TIME Infectious Disease

Liberia’s Ministry of Sound

Education is key to stopping Ebola's spread in this West African nation. Monrovia’s musicians are taking up the call

It seems like any typical Friday night in Monrovia. Out on the streets traffic snarls around the intersections, and taxis and buses are crammed with commuters on their way home after a long week. The ubiquitous sidewalk video bars are filing with patrons settling in to watch European club football on open air screens (Chelsea and Barcelona are favorites here), and the base is starting to thump at Code: 146, the Liberian capital’s hottest live music club. Blake, the house DJ, is priming the audience with promises of a new band. Then he opens with an unusual mike check for a bar known best for getting down: “Let’s get started, but let’s respect the rules. So no too much rubbing, no too much hugging, no too much sweating, no too much drinking. You have to be cautious.”

At first glance it’s hard to tell that Monrovia is the epicenter of an Ebola outbreak that has killed nearly 3,000 people and sickened thousands more in the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. But a closer look reveals what Ebola has wrought. No one shakes hands any more, and the shared taxis, which used to careen around town with as many as five passengers stuffed in the back, are only allowed three, by a new government decree. Public buses are limited to four passengers per row. The video bars, which used to cram as many as 12 football fans to a bench for the big games, are stopping at eight. And at Code: 146 the smell of old beer and fresh marijuana is nearly masked by the pervasive scent of chlorine emanating from a hand washing station placed prominently near the dance floor. “Ebola is real,” Blake shouts over the microphone, as he launches into a rap about a guy who called it a myth. “And now he’s dead.”

Not exactly the most uplifting way to launch into an evening of dance and revelry, but, says the bar’s owner Takun J, “We have a responsibility as musicians to spread the message about Ebola.” Takun J is one of the country’s most well known singers, his style a reggae-tinged Liberian hip-hop dubbed Hipco. He is working on a new song about Ebola, and hums a few refrains as he gets ready for the evening show. “Musicians have the ear of the people,” he says. “Everyone loves Takun J, so when I talk about Ebola, everyone knows it’s serious.” He pauses for a moment, then grins. “They will listen to me more than to the President.”

Takun’s efforts, along with a widespread education campaign conducted by various NGOs, seem to be having an impact. “When the crisis first started, I would say 30% took Ebola seriously and 70% of the people didn’t believe it was real,” says Matthew G. Slermien, head of a teenage empowerment program in the Monrovia slum of Westpoint. “Now those numbers are reversed.” Slermien’s project, Adolescents Leading Intensive Fight Against Ebola (ALIFE), has trained 142 young women and men to go through the community educating residents about Ebola and how to protect themselves.

“People are starting to listen,” says ALIFE volunteer Hazel Toe. It’s not perfect—the organization doesn’t have the money to distribute chlorine or buckets or gloves to the slum dwellers who can’t buy their own—but it’s a start, she says. “Once people start listening, the rest will follow.” That’s what DJ Blake and Takun J are hoping as well.

TIME Infectious Disease

Meet the Most Feared People in Liberia

The Red Cross Dead Body Management Team in Liberia provides a service essential for stemming the transmission of Ebola but the workers are shunned and despised for doing a job no one else wants

The crowd was waiting — and angry. The minute the Liberian Red Cross convoy pulled in to a tin-roof shantytown huddled at the base of Monrovia’s St. Paul Bridge on the morning of Sept. 24, residents crowded the lead vehicle, clamoring to be heard. The five-vehicle convoy was there to pick up the body of a man who had died the night before with symptoms of Ebola. “Where were you two weeks ago when we called when he had a fever?” demanded one resident. “I’ve been calling every day for an ambulance,” shouted another, brandishing the call log on his mobile phone for proof. He turned to face the crowd: “No one comes when we are sick, only when we are dead.” The residents roared in agreement. One teenager turned his back on the Red Cross team, bent over, and grabbed his buttocks in a sign of contempt. The team supervisor, Friday Kiyee, sighed as he launched into an explanation polished by countless repetitions. “We are the Red Cross Body Management Team. Our job is to pick up dead bodies. We are not responsible for picking up patients and taking them to the hospital. We are only here to pick up the body.” He clapped his hands sharply, a signal for the men on his team to suit up and get to work.

All of the health care workers and other people involved in combatting the Ebola epidemic in Liberia face great risks on the job and the workers on the Red Cross Dead Body Management Team are no exception. The disease is at its most contagious in the hours after death when unprotected contact with the body and its fluids all but guarantees transmission of the deadly virus. Proper disposal of Ebola’s victims is one of the most essential factors in stemming the course of an outbreak that is killing hundreds of people a day in West Africa and threatens to infect up to 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January, according to a worst-case scenario predicted by the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But instead of gratitude, the men tasked with handling the dead acting as collectors, coroners and undertakers for the victims of Ebola face fear and revulsion. In the course of their work they are yelled at, spat at and threatened with rocks. At home, after a long day climbing into and out of stifling biohazard suits, hauling bodies, and bathing in pungent chlorine solution, many of them also face isolation from their friends, family members and neighbors. “No one wants to be near me,” says 29-year-old Nelson Sayon, who has been with the Dead Body Management Team since Ebola came to Monrovia, in June. “They are afraid. They refuse even to take our money if we want to buy something in the store, or eat in a restaurant.”

