Looking back on the death of James Foley

Editor’s note: Philip Balboni is the CEO and founder of GlobalPost, where Jim Foley was a correspondent.

BOSTON, Mass. — The horrific murder of our correspondent and friend Jim Foley by the Islamic State on this day last year still haunts the memories and hearts of his family and colleagues. The savagery of Jim’s death profoundly shocked people everywhere and directly led to the United States’ deeper military involvement in Syria’s civil war, a conflict which still has no end in sight despite the deaths of 230,000 people and the displacement of nine million.

Much has been written and broadcast about Jim’s death since last Aug. 19: what led up to it, the failure of the US government to do more to save him or to help the Foley family and the families of the other American hostages, and the responsibility of news organizations to journalists who work in conflict areas. I led GlobalPost’s effort to find and free Jim, a struggle that spanned some 20 months. Today, for the first time, I want to offer my own full perspective on this tragedy and try to draw some lessons for the future.

Jim was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2012, a cruel irony since it was Thanksgiving here in America, a day of family celebration and coming together. As a war correspondent, Jim was accustomed to missing holidays, although he was deeply devoted to his large family. On that Thanksgiving, Jim had wrapped up a reporting tour in northern Syria and was headed to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli where he planned to meet his friend, freelance photographer Nicole Tung.

To this day, we still have no credible information about who the original kidnappers were.

Jim’s last message as a free man was sent to Nicole at 2:15 p.m. local time from an internet café in the small town of Binnish. Jim was traveling with British journalist John Cantlie, who today is the last identified Western hostage still held by the Islamic State.

Sometime after 3 p.m. that Nov. 22 Foley and Cantlie, along with their driver and their translator Mustafa Kara’ali, were pulled over by four men in a silver Hyundai without license plates. Brandishing Kalashnikov rifles, and firing shots in the air, the men pushed Cantlie and Foley to the ground, briefly questioned the driver and translator before releasing them, and then took their captives away.

I learned of Jim’s kidnapping two days later, just after noon on Saturday at my home in Cambridge, MA, when I received an email from Nicole who was alarmed when Jim did not arrive for their rendezvous.From that day forward, we encountered utter silence for an entire year. Not a single message from Jim. Not a single sighting. Not a single piece of intelligence that held up to investigation. Despite an enormous effort mounted by GlobalPost and the Foley family, we had run into an impenetrable blank wall. To this day, we still have no credible information about who the original kidnappers were or where Jim was held during the early months of his captivity.

Within a week of Jim’s kidnapping, GlobalPost had a team of trained investigators on the Turkish-Syria border, and on a number of occasions and despite considerable risk, inside Syria itself. Our investigation would continue every day until Aug. 19, 2014, the day Jim was murdered by the Islamic State. The ordeal spanned 636 days.

More from GlobalPost: Here's what James Foley meant to us

Over the winter and spring of 2013, evidence from multiple sources accumulated by our investigators pointed to Jim being held by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a Damascus detention center under the control of Syrian Air Force Intelligence. Individuals inside Syria offered to secure Jim’s freedom in exchange for a substantial sum of money, something the family seriously considered. Other sources placed Jim in a private villa outside Damascus allegedly under the control of shadowy figures connected to the regime. All of this eventually proved to be false, and more agonizing months passed with no real progress.

Then, suddenly we found Jim, nearly a year after his kidnapping.

On Nov. 9, 2013, the father of a young Belgian who had gone to fight with jihadists in Syria left a voice message for Michael Foley, Jim’s brother, who had been an integral part of our investigating team from the outset. The man said his son, Jejoen Bontinck, had spent time with Jim in a secret prison in Aleppo and they’d grown close. His words rang clear: “Jim is alive.”

But could we trust him after so many other false leads?

We sent our top investigator to Antwerp to interview Bontinck in the jail where he was being held by the Belgian authorities, who suspected him of being a terrorist. The information he provided about Jim was so rich in detail that it could only have come from someone who’d spent considerable time with him.

It was a very dramatic moment because for the first time we could be sure Jim was alive. Ironically, Bontinck placed Jim back in Aleppo, the location of his very last report for GlobalPost, published on Oct. 16, 2012. For Jim, war was always personal and his stories focused on the people and their suffering. Aleppo was already a battleground in the fall of 2012 — as it remains today. Jim foreshadowed the horrors to come when he wrote “… many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition — one that is hampered by infighting and a lack of structure, and deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups.”

Then, at 7:51 a.m. on Nov. 26, 2013, an email arrived addressed to Michael Foley and me. The email read precisely this way:

“we have james and want to negotiate for himhe is safe. He is our friend and we do not want to hurt him if you want coperation (sic) we have rules. You can not go to media ever about this and if you do we will not negotiate. we want money fast.”

Amazed but still skeptical, we asked ourselves: Was it possible that after the passage of an entire year filled with silence, Jim’s kidnappers were at last communicating with us?

The kidnappers gave the Foley family a chance to ask three questions that could prove Jim was alive. The family worked hard to craft questions only Jim could answer and that no one could research from the internet or social media. When all of the questions came back with the right answers, we felt the exhilaration of knowing Jim was alive for certain and that we now had a chance to win his freedom.

Yet the kidnappers issued demands that were impossible to meet. They said: “Use your influence to pressure your government to release our Muslim prisoners.” We were certain that would never be permitted. As an alternative, they wanted a ransom of 100 million euros, equivalent at the time to more than $120 million — an impossible amount of money for the Foleys to raise.

Responses to all of the kidnappers’ emails were prepared with the assistance of the FBI and GlobalPost’s kidnap and ransom experts. But each effort to begin a serious negotiation with the captors was rebuffed, and two days after Christmas, they sent “the final message you will receive from us.” Again, they demanded a ransom of 100 million euros.

