James Foley was the first of the Western hostages to be beheaded.
Earmarked for especially harsh treatment by Islamic State militants in Syria — possibly because he had a brother who had served with U.S. forces in Afghanistan — he was 40 when he was executed on the 636th day of his captivity.
Now two of his alleged killers are in the U.S., awaiting trial.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, from west London, were arraigned in a Virginia court at midweek. They have denied being involved in Foley’s death. And they also have denied participating in the horrific killings of other Western hostages, including aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig and journalist Steve Sotloff, all Americans.
That is not how European hostages who were freed by IS in exchange for ransoms see it.
They say Kotey and Elsheikh were members of a quartet of British militants who put their Western captives, especially the British and Americans, through rounds of excruciating suffering, routinely beating and waterboarding them and staging mock executions and crucifixions. The four tormentors were nicknamed “the Beatles” because of their British accents.
"You could see the scars on his [Foley's] ankles,” Jejoen Bontinck, a 19-year-old Belgian and convert to Islam, said in interviews later. Bontinck, a jihadist recruit who fell afoul of IS, shared a prison cell with Foley in 2013. “He told me how they had chained his feet to a bar and then hung the bar so that he was upside down from the ceiling. Then they left him there,” he said.
Foley’s abduction in November 2012 came as a lightning bolt for war reporters covering Syria. He was experienced, having covered the uprising previously in Libya that led to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. There, too, he had been captured and held for several weeks. “It was a kind of siren song that called me out to the front lines,” he told students later at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he, too, had studied.
“It’s not enough to see it from the distance,” he added.
And he had plenty of experience reporting from Syria after several trips inside the war zone. Surely he would come through OK and survive this ordeal? None of us covering Syria, though, at that stage early in the conflict could foresee how barbaric IS would be.
Foley, who filed for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse, and his friend British photojournalist John Cantlie were on their way back to Turkey from northern Syria when they were yanked off the streets of a small town just north of Aleppo by armed men.
His life ended after months of abuse and torture on Aug. 19, 2014, in the hills to the south of the Syrian city of Raqqa, where his captors, young men not far from his own age and ironically also native English speakers, filmed a sickening video recording his barbaric execution by a gloating, black-clad, masked IS fighter.
In a video that horrified the world, the militants bragged about holding another American journalist, Time magazine contributor Steve Sotloff, warning he would share his compatriot’s fate unless President Barack Obama called off airstrikes against IS.
Like Foley, Sotloff was clothed in the same orange Guantanamo-like jumpsuit. He was shorn of his beard and without his wire-rimmed glasses. Grabbing him, the masked killer declared: “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”
Within hours of her son’s murder, Foley’s mother, Diane, posted on Facebook, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim, he gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Like mother, like son.
James Foley came late to journalism, after several years teaching at an elementary school. I crossed paths with him several times in southern Turkey and northern Syria, coming from the war zone heading back to Turkey, or with heavier step traveling the other way. We socialized together, as most of the war reporters did, in a handful of bars in the southern Turkish town of Antakya.
He struck me as a reporter who had a passion for what he was doing and cared about the innocents caught up in the horror of war. Like Sotloff, who was murdered two weeks after Foley, he saw his role as one of bearing witness. He was boyish with a mischievous, friendly grin. Thoughtfulness and consideration were seamed in his character.
It did not surprise any of the reporters who knew him to find out later from freed European captives that he suffered his ordeal with stoicism. Nor that he sought to console and comfort fellow captives. Foley, they said, often shared his scant rations with the other captives and tried to keep up morale, organizing makeshift board games, reenacting scenes from movies, trying to take everyone’s minds off what they were enduring.
Some have suggested that care for others flowed from his religious faith. That might well be, but it also seemed to come from deep within him. He sought to connect with people and communicate with them. He apparently even tried to connect with his captors. Sotloff, too, was focused on the plight of civilians in war, having gone to Syria to write about war refugees. Both Foley and Sotloff were talented reporters who saw journalism not as a business but as a vocation.
None of that clearly meant anything to IS or the British militants. Their leader was nicknamed by the British media “Jihadi John” and later identified as Mohamed Emwazi. Born in Kuwait, but raised like the rest of the gang in west London, he was killed in a targeted drone strike in November 2015.
The fourth member of the gang, Aine Davis, dubbed “Jihadi Paul,” was sentenced in 2017 in Turkey to 7½ years in prison after being convicted of being a member of a terrorist organization. An even more serious charge of preparing acts of terrorism, which carried the possibility of a longer sentence, was dropped by Turkish prosecutors for lack of evidence.
Relatives of murdered Western hostages say they hope Davis will also face a trial in either Britain or the U.S.
The upcoming trial of Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, will be painful for the families of the murdered captives. But they say it is important. “At times I despaired it would ever happen,” James’ mother told reporters. She said the trial would be “difficult,” but that it was time for the world to know what “Jim and the others went through.”
“Hopefully, these men will implicate others and give us information about where the remains of our children are.” It will also be an opportunity to recall who Foley and the other murdered Western captives were, what motivated them to court danger to report or provide aid and comfort.