Each team, of which there are six in Liberia, works six days a week, from nine in the morning to around six at night. They rarely have time for lunch. A typical day starts at a Liberian Red Cross center in downtown Monrovia, where the teams are given their assignments for the day. Early in the morning of Sept. 24 the center was bustling with activity. Workers were mixing buckets of chlorine solution to fill up the backpack sprayers used by disinfectant teams. Others were hauling sacks of Tyvek biohazard suits, rubber gloves, goggles and masks — the foundation of a Body Management Team member’s wardrobe. One man walked by with a cardboard box labeled bodybags.com balanced on his head. Kiyee gathered his team and read out the assignment for the day: district 16, one of the most Ebola-impacted areas of Montserrado County, home to the capital Monrovia, and the epicenter of the outbreak. Before starting their rounds “we pray,” said Sayon, a member of Kiyee’s team. “We pray for guidance, protection, and for God to make Ebola go away.” He also prays for the bodies he is about to collect, he said, because once he starts, he won’t have time to be thinking about the dead. He will be too busy trying to stay alive, making sure that he, and his teammates, are properly covered and routinely disinfected.

The first stop was Babama Junction, where a man named Paul Taylor had succumbed to a high fever the night before. Taylor’s wife, fearful for her own health and terrified of the Ebola stigma, swore that her husband had only been sick a day, and that he couldn’t possibly have had the virus. There was no vomit, she said, when describing his symptoms to Kiyee. No diarrhea, no blood in the mouth — typical signs of Ebola. She begged the team not to take her husband away. She wanted to bury him herself. But there is no rapid test for Ebola, and with every dead body a potential viral bomb, the team can’t take any chances. “We can’t say for sure if a person has Ebola or not,” said Kiyee. “Any person who dies right now is considered a suspected Ebola case, and we have to take the body.” Even if they don’t have proof, the teams have enough experience by now to know the signs. “The people don’t want to accept that their father or mother or wife has Ebola, so they lie [about the symptoms],” said Sayon. “But when we come back again and again to the same house, the same community, we know it’s Ebola, and not asthma or malaria.”

In the early days of the outbreak, the Dead Body Management Teams would help families bury their dead – laying the body six feet deep, under layers of dirt soaked with chlorine spray. But as the numbers of dead increased exponentially, fearful communities began to reject the burials, and the government mandated that all bodies, no matter the cause of death, be cremated.

There were 10 members of Kiyee’s team at the Taylor family home: four men to handle the body, two to disinfect the house before and after the pickup, one to oversee the proper protective gear, and three to run interference with the community. Even as the moon-suited and chlorine-drenched collectors wrestled Taylor’s body into a body bag, Kiyee was out in front of the house, placating the gathered crowd and explaining, once again, his responsibilities. The collectors heaved the body bag into the back of a navy blue pick up while the crowd erupted into a collective howl of grief. The collectors disrobed in ritualized steps: the first layer of gloves, then the hood, the goggles, the face mask, the body suit, and finally the last layer of gloves, all interspersed by liberal sprays of chlorine solution. The convoy reassembled and sped through the community’s mud-slicked roads, chased by residents alternately bidding the body farewell, and cursing the team that had taken a beloved father, brother and husband away.

So it went, a relentless cycle of dressing up, collecting a corpse and undressing, until the pickup was weighed down with 20 bodies in all. So full was the truck that it could not even stop to pick up the body of a man who had died in a roadside market. “We will come back tomorrow,” one of the drivers yelled to the crowd. Then, accompanied by a police escort, the convoy tore down the highway towards a crematorium on the outskirts of town. There, the collected bodies would be burned, unmarked and unmourned, along with the scores of other corpses collected by the Red Cross that day.

TIME ebola

The Liberian Church Stopping Ebola With Gospel and Chlorine

Dr. Mosoka Fallah, an epidemiologist and immunologist, speaks with residents during a neighborhood Ebola training session in Monrovia, Liberia.
Daniel Berehulak—The New York Times/Redux Dr. Mosoka Fallah, an epidemiologist and immunologist, speaks with residents during a neighborhood Ebola training session in Monrovia, Liberia, Aug. 30, 2014.

The Free Pentecostal Global Mission Church in the Chickensoup Factory district of Monrovia uses the pulpit to teach about the deadly virus, one sermon at a time

“Lord,” shouts the Reverend Joseph T.S. Menjor into a microphone. “We are tired of this situation. We are calling on you to cast this abomination from our country. Jesus, we want our land to be free of Ebola. Cast out this disease!”

The pastor is leading his people in prayer, but it is not a moment of quiet reflection. No, his congregation is on its feet, swaying to a gospel hymn, eyes closed and hands raised in supplication. At Menjor’s call, the 600 or so congregants of the Free Pentecostal Global Mission Church in the Chickensoup Factory district of Monrovia, Liberia chant a chorus of amens and launch into a cacophony of individual prayers, symbolically casting the evil of Ebola to the ground with repeated downward thrusts of their hands.

