A barbarous execution


It was not just that Steven Sotloff would die, but the calculated brutality of his death that was so appalling: barbarous, almost medieval, in public on social media, prefaced by his own clearly forced words of reproach to Obama and the gloating warning by his executioner that more would follow.

Unable to strike back directly at US jets which have bombed their positions, with all the skill of accomplished modern media manipulators Islamic State fashioned its reply as a professional media package tailored to elicit maximum shock and outrage, a political blow, rather than military. But politics is war carried on by other means, and this is asymmetric warfare – a picture paints a thousand bullets.

Sotloff (31), like James Foley whose identical death preceded his last month, had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was seized a year ago by militant jihadists in northern Syria, an easy and potentially lucrative prize. Other national governments have paid ransoms, albeit unacknowledged, that have swelled the coffers of IS and others in recent years – the New York Times suggests that France has paid over a total of €43 million since 2008 through French and other companies. The US and UK are adamant, however, they will not pay to free their nationals although the latter are reported not to block attempts by family and employers to do so.

A well-regarded freelance who knew the region well and spoke Arabic, Sotloff reported mainly for Time . He is the 40th journalist, and 13th foreign journalist, according to Reporters Without Borders, to die in connection with his work in Syria since the start of the conflict. Twenty two have died in Iraq in the same time.

Yet, in reality, the effect of his killing will be to increase domestic pressure on Obama to strike back hard at IS and even to reach out to Syria’s regime to collaborate in dealing with the jihadis – both outcomes that could cost IS dear. However spectacular and headline-grabbing, such “propaganda of the deed” killings are likely to prove deeply counter-productive.