BOSTON: The mother of an American journalist held captive by militant group Islamic State released a video yesterday appealing directly to the group’s leader for his release.
“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,” Sotloff said in the video, obtained by the New York Times.
“My son Steven is in your hands,” she said, looking tired and tense but controlled. “He is a journalist who made a journey to cover the story of Muslims suffering at the hands of tyrants.”
She added that her son is an “honourable man and has always tried to help the weak.”
Sotloff, 31, went missing in Syria last year while covering the conflict there. Islamic State released of video last week in which he could be seen kneeling following the filmed decapitation of fellow journalist James Foley. Islamic State threatened to kill Sotloff if its demands, which include halting American air strikes against the group, are not met.
“As a mother I ask your justice to be merciful and not to punish my son for matters he has no control over,” she said. “I want what every mother wants: To live to see her children’s children. I plead with you to grant me this.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in a briefing yesterday that “we certainly would call on those who are holding (Sotloff) to release him”. He reiterated that the United States does not pay ransom to release hostages, however, saying it puts other innocent Americans at risk.
US spy agencies, meanwhile, face a difficult task in tracking Islamic jihadists in Syria, as Washington lacks a robust network of informants and faces threats to its drone fleet, experts and former officials said.
If US President Barack Obama opts to expand air strikes against the IS militants from Iraq to Syria, the effort could be delayed or hindered by intelligence gaps, former White House officials and analysts said.
Unlike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, or in Iraq, the United States has been largely absent in Syria for years and has not built up a web of relationships that it could use to monitor the movements of IS senior figures. “We don’t have the same resources in Syria, we don’t have the same intelligence resources that we do in Iraq,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California.
American bombing raids in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen rely on numerous informants and a fleet of drones that can linger in the air for hours, waiting for senior militants to appear in their sights, ex-officials said.
In comparison, the US faces conditions in Syria where it is practically blind, one former official said. “It’s a daunting challenge. It’s easier said than done,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
With the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, and a cautious approach to the civil war raging in Syria, America lacks a precise picture of its IS adversaries there, according to Rubin. “We’ve let our guard down.”
In countries such as Pakistan, when intelligence reports indicate a senior Al-Qaeda figure may be expected in an area, US informants are able to stake out the location until the leader shows up, he said. But in Syria, “we don’t have that sort of network.”
Members of moderate Syrian rebel groups reportedly have been recruited as CIA informants but it appears to be a relatively small network compared to what the Americans developed in Pakistan over the past decade.
Obama has given the green light to surveillance flights inside Syria but it remains unclear if American drones and other aircraft face a serious threat from the Syrian regime’s air defences.
Gary Samore, a former senior adviser to Obama on arms control, said the bigger problem is the need for ground troops in Syria who can seize territory from IS militants in the wake of any bombing raids. “The question is whether or not there are ground forces in eastern Syria that could follow up on US air strikes and actually control territory,” he said. “The answer may very well be ‘no’.