Menjor is not just trusting in God to solve the Ebola problem. The minister is taking concrete steps to protect his people, and his community, from an outbreak of a deadly virus that has already claimed 2,800 lives and sickened thousands more across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Over 1,500 of those fatalities occurred in Liberia, with the densely packed seaside capital of Monrovia the worst affected. The disease, which is transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has no vaccine, and there is no cure.

Preventing Ebola’s spread is the only solution, says Menjor. As with most establishments across the capital, large plastic vessels fitted with spigots and filled with a diluted chlorine solution flank the church doors. Ushers remind churchgoers to wash their hands thoroughly before entering. No one shakes hands anymore. Newcomers are greeted with broad smiles instead of the reverend’s personal embrace. While the church has grown in numbers since the outbreak — “When people are scared of dying, they flock to God,” chuckles Menjor — the pews are no longer tightly packed. The church offers two Sunday services instead, and broadcasts its sermons over the radio.

The Chickensoup Factory church branch, named after a powder soup manufacturing plant that used to be in the area, has also pioneered an Ebola Task Force designed to push the message of prevention into the homes of congregants and community members. Each Sunday, Rebecca Scotland, a founding member of the task force and a nursing instructor at a nearby teaching hospital, delivers her own talk before the sermon.

Combining drama with call and response, Scotland mimes Ebola symptoms for the congregation to identify. She fans her face and mimes taking her temperature. “Fever!” the congregation shouts. She feigns weakness, swaying on her feet. She clutches her stomach and bends over a pretend bucket. “Vomiting!” calls out a member of the choir. She squats in front of the pulpit and blows a raspberry into the microphone. “Diarrhea!” laughs the congregation.

The game of symptoms charades over, Scotland collapses in front of the pulpit, pretending to be sick. One of the prayer leaders, playing the part of a concerned relative, rushes to her side to offer comfort. Scotland jumps up with a stern “No!” The easiest way to get Ebola, she explains, is by touching infected people. “If you think you are sick, or someone in your family is sick, call 4455,” the national emergency hotline number. “The good news about Ebola is that there are survivors. It is not a death sentence. If you can get to the hospital, you have a chance.”

But knowing how difficult it is to find care in a city with more Ebola patients than room to treat them, she instructs the congregation on how to wear long sleeves and gloves before tending sickened family members. She explains how to mix a chlorine and water solution for cleaning hands and skin, and a stronger one for cleaning up vomit, blood and diarrhea. “Most Ebola infections happen at the bedside, when family members are caring for their loved ones,” she explains to TIME after the sermon. “If we can teach our members how to take care of themselves while taking care of their family members, we can go a long way towards stopping this disease.”

Scotland’s now weekly sermon was inspired by the illness of a beloved member of the church leadership, choir director Deborah Kamanda, who contracted Ebola caring for her younger sister and died Aug. 23. It was the first time Ebola had come to the congregation, and spurred the leadership into action. “We couldn’t save Deborah, but we knew we could stop that from happening again.” The task force, which was launched a week after Kamanda took sick, bore fruit immediately. Scotland’s guidance helped save Kamanda’s husband, Alex T. J. Kamanda, a science teacher who nursed his wife for eight days before a bed opened up in one of the city’s overcrowded treatment facilities.

While Kamanda, 39, stayed by his wife’s side, church members kept him in a steady supply of gloves, extra clothes and chlorine powder. “For me it was traumatic, seeing someone you love suffering so much, and not even being able to touch her without gloves, ” says Kamanda, sitting in front of the empty porch where his wife spent her last listless days before going to the treatment center. “But I didn’t get sick.” It’s a double blessing: his four-year-old son, who was staying with his grandparents at the time, still has a family, unlike the country’s hundreds of Ebola orphans.

The guidance of Monrovia’s churches is spreading beyond their congregations. When one of his neighbors got sick, Kamanda’s example inspired the victim’s son, Victor T. Bumbeh, to use the same protective measures. He didn’t get sick either. “It’s a fearful disease,” says the jobless 27-year-old. “I understand why people are afraid. But with the right protections, not everyone who touches it dies.” To members of the Chickensoup Factory church, casting Ebola from Liberia may start with God, but education, counseling and a good dose of chlorine are just as important.

TIME ebola

Why the U.S. Has a Special Responsibility to Help Liberia with Ebola

Residents look on as the body of a man suspected of dying from Ebola lies in a busy street, after it was reportedly dragged there to draw attention of burial teams following days of failed attempts by his family to have his body picked up, in Monrovia, Liberia, Sept. 15, 2014.
Daniel Berehulak—The New York Times/Redux Residents look on as the body of a man suspected of dying from Ebola lies in a busy street, after it was reportedly dragged there to draw attention of burial teams following days of failed attempts by his family to have his body picked up, in Monrovia, Liberia, Sept. 15, 2014.

