Steven Sotloff seen before his execution
Steven Sotloff seen before his executionScreenshot

American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was brutally beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, took great risks to keep his Jewish faith in captivity, a former fellow-captive of the murdered journalist told Yediot Aharonoth.

However, it turns out that Sotloff was in fact Israeli.

A media gag order on the issue was released on Wednesday, allowing publication of the fact that Sotloff made aliyah (immigration) to Israel in 2005 by himself, and studied at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.

IDC Herzliya released a statement shortly after the gag order was released, noting its great sadness over 31-year-old Sotloff's brutal murder and adding that he studied at the institution from 2005 to 2008.

The statement pointed out that Sotloff, whose work was published in TimeThe National Interest and Media Line and Foreign Policy, had been stationed in Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey and Libya, before finally going to Syria where he was abducted by IS.

"In this act the Muslim jihad group has removed itself from the family of humanity," said IDC Herzliya founder and president Prof. Uriel Reichman. "The murder of Steven also erased the immunity that civilized society grants journalists, even in times of war, as their goal is to guard the truth and freedom of speech."

Reichman added "the murder of Steven reminds us again against whom humanity must stand, but it also teaches us the values of tolerance, humanity, the pursuit of justice and freedom of speech. ...The Interdisciplinary Center mourns the tragic death of Steven and joins in the grief of his family."

Heroically maintaining Judaism under captivity

Sotloff reportedly made sure to fast in secret during Yom Kippur and even prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, as is customary in Jewish prayers, despite the risk he faced if his Islamist captors ever found out he was Jewish.

One of Sotloff's fellow captives, who was subsequently released, told the paper that he feigned illness in order to escape his captors' suspicions.

"He told them he was ill and didn't want to eat, even though they brought us eggs that day," the witness told Yediot Aharonoth, "It looked like he was praying in a hidden way towards Jerusalem. He noted what way the Muslims were praying in and changed his direction slightly."

US officials are still examining the video released last night which appears to show Sotloff's beheading.

In it, a masked man dressed in black, who appears to be the same terrorist who appeared in the beheading video of Sotloff's fellow captive James Foley, addresses the camera and claims the beheading is being carried out in response to continued US airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq.

"I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State," the man says in the chilling recording.

After forcing a kneeling Sotloff to recite what is likely a pre-rehearsed script, the screen goes black, only for the recording to begin again showing what appears to be the decapitated body and head of the American journalist.

The terrorist then shows abducted British citizen David Cawthorne Haines, and threatens to kill him as well if the US and western forces did not stop aiding Kurdish militias pushing back against IS's advances through Iraq.

Reacting to news of the video last night, US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "If the video is genuine, we are sickened by this brutal act."

She added that US officials believed several other US citizens were still being held by the Islamic State. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the hearts of the American people were with Sotloff's family as they mourned their son's brutal murder, saying "our thoughts and prayers, first and foremost, are with Mr Sotloff and Mr Sotloff's family and those who worked with him."

However, he said he could not yet 100% confirm "the authenticity of that video or the reports."

"It's something that will be analysed very carefully by the US government and our intelligence officials to establish its authenticity," he added.