Proxy War

Obama Administration and Sotloff Family Battle Over Blame for Journalist’s Kidnapping

New allegations are being traded in an increasingly nasty fight about who really handed over Steven Sotloff to ISIS—and whether the president’s plan for Syria makes any sense.

Mazen Mahdi/EPA/Newscom

Steven Sotloff crossed over from Turkey into Syria via the Azaz border crossing Aug. 4, 2013. A few hours later, he was in the hands of ISIS. What happened between his arrival at the border and his abduction is not only hotly contested by his family and the Obama administration, it also has become a proxy war for America’s strategy to train a new Syrian rebel army.

Barak Barfi, Sotloff’s close friend and the official spokesman for the Sotloff family following Steven’s brutal murder this month at the hands of ISIS, told The Daily Beast in an interview that the group responsible for Sotloff’s detention and indirectly for his death is not only a part of the Free Syrian Army, but the same exact brigade that met with Sen. John McCain at that same border crossing only three months before.

Last week, McCain was busy shooting down false reports (regurgitated by a misinformed Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) that he had met with ISIS in May 2013. McCain actually met and posed for photos with, among others, members of the Northern Storm Brigade, a rebel group that has received weapons from the United States in the past.

It’s this group, Barfi alleged, that set up his friend, Sotloff, and enabled ISIS to grab him. “Steven was delayed at the border by people who worked with the Northern Storm,” Barfi said, adding that one of those brigade members called ISIS and turned over Sotloff, for a profit.

In other words, McCain didn’t pose with ISIS. According to Barfi, the senator posed with guys from a group responsible for Sotloff’s kidnapping. It’s claim is hotly refuted by McCain, of course. But also by senior members of the Obama administration.

Barfi referenced the reports that members of the Northern Storm, known in Arabic as Asifat al Shamal, were also accused of kidnapping 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in 2012. A Hezbollah-associated newspaper said McCain had met with two of the actual kidnappers. In reality, one of the people that Hezbollah said was in the photo was already dead at the time.

According to Barfi’s account, Sotloff had been mistakenly added to a list of people suspected by “activists” of being linked to the Assad regime’s bombing of hospital in Aleppo. He was stopped at the FSA Media Center on the Syrian side of the border, which was run by the Northern Storm, and held up for an unusually long amount of time.

Someone at the border crossing tipped off ISIS, which quickly set up a mobile checkpoint on the road leading away from the border crossing. By the time Sotloff was allowed to leave the border crossing, the trap was set. Steven and his fixer were detained. His fixer, who Barfi said was affiliated with the Islamist Tawhid brigade, was set free 15 days later.

Barfi’s latest account is a detailed expansion of the comments he made September 10 on CNN when he said Sotloff “was sold at the border” to ISIS for probably between $25,000 and $50,000 by “the so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support.”

The Sotloff family was already irate at the administration for what they saw as disrespect, mistreatment, and neglect of the information they were offering as to Steven’s abduction and whereabouts.

But Barfi’s shocking allegation, if true, would call into question the entire basis for the administration’s new strategy in Syria, which rests upon America’s ability to trust the moderate opposition.

Perhaps that’s why Secretary of State John Kerry vigorously and publicly rebutted Barfi’s account last week—and then went a step further. Kerry, in testimony before Congress, said Barfi had been the victim of an information operation perpetrated by ISIS itself.

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“Actually, there is intelligence that refutes it,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee when asked about Barfi’s story.

“That’s an ISIL disinformation claim. And in fact, that never happened. As I said, it’s false information that was put out by ISIL itself,” Kerry added, using the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS.

Asked about this testimony, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast that Kerry’s comments were based on U.S. intelligence reports, which assured them the moderate rebels were not involved in Sotloff’s abduction.

“Mr. Barfi’s service to the memory of his friend is honorable, as is his dedication to the Sotloff family. No one questions it, nor should they, and nor would we,” a senior administration official said. “But the puzzling accusation, presented without evidence, that the moderate opposition kidnapped or sold Sotloff flies in the face of all our available intelligence. I can only conclude it’s based on really bad information. We have no reason to believe, nor have we seen any evidence to suggest, that Steven Sotloff was abducted or sold by the moderate opposition or the Northern Storm, quite the contrary.”

McCain, who is an advocate of arming the Syrian rebels but doesn’t think the administration is doing enough in Syria, also lashed out at Barfi’s accusation that the rebels he met with may have been responsible for the death of an American journalist.

“Baseless and unsubstantiated allegations like these do nothing to ease the pain of the Sotloff family and the families of those still held captive in Syria, all of whom remain in my thoughts and prayers,” McCain told The Daily Beast in a statement. “The law enforcement and diplomatic officials who have investigated this case, and all of the credible Syria experts I know, have concluded that individuals associated with radical Islamist groups, not moderate opposition forces, were responsible for Mr. Sotloff’s abduction. In fact, the people I met with in Syria were committed enemies of ISIS, and many of them have since been killed fighting ISIS.”

One well-known activist who was on the ground shortly before the abduction backed up the majority of Barfi’s story to The Daily Beast and said that the Northern Storm was, in fact, involved. This activist said there were no ISIS checkpoints in the area when Sotloff arrived at the border crossing and a Northern Storm member tipped off ISIS, who rushed to set one up. Barfi’s story is also backed up Sotloff’s fixer, who gave an interview to CNN last week and said ISIS was tipped off by a border guard and was waiting for them.

Another activist who was not on the ground in August but who brought McCain to meet with the Northern Storm only three months prior said that Barfi’s story just didn’t make sense, because the FSA and ISIS were at war with each other and would never work together. (Of course, individual members of the FSA might’ve been in a more cooperative mood that day.) Either way, the FSA-ISIS feud got worse after the McCain visit with the Northern Storm, which ISIS viewed as a heretical act.

“ISIS and Northern Storm have no communication whatsoever and if they did ever speak it would be impossible for ISIS to give any financial transaction for them because ISIS and the Northern Storm are bitter enemies,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American NGO that implements State Department projects inside Syria. “The Northern Storm has always been bitter enemies of ISIS, but post-McCain trip the hatred of ISIS to the Northern Storm only increased.”

The world may never know who was responsible for Steven Sotloff being captured by ISIS. The Northern Storm may never be one of the brigades Obama plans to train and arm in Saudi Arabia. But the profound uncertainty that haunts the death of an American journalist underscores the dire risk America is accepting as the country moves forward with Obama’s new war.

For Barfi, the whole controversy is part of a pattern by an Obama administration that has mistreated several families of hostages. He contends that senior government officials ignored the information they tried to provide the FBI, kept the families and their representatives out of the loop, and allegedly threatened them with prosecution if they tried to pay a ransom. (It’s a charge White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough personally denied.)

“This is the same State Department whose chief said he had no knowledge of families being warned about payments of ransoms when a senior State Department official was in these meetings,” Barfi said, declining to name publicly that official. “This is the same administration whose Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, claimed that a senior NSC [National Security Council] official did not intimidate the families when two families said he did.”

But Barfi was hardly Sotloff’s only friend in the community of journalists. I knew Steven as well. Over the years, we would often trade tips and share stories when I was reporting from D.C. and he was reporting from a war zone. The Steven I knew would not have wanted his death to be used to advance any political agenda, whether it be by the Secretary of State or by his best friend. He had an agenda, but not a political one. He wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

“I don’t want to be attached to a scandal,” he wrote to me in an email once from one of his dangerous travels. “But I want people to know the truth.”