In committing troops and cash to fighting Ebola in Liberia first, the U.S. is drawing on old historical ties

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced a dramatic expansion of American aid and military personnel to help combat Ebola in Liberia on Sept. 16, it wasn’t just because the country was suffering the worst of a devastating outbreak that has claimed nearly 2,500 lives and sickened at least twice as many more in West Africa. Though the rapidly rising death toll—the number of cases in Liberia nearly doubled over the past three weeks—is enough to more than enough to merit international concern, there are also deep historical links between Liberia and the U.S. Liberia is the closest thing America ever had as a colony in Africa, and the two countries share a unique history, strong ties—and a certain responsibility to each other.

Dubbed “Another America” by American historian James Ciment in his recent book on the country, Liberia was founded by American statesmen in 1820 and populated, forcibly by some accounts, with former slaves. According to Ciment’s account, it was an attempt to rid the United States of its burgeoning population of freed blacks, which Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, then speaker of the House, called in 1816 “useless and pernicious, if not dangerous.” It was a kind of “ethnic cleansing” for a country uncomfortable with the idea of slavery yet not prepared to accept blacks as full members of society, Ciment said in a recent interview.

By the the time of the Civil War, Clay’s American Colonization Society, founded with fellow Congressmen John Randolph and Daniel Webster to purchase land in West Africa, had sent more than 10,000 American blacks to the new country, which they called Liberia. They named the capital Monrovia, after James Monroe, who was the U.S. President when the capital was established.

The new immigrants, who came to be known as “Americoes,” set up a society largely modeled on that of the antebellum South, taking local natives as servants, and, eventually, as slaves who could be ‘leased’ out to work on the country’s lucrative rubber plantations. That early legacy of inequality laid the foundations for the revolutionary foment that eventually led to a sequence of brutal civil wars beginning in 1989 that ended only in 2003.

Liberia has only just emerged from the ravages of those conflicts, and its economy, infrastructure and leadership are not yet prepared to take on a crisis as big as the current Ebola outbreak. Sierra Leone, of course, suffers a similar post-conflict situation due to its own recent civil war, but there Ebola is not as widespread.

Still, there has been some grumbling from residents of both Sierra Leone and Guinea, the two other countries most affected by the outbreak, that they are not getting as much American largesse. American officials say that the assitance at the epicenter of the outbreak will help all afflicted countries. But each of those countries is getting additional assistance from former colonial masters as well: France is sending 20 health and medical disaster specialists to Guinea and has donated $200,000 to the French Red Cross’s operations there, in addition to a $1 million grant to the European Union’s humanitarian agency’s work on Ebola in the region. And Britain has announced that it will be sending troops to its former colony, Sierra Leone, to set up a 62-bed facility there. It has also committed $40 million to battle the outbreak region wide.

But even nations with no historical connection to the region are pitching in, not least would-be soft power China, which pledged to dispatch 174 epidemiologists, nurses and doctors to Sierra Leone. Considering China’s huge investments in the region, however, it has been criticized for its paltry economic assistance in the crisis.

The driving issue with all this assistance, is not how much is being offered, but how quickly it can get there. Even America’s proposed treatment wards, about ten of which will be built across the country, only offer enough places for 1,700 Ebola patients. The best solution for stopping Ebola in its tracks is quickly identifying and isolating victims. But 1,700 places for Ebola patients is barely adequate for the number of suspected cases in Liberia at the moment. With numbers doubling every three weeks, the longer it takes to get the treatment wards in place, the more beds—and graves—there will need to be.

TIME isis

How ISIS Is Recruiting Women From Around the World

Mideast Syria Rebel Attrition
AP Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria marching in Raqqa, Syria, on Jan. 14, 2014

How the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria recruits female converts, and why

Even as the world expressed its horror at the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the radical militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), there were those who exulted on social media. Self-proclaimed Western jihadists and ISIS supporters in Syria, these people proclaimed victory and promised more killings to come. “I wish I did it,” noted one on a Tumblr blog. Another asked for links to any videos of Foley’s execution and cackled, in a slang-filled Twitter post, that the “UK must b shaking up ha ha.”

They were both women. The Twitter personality, Khadijah Dare, whose handle Muhajirah fi Sham means “female immigrant to Syria,” declared her desire to replicate the execution: “I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorrist!” Her statement may be pure jingoism, but as ISIS attracts more female adherents, the likelihood of seeing a woman brandishing a knife in the terrorist group’s name only increases.

Women have always played a role in war, if not in actual combat then in the vital areas of intelligence gathering, medical care, food preparation and support. ISIS’s vicious campaign to carve out a state ruled by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law is no different, though its strict laws prohibiting mixing between genders has limited women’s presence on the front lines. Instead, women are drawn — or recruited — into vital support roles through effective social-media campaigns that promise devout jihadist husbands, a home in a true Islamic state and the opportunity to devote their lives to their religion and their God.

