people,” she said.
Sotloff’s fate was reminiscent of the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted in Pakistan in 2002 and later beheaded. His father was Israeli. Pearl’s last words were: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
Pace reported from Tallinn, Estonia.
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Associated Press writer Aron Heller contributed to this report.