The Foley family wrote several additional emails to the kidnappers in coming months pleading for Jim’s release. No response ever came back. We waited all through the winter of 2014 and by the spring the Islamic State began releasing a stream of European hostages. Most, we would learn later, had been held with Foley and Cantlie in a detention center in Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria that had become the group’s new headquarters.

The release of the Spanish, Italian, French, and Danish hostages gave us hope that Jim’s turn would come soon. All of the released hostages were ransomed for large sums of money — in the range of $3 million to $5 million, according to our sources. It is widely believed that governments had made the ransom payments, although to date there has been no direct admission of that by any official or former hostage. But I believe it is almost certainly the case.

The hostages gave us valuable information about Jim, his condition and treatment. It is true that he was mistreated, even tortured on a few occasions. But Jim’s spirit was always strong and he was seen as a leader in the group who always looked out for others.

The final Western hostage to be freed by the Islamic State was Daniel Ottosen of Denmark on June 19, 2014. Ottosen spent 13 months in captivity with Jim and the two grew close. Before his release, Jim dictated a letter to Daniel to be given to his family. It would be the only message from Jim ever to come out of that prison cell. Ottosen memorized it and brought it out with him.

“I know you are thinking of me and praying for me,” Jim said. ”And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray. I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed but, of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength.”

Just two months later Jim would be dead at the hands of his captors.

Very few people in an entire lifetime ever have to experience the events the Foley family and I did during the course of Jim’s abduction and captivity — and that is a very good thing indeed. If any good can come out of this, it will be by applying the lessons we learned over those 20 months and since.

Although GlobalPost and the Foley family had extensive contact with the US government almost from the very beginning of our search, the truth is that we were left entirely on our own, forced to carry the full weight of the investigation. During the first year of Jim’s captivity, when we were never sure if he was alive or who was holding him or where, the US government did virtually nothing to assist us in the search, and it never provided any information about Jim even though we stayed in frequent contact with the State Department and the FBI. I felt certain that given the US government’s vast intelligence resources they must possess important information about Jim. Although most of that information would have been classified, it was wrong to give the family nothing at all.

Moreover, different US government agencies offered contradictory signals about whether a ransom payment for Jim would be tolerated. Diane Foley, Jim’s mother, has openly criticized a threat made by an official of the National Security Council during a private hostage family conference call in the spring of last year. And yet throughout Jim’s captivity the FBI made it clear to us that the government would never prosecute a family member for paying a ransom; and equally important, the FBI made it clear that they would assist if the family decided to pay a ransom.

GlobalPost was fully aware from our own kidnap and ransom experts that US law technically forbids negotiating with terrorist organizations or paying a ransom to terrorists. Within our security team, we knew that the Foleys would pay a ransom to the kidnappers if they had continued to negotiate and had given the family that opportunity. Even though the kidnappers failed to return any of the family’s emails during the spring of 2014, the Foleys continued their effort to raise the $5 million or more we believed would be needed to secure Jim’s freedom.

By sending contradictory signals, and by withholding information and active assistance in negotiating with the kidnappers, the government did an enormous disservice to Foley, and to Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig who were beheaded in the weeks after Jim’s murder. The government must also bear responsibility for the death of Kayla Mueller, the last American hostage to perish in IS captivity. The Islamic State’s claim that Mueller died in a US bombing raid is hardly believable and only reveals how truly cowardly these individuals are.

It is important to note that the US mounted a Special Forces raid inside Syria in July in a bold effort to free Jim and the remaining hostages. The rescue mission failed because the hostages had already been moved to a new location. Relatively little is publicly known about this secret operation and the Foleys only learned about it when President Obama called the family on the day after Jim’s death to express his condolences.

Nevertheless, it is shameful that while every European hostage of the Islamic State is free today and with their families, primarily because of efforts made by their own governments, here in America we were left with four beautiful young people who will never return to their families. This is a stain on our national leadership.

Fortunately, President Obama realized that the system was broken and he ordered a major review of US policy regarding hostages and the treatment of hostage families. The outcome, announced in late June of this year, is a major step forward. The president said, “We can do better. We must do better.” The new policy will bring all elements of national power to bear on hostage cases with central planning and communication. It will allow government officials to communicate with hostage takers directly and facilitate communications from the families of hostages to the kidnappers. However, the proscription against direct payment of a ransom by the government remains in effect, leaving unaddressed one of the greatest problems facing the Foleys and the other hostage families — the near impossibility of raising the enormous sums demanded by the kidnappers.

Policy aside, it is the hostage families’ loss that is the hardest to bear, forever losing sons and a daughter. I know the Foleys’ suffering has been enormous. If there is any comfort to be taken from all of this pain it is that Jim Foley gave his life in service to a cause he had come to love deeply — telling the stories of people caught up in war, stories that were themselves filled with tragedy and suffering.

Jim did superb work for GlobalPost, first in Afghanistan, then in Libya where he endured a 44-day captivity by the late Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and finally in Syria. I am so proud to have given him a place for his passion and talent. We are deeply committed to carrying on our work in conflict reporting and will launch a major, year-long effort in September that I know Jim would be proud of.

Conflict reporting is a noble calling and Jim was a very brave man. I would like everyone reading this to know that Jim’s courage was not reckless. Although he was drawn to war and the powerful emotions it can evoke in those who cover it, Jim was smart and experienced and careful. He made a choice to stay connected to the war in Syria and I respect that choice even in light of all the pain that came afterward.

When I looked at my friend and colleague on the day of his death, forced to kneel in the sand and facing certain death, I saw a man whose strength, faith and courage were unbowed. The Islamic State could take his life but not his spirit or humanity. Jim Foley was a fine and principled journalist and I shall regret for as long as I live that I could not gain his freedom. That regret and the memory of the long search will be with me forever.

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