A journalist of extraordinary courage and compassion.Susanne Berger (Washington D. C., USA)
† August 19, 2014 in Raqqa, Syrien
Nationality at birth: American
Nationality at death: American
|University||Bachelor of Arts in History and Spanish, Marquette University||1996||Milwaukee, Wisconsin|
|University||Master of Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts Amherst||1999||2002||Amherst, Massachusetts|
|University||Master of Arts, Northwestern University, Media School of Journalism||2007||2008||Evanston, Illinois|
How did the story become known?
Through the Internet, the James W. Foley Foundation (the commitment of the family) and the documentary JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY
When did the story become known?
Where did the story become known?
In the US and then worldwide
By whom did the story become known?
Through his family and a documentary
Literature (literature, films, websites etc.)
JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY
The documentary about James Foley’s life.
For further reading
“Inescapable Truths” – Art Project honoring James Foley
James Foley interview. ”I’m drawn to the human rights side of the conflict’ – BBC News
James Foley, 2011 lecture at Marquette University
Joel Simon. We want to negotiate: The secret world of kidnapping, hostages and ransom. New York: Random House, 2019
James was raised as a Catholic but at some point during his imprisonment he had converted to Islam. As he told his fellow prisoners, he felt that God was the same in all religions – and the routine of Muslim prayer, five times a day, gave him a sense of comfort and helped him to fight the monotony and despair of incarceration. “I really believe it allowed him to stay human and not to let the captors rob him of his soul, no matter what they did to him,” his mother says.
Application of rights to all people in all countries and territories, regardless of their international position
Right to life, freedom and security
Right to truth
In August 2014, the American journalist James Wright Foley was executed by Islamic militants in Syria, after twenty months in captivity. Since 2008 Foley had dedicated himself to telling the stories of civilians living and fighting to survive in the various war zones of the Middle East, documenting and showing the world how war affects their personal lives and their culture.
His fellow hostages remember a man who, despite being regularly singled out for brutal punishments by his captors, would still find ways to comfort and encourage them. After his death, James Foley’s family has worked to preserve his memory and legacy in numerous ways. Through the James Foley Legacy Foundation they successfully lobbied President Obama and U.S. policy makers to ensure that other America hostages and their families can count on direct and well-coordinated support from their own government, and that journalists working in conflict zones receive improved training and more effective means of protection. The human rights artist Bradley McCallum has used images collected by James Foley during his various assignments and which he stored on several external hard drives, to create a number of artworks that celebrate and honor his work.
In 2016, Foleys friend, the filmmaker Brian Oakes, directed an award winning documentary film about James Foley’s life as a conflict journalist. The film also reconstructs Foley’s time in imprisonment, through testimonials from his friends and family, as well as interviews conducted with his fellow hostages.
In the Fritz Bauer Library, Susanne Berger (Washington D.C.) reminds us in a moving article and with many original quotations and background information of a journalist who was distinguished by extraordinary courage and special compassion.
James W. Foley / 1973-2014
Extraordinary Courage and Compassion
James was probably, among the whole group of hostages, the person I appreciated the most, because he was so truly generous, so human, and basically anything he could share, he would share it. If we were cold and missing blankets, he would share them, if we were starving and missing food, he would share his ration. (…) I can honestly say that without James, I probably would not have survived.
French journalist and former hostage Nicolas Henin
On or about August 19, 2014 (the precise date is not known), James Foley’s captors made him put on a bright orange jumpsuit. It was starkly reminiscent of those worn by Islamic extremists imprisoned in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They then proceeded to record a video of his brutal execution which they said was in retaliation for U.S. air strikes on Iraq. They subsequently uploaded the video on the internet. It was the horrific end to an ordeal that had begun almost two years earlier.
In late November 2012, James – a freelance video journalist and war correspondent working to document the civil war in Syria – had been apprehended by unknown abductors, as he made his way in a car to the Turkish border. It was the second time James had been kidnapped as a result of his journalistic work. Just a year and a half earlier, in April 2011, while reporting for the digital U.S. journalism company The Global Post, he had been abducted in Libya, by military forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gadaffi. He was released 44 days later – shaken, but unharmed.