The exact number of women who have joined jihadist groups in Syria is impossible to ascertain, but terrorism analysts at London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimate there are some 30 European women in Iraq and Syria who either accompanied their jihadist husbands or have gone with the intention to marry members of ISIS and other militant groups. That may be less than 10% of the number of Western men currently estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, but the fear is that the number of women involved may grow more quickly. A recently established French hotline for reporting signs of jihadist radicalization has seen 45% of its inquiries involve women, according to the Interior Ministry, and there have been several cases of women, one as young as 16, arrested at France’s airports under suspicion of trying to travel Syria to join Islamist rebels.

Two Austrian girls, ages 15 and 16, went to Syria in April, and in May, 16-year-old British twin sisters followed their older brother to Syria so they could marry jihadists, according to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. Nineteen-year-old American convert to Islam Shannon Maureen Conley was arrested by the FBI in April as she prepared to fly to Turkey with Syria as her ultimate destination. She has been charged with conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization. At least one Canadian woman and two teenage Somalis from Norway are known to have joined jihadist groups in Syria as well. Most of the women are drawn to ISIS, which actively seeks out Western recruits as part of its strategy to expand internationally.

At the beginning, ISIS actively discouraged women from joining. Members active on social media urged their female followers to support jihad with fundraising and by asking their menfolk to join the fight. Women had no place in war, they said. But as the group came closer to its goal of establishing an Islamic state, exceptions were made. Women are necessary for a state to function, says Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Calls went out for female doctors, nurses and engineers. When ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2013, it required a female security force to ensure that local women complied with Islamic laws of dress and conduct. It needed female police to check women passing through checkpoints, in case they were carrying arms for the opposition. Most of all, the Islamic State needed families to grow.

ISIS’s social-media campaign to recruit women isn’t nearly as developed as the one that calls for fighters, but it doesn’t have to be. Western women inspired by fighters’ postings can find like-minded women among the followers, and build a community. From there they easily find the Twitter pages and Tumblr accounts of women who have already made it to Syria — women like al-Khanssa, whose Tumblr photo blog is full of guidance for would-be female jihadists. She offers advice on what to bring (warm clothes, a hair dryer) and what not to bring (coffee and tea — easy to find) interspersed with Quranic verses, religious instructions culled from Islamic websites and photos of Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Umm Layth, another Westerner in Syria with a large social-media following, tells her followers that the most difficult part about joining the fight is opposition from family back home. “The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do … when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard,” she writes on her Tumblr blog. British authorities believe that she is 20-year-old Aqsa Mahmood, who was reported missing from her Glasgow home by her family in November.

But for any woman who thinks coming to Syria and joining ISIS might bring new opportunities or equal rights, al-Khanssa is clear. “The main role of the muhajirah [female migrant] here is to support her husband and his jihad and [God willing] to increase this ummah [Islamic community].” She follows with a quote culled from a Salafist website: “The best of women are those who do not see the men, and who are not seen by men.” ISIS’s recruitment may take place with 21st century technology, but when it comes to women, its ethos is firmly ground in the seventh.

TIME Syria

Murdered Journalist Sought to Give Voice to the Voiceless

American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff during a work trip in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 26, 2010.
Mazen Mahdi—EPA American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff during a work trip in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 26, 2010.

People who knew American reporter Steven Sotloff say he was evenhanded and driven to report on the humanitarian dimensions of the conflicts in the Middle East

Right from the start of the Syrian civil war, in March 2011, reporting from inside the country meant facing an unusually high level of danger. And as the country’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising morphed into a bloody, sectarian-tinged stalemate, the risks to journalists working there grew. That didn’t stop reporters like Steven Sotloff, who is believed to have been beheaded by the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria after spending more than a year in captivity, from risking their lives to tell the stories of Syrians trapped in the middle.

Sotloff leaped into the tumult of the Middle East with a passion for reporting the details of daily life in the middle of momentous change. He referred to himself on Twitter as a “Stand-up philosopher from Miami” and was known as an “easy-going, jovial and kind-hearted guy,” according to one of his closest friends, Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. Barfi says he and Sotloff shared a love for U.S. sports teams as well as the Middle East, and often worked together as the Arab Spring took off in 2011. Sotloff, says Barfi, was drawn to the Middle East not by the wars and the battles, but by the opportunity to “give a voice to the people who didn’t have one. He always wanted to bring out the humanitarian aspect of a story.” That desire led Sotloff to Yemen, where he studied Arabic, and to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Turkey and eventually Syria. His stories focused on small human details rather than epic battles. And he was never content to take the obvious tack, notes Barfi. “He always said there were two sides to every story, and he was not ready to condemn a person without hearing what he had to say.” Sotloff, says Barfi, wasn’t just interested in getting a big interview: “He wanted to understand what made a man tick.” That desire took him to places few journalists would visit, and turned into powerful stories that brought distant conflict to life.

