Sotloff’s fixer recounts abduction by Islamic State
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Sotloff’s fixer recounts abduction by Islamic State

In first interview, Yosef Abobaker describes their kidnapping by 15 gunmen and agony over the fate of the American-Israeli journalist who was his friend

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Yosef Abobaker speaking to CNN. (Screen capture: CNN)
Yosef Abobaker speaking to CNN. (Screen capture: CNN)

The fixer hired by slain American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff to guide him in Syria went public Tuesday with how they were kidnapped by the Islamic State group in August 2013, one year before the jihadis released a video of Sottlof’s beheading.

In an interview with CNN aired Tuesday, Yosef Abobaker, a former fighter in the Tawheed Brigade, a moderate Syrian rebel group, confirmed that their location upon entering Syria had been tipped to members of the Islamic State by a border guard on the Turkish-Syrian border.

“I think maybe one guard from the border, they call him on the radio, and he said he’s moved from here, you can wait for him: He has this kind of car,” Abobaker said, in sometimes broken English.

Last week, Barak Barfi, a friend of Sotloff’s acting as a family representative, told CNN that somebody at the border had sold Sotloff’s location to Islamic State for $25,000 to $50,000. He said he based in information on sources on the ground.

Abobaker said the abduction took place just 20 minutes after their party had crossed the border to enter Syria on August 4, 2013.

Abobaker was armed and there were another three guards with them, but he told the American network that they were outnumbered by some 15 Islamic State fighters who jumped out of three cars.

“We don’t have any chance to defend (ourselves),” he said. The group was then taken to a textile factory outside Aleppo, where Abobaker was separated from Sotloff while the captives’ eyes were closed.

Journalist Steven Sotloff (right) in Syria, 2012 (photo credit: Facebook/Oren Kessler)
Journalist Steven Sotloff (right) in Syria, 2012 (photo credit: Facebook/Oren Kessler)

Abobaker, who was later released, said no US officials had contacted him to interview him about the kidnapping in the months leading up to Sotloff’s execution.

“No, nobody tried to contact me and I tried to help. Nobody came to me and ask me any questions from the (US) government…. Nobody contacted me or ask me about their conditions,” Abobaker said. “And they can find me. It’s easy. But, no, nobody tried to contact me.”

Barfi confirmed that Abobaker was not contacted, which he said was one of a number of mistakes made by Washington.

The family of James Foley, another US journalist beheaded by Islamic State terrorists, has also accused the administration of missteps in handling the kidnapping and ransom negotiations.

A Daily Beast story published shortly after Sotloff’s execution became public claimed that Abobaker’s identity and plans to enter Syria from Turkey had been compromised by a Canadian photographer shortly before he worked with Sotloff.

Abobaker said he and Sotloff were held in separate rooms, and were not reunited even as the days passed.

“Sometimes I say they will kill us all because I work with people from outside,” Abobaker said of his time in captivity.

But after 15 days, he and his brother and cousins, who were also working for Sotloff — were released.

“They ask me, do you know who we are, and I said, yes, I think you are ISIS,” Abobaker said. “And they said, yes, we should kill you. You are spy and work with America and CIA and FBI, but we leave you now because you work with [Tawheed], because I have papers…. But if we hear you work with journalist again, we will kill you for sure.”

Abobaker told CNN that he had agonized over the fate of Sotloff, with whom he had become friendly after the reporter interviewed his father.

“I was very angry, and after that I calmed down and was so, so sorry,” Abobaker, who had served as Sotloff’s translator and arranged interviews for him, said. “I put message on Facebook (to) tell his mother I am so sorry…. I did my best to save him…. My feeling is so sorry, like I lost my brother.”

He added, “He was nice man and good heart I just wish he can rest in peace now.”

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