South African photo journalist Anton Hammerl, who had been with James and two other colleagues, was not so fortunate. He was shot and killed in the same ambush in which his friends had been caught. He left a wife and three children. James felt a personal sense of responsibility. “I was part of the decision making process that took [Anton] away from his three kids and his wife.” Together with friends and colleagues James organized an auction of photographs in Anton’s memory, in order to raise funds, as well as to draw attention to the extraordinary dangers journalists working in war zones face every day. As he told the BBC at the time, “Freelancers take some of the biggest risks and they provide that frontline news coverage for the big networks.” In another interview he emphasized the importance of the first hand news reporting he and his colleagues brought to the public every day: ” Without these photos and videos (…) we can’t really tell the world how bad things might be.”
Still, his experience in Libya deeply affected James. In a series of public appearances after his release, including a lecture at his alma mater, Marquette University, he questioned whether any story was worth the serious risks conflict journalists like him routinely assumed. Most of all, he felt it was unfair to loved ones who worried and grieved when tragedy struck.
For a while, James tried his hand at a desk job, as news editor with The Global Post (in Boston, Massachusetts). But the experience of war had changed him. “His work affected him deeply – he became quieter and much more serious, more focused,” his mother Diane recalls. James also felt increasingly restless and he soon told his parents that he wanted to go back into the field. His family did their best to convince him to stay, to channel his special talents as a journalist, teacher and activist into other, less dangerous projects.”Whenever I would say,’ Jim, why do you want to do that to yourself, after everything you have been through?’, he would say ‘But mom, I have found my passion. And that was that. Once Jim had decided to do something, he was all in. He was just so determined, so committed.”
I am drawn to the drama of the conflict, trying to expose untold stories. But I am drawn to the human rights side. So many of the reporters are. There is extreme violence but there is a sense of trying to figure out who these people really are. That is the inspiring thing about it.
James Foley, talking about his work in 2011 with the BBC
James had come to conflict journalism relatively late in his professional career. Born in 1973, the oldest of five children, he grew up in rural New Hampshire, the son of John Foley, a physician, and his wife Diane Foley, a nurse practitioner, whose mother’s family was originally from Ecuador. After graduating from high school in 1992, James attended Marquette University in Wisconsin. After earning his degree in history, he decided to become a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, as part of the “Teach for America” program. “James was a very normal kid, fun, but also thoughtful and very kind. He read a lot, he had a natural curiosity about everything, especially about other people, other cultures. He always paid attention to others – when you were talking to him, you had his full attention. That was really a special quality.” Yet, only after his death did his family fully realize how deeply James had affected the lives of the many students and colleagues he had met through the years. “Only after he was gone, we really understood – from letters people sent from all over the world, all walks of life – how much of an impact Jim had had on them.”
However, during his early adult years, James was not sure that teaching was his true calling. “He would always put himself down, telling us what a terrible teacher he was. Although there were many times when he cut his vacation short to go assist one of his students. But yes, looking back, he was clearly searching,” his mother says. It was clear that working with the underprivileged and social activism in general was his true passion. James loved writing and completed a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2002. While in Massachusetts, James helped counsel unwed mothers so they could earn their high school equivalency diploma (GED). He later moved on to Chicago where he taught English to young inmates of the Cook County jail. In 2008, he graduated with a degree from the Medill School of Journalism, with a focus on conflict journalism.
His family met his new career choice with concern but also a sense of relief that he seemed to have settled on a promising new professional path. Meanwhile, two of his brothers had joined the U.S. military, and one of them – John Foley – was about to be deployed to Iraq. That was the time when James informed his family that he, too, would be going to Iraq, as an embedded journalist with the Indiana National Guard. After his return, James took on a short assignment in Afghanistan in early 2011, writing for the U.S. publication Stars and Stripes He had a great interest in Middle Eastern culture and he wanted to get to know the people, why they would risk everything for freedom and to understand how the U.S. military presence affected their lives.
Freelance journalists do not earn a steady income, but James was determined to make his way. His mother remembers that “even though he did not make a lot of money, it did not bother him at all. It eventually became clear to all of us that his work was making him richer and richer all the time, in so many different ways.” As his brother John recalled: “I was always saying, jokingly, ‘Jim, get a real job’. But the day before his memorial service, I finally got it. He would always say, ‘John, you have to look outside yourself. It’s not about monetary things, it’s about how you act, whom you mentor. Who is going to remember you? What will they remember about you?'”
If I do not have the moral courage to challenge authority, to write about the things that are going to maybe have reprisals on my career, we don’t have journalism.