Sotloff grew up in Florida and attended boarding school in New Hampshire, where he got his start as a journalist while working for the school newspaper. He returned to Florida to go to university, where he continued with journalism at one of the University of Central Florida’s student newspapers. He left in 2005 to pursue journalism full time, moving to the Middle East to learn Arabic. Dedicated as he was to the events buffeting the region, he never lost touch with his favorite hometown team, tweeting frequently about the Miami Heat. At one point he wondered out loud on Twitter: “Is it bad that I want to focus on #syria, but all I can think of is a #HEATFinals repeat?”

Sotloff was a committed reporter, eager to get to the source of stories. He was careful but was rarely frightened of the dangers of reporting in the Middle East. He knew where the red lines were, says Barfi, who also served as the Sotloff family spokesman while Sotloff was in captivity. Sotloff knew militants who had gone on to join ISIS, says Barfi, and he had heard enough about the group to avoid them. It was one of the few subjects he wrote about from a distance. “He knew about ISIS and the dangers they posed for Westerners and Syrians, that was one of the few topics he wouldn’t touch in person.”

Sotloff’s parents and supporters elected to keep his kidnapping out of the news in the hopes it would aid his release. But on Aug. 19, ISIS released a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley; the video showed Sotloff kneeling in the desert and the ISIS member who appeared to have executed Foley said that Sotloff could be ISIS’s next victim. A week later, Shirley Sotloff, his mother, issued a video plea to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to “grant amnesty” to her son.

Her request went unmet. In the video of Sotloff’s beheading, Sotloff describes himself as “paying the price” for the U.S.’s decision to strike ISIS targets in Iraq. It was most likely a statement made under duress, says Barfi. “Steve would never subjugate himself to making such a statement against the United States if he weren’t coerced into it.” Referring to reports that Foley may have been waterboarded while in captivity, Barfi suggests that Sotloff likely received the same treatment. “We know the torture these guys were subjected to.”

Sotloff and I reported together briefly in Bahrain in February 2011, as Bahraini citizens first rose up in protest against their government. He was generous with his contacts and was eager to share stories of people he had encountered while reporting. Proficient in Arabic, he even helped translate for reporters with rival organizations. We stayed in touch via email over the years, especially once he started writing pieces for TIME, but we never met in person again. The last time I heard from Sotloff, he had just returned from Libya, where he had managed to interview seven of the Libyan security guards who had been on duty at the U.S. mission in Benghazi on the night of the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. It was a journalistic coup, and he produced an excellent account of the events of that night that contributed to the national conversation about the events in Benghazi. But Sotloff fretted that the politics of the issue had taken away from the personal accounts. “I should have written a feature piece about one of the guards and his emotions,” he told me in an email. For Sotloff, getting those personal stories was what journalism was all about. And, as for any reporter, the only way he could get them was by being on the ground.

TIME Libya

Libya Faces the Prospect of Civil War as Regional Powers Choose Sides

A damaged aircraft is pictured after shelling at Tripoli International Airport, Aug. 24, 2014.
Aimen Elsahli—Reuters A damaged aircraft is pictured on Aug. 24 after shelling at Tripoli International Airport

U.S. officials say the UAE and Egypt were behind airstrikes on Islamist militants in Tripoli, raising fears that a regional proxy war inside Libya could worsen as neighboring militaries get involved

Airstrikes don’t usually come with a calling card. After all, the intended targets usually know who their enemies are. But in Libya, a series of fighter jet strikes on Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport couldn’t have come from their traditional rivals—Libya’s fractious militias may be well armed and powerful, but none have an effective air force. On Monday, unnamed US officials confirmed to media outlets what many Libyans had already feared: the country’s neighbors are starting to choose sides in a conflict that is rapidly descending into civil war.

Sunday’s airstrikes, as well as an earlier attack on Aug. 18, were launched by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with assistance from Egypt, U.S. officials told the BBC and the New York Times. Both countries vociferously deny the claims, but to experts and scholars who closely follow regional politics, the denials ring hollow. With radical Islamist forces gaining ground in Libya, says Ronald Bruce St. John, an independent scholar and author of five books on the country, neighboring countries fear for their own stability—particularly in the wake of recent gains in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). “It’s not there yet, but if Libya moves to an ISIS-type state, every one of its neighbors will feel threatened.” And not just immediate neighbors. Many countries in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to the UAE, are threatened by their own internal Islamist uprisings. The fear is that an Islamist success in Libya could inspire stronger movements at home.

Ultimately, the airstrikes were a failure: the Islamist-aligned militia retained control of the airport. But the consequences for Libya, and the region, could be devastating.

From the first days of the uprising against Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s neighbors sought to influence the outcome by supporting different factions within the opposition. Qatar and Turkey, more comfortable with Islamists in general, backed radical militias with weapons and financial support. Others backed tribal militias over ideological ones.

Now that Gaddafi has fallen and a fledgling democratic state has taken his place, those militias are battling for political influence, the country’s vast oil wealth and lucrative smuggling routes. Increasingly, they are backed by their former regional sponsors, who want a say in Libya’s political future, and are willing to go to great lengths to ensure it, says Professor George Joffe, a research fellow specializing in North Africa and the Middle East at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “The fact that UAE has attacked Tripoli means that in effect the proxy war has become the real war.”

But it is not just a question of Libya’s spoils. The regional power struggle unfolding inside Libya is one part of the post-Arab Spring conflict between secularist autocrats and the Islamist groups that would overthrow them.

The problem is that none of Libya’s militia groups are poised to bring security, establish stability or protect democratic gains. The leader of the principal anti-Islamist militia, former general Khalifa Hifter, attempted to take power by force in May, hardly inspiring confidence in his support for democratic governance. “Much of this is about economics pure and simple: the control of smuggling networks, oil production facilities [and] airports,” notes Frederic Wehrey of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The militias are not necessarily ideologically different but many are mafia-like groups that have allied with key tribes and regions.”

Had militia infighting stayed local, there was always the chance of local resolution, adds Joffe. Military interference by regional actors escalates the tensions and raises the stakes. “No longer do you have a dispute between two militia groups,” says Joffe. “Now you have two states confronting each other indirectly, and they are not going to listen to what locals say about reconciliation, so the real danger is that Libya becomes a open war.” There is widespread agreement that Libya will require some sort of international intervention to solve the internal conflict between militia groups. Now that regional actors are taking sides, resolution will be harder to reach.

TIME Ukraine

Did the Passengers Suffer? 6 Key Questions on MH17 Crash

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.

How Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 might have been downed in Ukraine, and how investigators will figure out who might have done it

Both sides in Ukraine’s ongoing civil conflict accuse each other of having shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a missile, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. United States, Ukrainian and Russian intelligence officials agree that the plane was felled by an advanced surface to air missile, but not on who fired it. The results of the investigation could have far reaching consequences. If it was pro-Russian separatists—as President Obama suggested it might have been Friday—all eyes will be on Russia, which is already facing international opprobrium, and American sanctions, for backing the rebels. Below, six key questions answered about the scope of the investigation, and whether or not the passengers on board knew what was coming.

1. What kind of weapon might have been used?

According to U.S. intelligence officials the plane was most likely hit by a SA-11 Buk launcher, a Russian-made, medium range, radar-guided surface-to-air missile system, though other factors, such as a possible terror attack, will have to be taken into account. “Investigators will have to rule out the possibility of an on-board explosive device,” says John Borkowski, managing Director of the UK-based aviation consultancy MSP Solutions. “It’s highly unlikely, but we won’t have a full picture of what happened until we know for certain what did not happen.” To that end, he says, investigators will be screening passenger manifests even as they inspect the detritus on the ground.

That shouldn’t be a significant issue. While no investigation in a conflict zone is easy, the rebel groups holding the area have said they will grant access. At the crash site investigators will be looking for explosive residue. If the engines alone were targeted, that would indicate that the missile in question was a heat seeking missile, and not the radar-guided Buk. Investigators will also want to know more about the missile’s trajectory. In cases like this, says I.H.S. Jane’s Missiles & Rockets editor Doug Richardson, investigators will reassemble all the gathered plane fragments in order to figure where the warhead was when it exploded. “That will help predict from which direction the missile came.”

2. Who will have jurisdiction when it comes to the investigation?

With a Malaysian airline flying an American-built plane holding 173 Dutch citizens crashing on Russian-backed rebel held territory in Ukraine, there will be plenty of parties vying for control. The incident occurred in Ukrainian airspace, so legally Kiev should be in charge. But the Russians and the rebels are not going to want to see their rivals leading an investigation that could end up implicating Russia. More likely it will be a joint effort, says Borkowski. “Overall responsibility goes to Malaysia, but the Dutch will want to be involved, and the Europeans will want to help. It will be a collaborative effort, under the joint jurisdiction of Kiev and Malaysia.”

3. How will investigators figure out who fired the missile?

Assigning blame won’t be easy, says Justin Bronk, a research analyst at U.K.-based security analysis firm the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. The Ukrainians, the Russians and the Russian-backed rebels all have access to Buk missile systems. But figuring out who pulled the trigger is where the United States can play a role. “The most crucial bit of evidence will come from American satellites,” says Bronk. The U.S. does not say, but it is widely assumed, that its satellites can pick up a missile’s infrared trail and follow it all the way back to its source. “A satellite fix on where the launcher was when the missile was launched is the only way to rebut rebel claims that they didn’t do it,” says Bronk. The problem is that the U.S. may not want to reveal the full capacity of its satellite network, so investigators will still need to focus on material evidence to back up their claims. Even then it will be difficult to prove whether or not the rebels were supplied directly by Russia, or if they obtained the launcher through a third party.

4. Both “black boxes” have been recovered. How important are the flight recorders?

While information gathered from cockpit communications and flight data will help fill in the gaps, the cockpit recorders are unlikely to shed much light on who launched the missile. “Black boxes are useful when you don’t know why the airplane crashed,” says Bronk. “But they won’t pick up a missile coming in at Mach 3, and they won’t tell us what we really want to know, which is who fired it.”