After covering the conflicts in Iraq and Libya, James next went to Syria to record the horrific conditions brought on by the country’s civil war. He wanted to tell the stories of the Syrian civilians who normally do not get heard, their suffering, as well as their stories of survival and resilience. He was especially affected by the impact of the war on the children. He helped in whatever ways he could, including to raise funds for an ambulance, so the wounded would not have to be carried in taxis or flatbed trucks. When remembering James, his friends and family first and foremost recall his kindness and his compassion: “Jim had a truly big heart.”
James had always possessed great physical courage , but he felt quite strongly that that alone was not enough. As he pointed out in an interview included in the documentary about his life (“Jim – The James Foley Story”, 2016), “I can go on getting those [visual] shots, but if I do not have the moral courage to challenge authority, to write about the things that are going to maybe have reprisals on my career, if I don’t have that moral courage, we don’t have journalism.”
When James disappeared in Syria in 2014, his family had no idea who had kidnapped him and where he was held. As they later learned, his captors were members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the most radical and brutal Islamic extremist groups. For the first year, James was held together with his British colleague John Cantlie. The two men barely survived this period of their imprisonment. They were regularly and brutally beaten and nearly starved to death.
After about twelve months, they were transferred to join a group of about 19 other foreigners held hostage by ISIS in Syria. (Altogether, about 80 foreigners were kidnapped by ISIS within a period of three years.) The conditions remained severe, but they now became just a bit more bearable. The men kept up their morale as best they could. They arranged for lectures, according to each prisoners’ expertise, exercise sessions, and even created a rudimentary form of the popular board game “Risk” which they played with abandon. However, as an American, James was continually singled out for the most serious abuse. His fellow prisoners recall that James’s calmness and strength, even under the most painful punishment, awed and inspired them. After his release, French journalist Nicolas Henin said that “James was probably, among the whole group of hostages, the person I appreciated the most, because he was so truly generous, so human, and basically anything he could share, he would share it. If we were cold and missing blankets, he would share them. If we were starving and missing food, he would share his ration. (…) I can honestly say that without James, I probably would not have survived.” James would speak up on behalf of the group, to request more food or basic medical treatment from the guards. This would inevitably result in a new round of reprisals and beatings, but Jim’s requests would frequently bring small improvements in the overall living conditions. “James managed to make the room bigger, by making himself small,” Danish photo journalist Daniel Rye Otteson remembers. “And that was a very difficult thing to do.”
As time went by, it became obvious that the hostages from France, Denmark and other Western countries were slowly being released. James realized that his own chances of rescue were slim. Yet he kept his feelings mostly to himself. He remained outwardly composed and regularly managed to comfort and encourage others.
It is difficult to overstate the hate and vicious brutality demonstrated by the ISIS members who were in charge of the prisoners. A particular cruel cell of militants was nicknamed “The Beatles”, due to their British accents. They were extremely sadistic and, according to Nicolas Henin, “extremely good at mental torture.” Spanish photo journalist Ricardo García Vilanova who was imprisoned by ISIS for six months in 2014, returned to Syria in 2018 to confront his abusers, after two of them were captured by Kurdish forces. He felt that the men took pleasure in tormenting their prisoners. “They enjoyed it, you could tell. They were psychopaths,” Vilanova told an interviewer after the meeting. In 2015, ISIS members burnt Jordanian fighter pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh alive after his plane crashed in Syria. And 26-year-old American humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller who was captured in 2013 in Aleppo, was handed over as a personal slave to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the longtime leader of the Islamic State. According to several sources, Al-Baghdadi regularly raped and beat her. Mueller died in early 2015.
When Daniel Rye Ottosen was about to be released, James asked him to memorize a letter to his family. In it he spoke about how the love and memories of his family had sustained him, as had his faith. James was raised as a Catholic but at some point during his imprisonment he had converted to Islam. As he told his fellow prisoners, he felt that God was the same in all religions – and the routine of Muslim prayer, five times a day, gave him a sense of comfort and helped him to fight the monotony and despair of incarceration. “I really believe it allowed him to stay human and not to let the captors rob him of his soul, no matter what they did to him,” his mother says.