5. Could anyone have tampered with the evidence in the early hours after the crash?

Rebels in the area may have tried, says aviation consultant Borkowski, but it’s not so easy. “Crash experts know what they are looking for, and it would be quite difficult to completely eradicate evidence.” The real concern is the propaganda angle. Within hours of the crash, Ukrainian officials said they had intercepted purported phone calls between commanders and rebels in the field, first exulting over the downing of what was thought to be enemy aircraft, followed by disbelief and then anguish when they realized their mistake. Ukrainian activists also cited similar accounts on rebels’ social media accounts. Though the original blog posts and tweets had been removed, screen grabs of the footage were reposted online. The information could be used to reconstruct the narrative of a terrible mistake, but it is impossible to rule out fabrication.

6. Did the passengers know what happened, and did they suffer?

It’s highly unlikely, says missile expert Richardson. The Buk missile detonates just before hitting its target, releasing shrapnel in a pattern designed to cut through multiple aircraft components at the same time. “The decompression would have been quick, and the passengers would have been knocked out before they knew what was happening.”

With reporting by Mirren Gidda / London

TIME Israel

Missiles from Lebanon are Landing in Israel—But Hizballah Isn’t the Suspect

Israeli security forces stand next to damage caused by Katyusha style rocket fired from Lebanon near the border between northern Israel and Lebanon, on July 11, 2014.
JINI/Xinhua Press/Corbis Israeli security forces stand next to damage caused by Katyusha style rocket fired from Lebanon near the border between northern Israel and Lebanon, on July 11, 2014.

Lebanon's most fearsome anti-Israel militant group has stayed out of the Gaza crisis. That could change if Israel overreacts to rockets coming from Lebanon

Israel has a lot of enemies in the region, so it’s not surprising that it is taking fire from multiple sides—including from southern Lebanon, the source of at least four missile launches into northern Israel in recent days. What is surprising is that none of those attacks originated from Israel’s archenemy Hizballah, the powerful Lebanese militia that dominates the country’s south.

Some 11 rockets landed in Israeli territory. No one was hurt. At least two failed to launch, according to Lebanese military accounts quoted in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, and one never made it into Israel. Not far from the United Nations-monitored Blue Line that demarcates the border between Lebanon and Israel, Lebanese bomb defusers. were able to dismantle two other rockets before they could be launched. All in all, the rocket attacks appear to be the work of amateurs driven to action by the Israeli attacks on Gaza, says Lebanese political analyst Kamel Wazne, and not that of an organized militant group. “If Hizballah decided to launch a war on Israel, well, Israel already knows what that looks like,” he says. (Hizballah has not commented on the attacks.)

On Wednesday July 16, the Lebanese military announced that it had apprehended two Palestinian brothers who had admitted to launching one of the attacks, as well as a Lebanese man who was implicated in the first rocket volley on Friday. Since the attacks started Friday, the Lebanese army has engaged in a concerted effort to prevent any further cross-border attacks by increasing patrols in the area and reaching out to the U.N. peacekeepers that have been in place in south Lebanon since the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah. Lebanon, including Hizballah, does not want to see another war with Israel, says Wazne. “There is a consensus in Lebanon that no missiles should be launched from Lebanese territory, and that these acts do not serve the Lebanese interest or the Palestinian cause.”

One of the three detained men appears to be affiliated with a radical Lebanese group, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya that has gained ground among Lebanese Sunni militants aligned with rebels fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hizballah, in turn, backs Assad. The attackers, say Wazne, could have been motivated by a desire to deflect Israeli attention away from Gaza and towards Hizballah in an effort undermine the group’s support for Assad. Meanwhile Hamas, the Palestinian militant group battling Israel from Gaza, has also claimed responsibility for an attack from Lebanon, but it is not clear that it could have achieved such a feat, considering its limited presence on the ground.

All of which begs the question: why isn’t Hizballah getting involved in the Gaza conflict, which intensified on July 17 as Israel announced a ground invasion of the enclave? For a militant group whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, uses every opportunity to decry what he calls Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, Hizballah has been remarkably quiet since Israel launched its operation in Gaza a week ago. Hizballah’s standard rhetoric is that it is always ready for another confrontation with Israel, but it is just as likely that the militant group is keeping a low profile in order to better focus its efforts on Syria.

It’s not that Hizballah couldn’t handle two fronts at once, says Wazne, who has close contacts in Hizballah’s leadership. He believes the group is keeping a close eye on the events in Gaza, but as long as Israel does not attack Lebanon, it sees no need to get involved. The real risk, he cautions, is if Israel overreacts to the missiles being lobbed over the Lebanese border. Israel has met every incoming rocket with a barrage of its own into south Lebanon, but so far there has been no casualties or damages on either side. Lebanese Foreign Affairs minister Gebran Bassil threatened to lodge a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over Israel’s excessive response against Lebanon. “Someone is trying to use Lebanon as a launching pad to respond to Israel over events in Gaza. This is not the policy of the state, and it is taking measures against these sporadic groups.” he told reporters Tuesday. “But that doesn’t mean Israel can attack Lebanon.”

If it does, notes Wazne, Hizballah will be ready.

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