The images seconds before his death show James calmly kneeling beside his executioner, reciting in a strong, unwavering voice the text his captors forced him to read. An almost unfathomably quiet, heroic display of courage and defiance, under the most extreme duress. His family and his fellow prisoners are convinced that James knew that he would not be freed and that he possibly felt that his death could save others. (Tragically, another hostage, the American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff, was killed just a few weeks after James).
James died as a free man. This is not the death of a hostage. And this, eventually, is the difference between Jim and myself. I ended up being released, but he ended up free.
French journalist and former hostage Nicolas Henin
James’ family would learn of his brutal murder like the rest of the world – from the internet. President Obama phoned the family later that same day to express his condolences. When during a personal meeting some time later President Obama told Diane Foley that saving her son had been “one of his administration’s top priorities”, she told him point blank that this was definitely not true. In fact, the Foley family felt very strongly that the U.S. government had not only failed to do all it could do to save James but had essentially abandoned their son to his fate. The Foleys were determined that James’ death should not have been in vain and they wanted to ensure that other families would not have to face a similar tragedy without meaningful support.
In October 2015, James’ parents created the James W. Foley Legacy Fund (now The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation) to preserve their son’s legacy in numerous ways, through hostage advocacy, working to better protect conflict journalists in the field, and by offering support for a variety of educational projects. At the time of James’ kidnapping, the U.S. had a strict policy of ‘no concessions, no negotiations’ with terrorists. As one of her first actions, Diane Foley challenged the Obama Administration to conduct a review of its official hostage policy. “To President Obama’s credit, he did”, Foley explains. But this could not erase the painful memories of her family’s struggles. “During the first nine months after James disappeared, we received no information, nothing, zero.” The official policy of ‘no negotiation’ also meant no discussion and no engagement. The family was strictly advised not to speak publicly about James disappearance. Even worse, government officials were not allowed to share any information they had about who might be holding James or his location. “Everything was absolutely classified,” Foley remembers. A few months after James’ kidnapping, it slowly dawned on the Foley family that – in spite of repeated official assurances – they found themselves entirely on their own, with the American hostages, including their son, essentially being treated like collateral damage.
When the captors finally made contact with the family through an e-mail, the first line of the message read “We have James and we want to negotiate for him” – but with whom? The first FBI agent who was sent to assist the Foleys spoke no Arabic and had no particular expertise in the Middle East. As a government official, he was not permitted to engage in formal discussions. So, the family was left to conduct the negotiations entirely on their own. The captors demanded the release of several prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay and the sum of €100,000,000 (!). Meanwhile, the Foleys were informed that if they were to try to collect and pay a ransom for James, they could face legal prosecution.
The Foley family was dismayed to find that there was no clear and effective coordination between or even within the various U.S. agencies in charge of hostage issues and counter terrorism. While the official U.S. position of ‘no concession, no negotiation’ was supposedly enacted to discourage the future kidnappings of American citizens, nobody could produce any empirical data to back up this claim. In fact, Diane Foley directly challenged this core argument of her government’s hostage policy at a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in November 2015. “I respectfully demand to see the proof that our current hostage policy is protecting Americans… It would seem [instead] that Americans are becoming targets at an alarming rate!” She argued that a policy of ‘no concession’ should not automatically have to mean ‘no negotiation’. In fact, she said, current U.S. hostage policy was “less a policy, but more of a slogan.” In particular, Foley sharply criticized the inconsistent implementation of U.S. hostage policy at the time, which in some cases allowed for negotiations, directly or indirectly, on behalf of U.S. military personnel. As Foley pointed out, those individuals for whom negotiations were conducted were freed, while in the cases where the U.S. ‘no-negotiation’ policy was strictly applied – like that of her son James and others – the hostages died. Foley directly called on both policy makers and the media to challenge their long held assumptions and to realize that “we really need to show that we value our citizens, our journalists.”
Jim believed in America. He believed that our government valued him as a journalist and as a citizen. But he and our family were truly abandoned by our government. How would you feel if your son or daughter had been in Jim’s predicament and treated similarly? Is an American citizen no longer valuable? Why were Jim and the other Americans in Syria treated as collateral damage?
Diane Foley, testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, November 17, 2015
What made the official U.S. position even harder to bear was the fact that other foreign governments were actively working behind the scenes to free their own hostages, spurred on in part by public sentiment that demanded the safe return of their fellow citizens. Not so in the U.S.. The media, as well as various professional journalistic associations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), complied with official U.S. guidelines and mostly kept silent about James’ plight. At the same time, James’ colleagues, including his employers at The Global Mail, rallied to his cause, gathering every possible piece of information and hiring a private investigation team to search for him. However, by the end of December 2013, the kidnappers cut off all communications, until they announced James Foley’s impending execution on August 12, 2014. At the time, the family had collected pledges towards a ransom of about one million dollars. Also, a month earlier, based on the testimonies of former hostages, President Obama had authorized a rescue mission targeting a secret ISIS compound in Raqqa, Syria, but it was too late – by that time, James and the other remaining prisoners had already been moved.
As a direct result of the Foley Foundation’s efforts, President Obama in June 2015 issued an executive order, introducing important new changes to the U.S. government’s official hostage policy. They included, among others, the creation of a special Hostage Response Group, a Family Engagement Team, to support and brief family members, as well as the appointment of a Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs. While the ‘no concession’ policy remains in effect, the new rules allow for at least some basic discussions and negotiations with hostage takers. Most importantly, Diane Foley feels the changes have provided much needed flexibility for both families and government officials. “Every hostage situation is different,” she says. “There cannot and should not be a ‘one -size-fits-all’ approach.”
But Foley did not stop there. In 2016, she commissioned an empirical study (“To Pay Ransom or Not to Pay Ransom”) in cooperation with Hostage US and the New America Foundation), tracking all hostage taking incidents since 2001. Released in 2017, the study showed that America and British hostages faired comparatively far worse than those of other Western countries who chose to negotiate and pay ransom. Roughly 43% of America hostages died in imprisonment, in comparison to 19% of all other Western hostages. The analysis also showed that citizens of countries that do negotiate with kidnappers and make ransom payments are not kidnapped at a higher rate than the citizens of countries that do not.
As a result, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), too, has now reviewed its own official hostage policy and has decided to adjust its official guidelines.
I told my son I wished he had gotten to know Jim Foley, whose kindness and humanity had such an impact when he was here on earth and whose incredible legacy has impacted million around the globe.
Jen Easterly, 2018 James W. Foley Hostage Freedom Award Recipient
The head of the Islamic State Al-Baghdadi was killed in October 2019, in a special raid (“Operation Kayla Mueller”). The notorious Jihadi John, James Foley’s executioner, died in 2015. Diane Foley is glad that they are dead, but also worries that such executions may actually incite more hatred and more violence, because it makes these men martyrs in the eyes of Islamic extremists, and particularly their young followers. Currently, two of the men responsible for the torture and deaths of at least two dozen foreign hostages are held in Britain, awaiting extradition to the U.S.. The Foleys and the other families of former hostages want to see the torturers and murderers of their loved ones brought to justice in a court of law, on American soil. “It is essential that we seek accountability, that we have the patience, the tenacity to do that. If we do not stand up for justice, who are we? Then we are no better than they are,” Diane Foley emphasized in an interview several years ago.”It’s very important to do the right thing.”
For John and Diane Foley he work to preserve their son’s legacy continues. “People do not understand how serious and widespread the problem of hostage taking really is. It can affect each of us or a loved one, at any moment,” Diane Foley warns. Her family’s foundation continues to prioritize hostage advocacy (for U.S. hostages), providing support to hostage families through a broad network of contacts, including close cooperation with Hostage US. At the same time, the Foley Foundation places a premium on education and training, ensuring that conflict journalists are better protected in the field, and just as importantly, that they are as well prepared as they can be for the considerable risks they encounter every day in their work.
As the sixth anniversary of James’ death approaches, the Foley family is firmly trying to shift the focus from how James died to how he lived. The Foundation is preparing for the upcoming annual James W. Foley Freedom Awards, which on September 16 will honor courageous journalists and human rights defenders. The proceedings will be entirely virtual this year, with the theme of the event offering a perfect summation of what defined James Foley’s character and the spirit of his work: “Moral Courage in Challenging Times.”
Author: Susanne Berger (Washington D.C., USA)
Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Tung and of the James Foley Legacy Foundation; Courtesy of Bradley McCallum
Artworks: Bradley McCallum, Ruins (Sirte, Libya, after the capture and killing of Muammar el Gaddafi, October 24, 2011 5:30 am), 2019, Oil on Canvas, Toner on Silk, 56.5″ x 85”: https://bradleymccallum.com/