Kneeling in the dirt in a desert somewhere in the Middle East, James Foley lost his life this week at the hands of the Islamic State. Before pulling out the knife used to decapitate him, his masked executioner explained that he was killing the 40-year-old American journalist in retaliation for the recent United States’ airstrikes against the terror group in Iraq.
In fact, until recently, the Islamic State had a very different list of demands for Foley: The group pressed the United States to provide a multimillion-dollar ransom for his release, according to a representative of his family and a former hostage held alongside him. The United States — unlike several European countries that have funneled millions to the terror group to spare the lives of their citizens — refused to pay.
The issue of how to deal with the Islamic State, which like many terror groups now routinely trades captives for large cash payments, is acute for the Obama administration because Foley was not the lone American in its custody. The Islamic State is threatening to kill at least three others it holds if its demands remain unmet, The New York Times has confirmed through interviews with recently released prisoners, family members of the victims and mediators attempting to win their freedom.
Sensitive to growing criticism at home that it had not done enough, the White House on Wednesday revealed that a US special operations team tried and failed to rescue Foley — a New Hampshire native who disappeared in Syria on Nov. 22, 2012 — as well as the other American hostages during a secret mission this summer. Obama said the United States would not retreat until it had eliminated the “cancer” of the Islamic State from the Middle East.
The Islamic State also appears determined to increase the pressure on Washington. It has now threatened to kill a second of its hostages, Steven J. Sotloff, a freelance journalist for Time magazine who was being held alongside Foley.
In the video uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday, the screen goes dark after Foley is decapitated. Then the Islamic State fighter is seen holding Sotloff in the same landscape of barren dunes, his hands cuffed behind his back and wearing an orange jumpsuit. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”
Along with the three Americans, the Islamic State is also holding three citizens of Britain, which like the United States has declined to pay ransoms, former hostages confirmed. The terror group has sent a laundry list of demands for the release of the foreigners, starting with money but also prisoner swaps, including the liberation of Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-trained Pakistani neuroscientist with ties to Al Qaeda currently incarcerated in a prison in Texas. The policy of not making concessions to terrorists and not paying ransoms has put the United States and Britain at odds with some European allies, who have routinely paid significant sums to win the release of their nationals — including four French and two Spanish hostages who were released earlier this year after money was delivered through an intermediary, according to two of the victims and their colleagues.
Kidnapping Europeans has become the main source of revenue for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, which have earned at least $125 million in ransom payments in the last five years alone, according to an investigation by The New York Times. Although the Islamic State was recently expelled from Al Qaeda and abides by different rules, recently freed prisoners said that their captors were well aware of what ransoms had been paid on behalf of European nationals held by Al Qaeda affiliates as far afield as Africa, indicating that they were hoping to abide by the same business plan.
While government and counterterrorism officials insist that paying ransoms only perpetuates the problem, the policy has meant that captured Americans have little chance of being released. A handful succeeded in running away, and even fewer were rescued in special operations. The rest are either held indefinitely — or else killed.
In an opinion article for Reuters,, David Rohde, a columnist for the news service and a former foreign correspondent for The Times who was kidnapped by the Taliban, said that the uneven approach to ransoms may have cost Foley his life.
“The payment of ransoms and abduction of foreigners must emerge from the shadows. It must be publicly debated,” wrote Rohde, who escaped his yearlong custody of the Taliban only when he climbed out a window and freed himself. “American and European policy makers should be forced to answer for their actions.”
Foley, a freelance videographer and reporter for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse, went missing 21 months ago in a town 25 miles south of the Turkish border. According to Nicole Tung, a close friend and fellow photojournalist, who gave an account of Foley’s activities before his capture, he had spent weeks in Syria documenting the country’s spiral into civil war, narrowly avoiding a falling tank shell. The normally calm reporter — who had come under fire in Afghanistan and had been kidnapped a year earlier in Libya — was rattled.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, he contacted Tung, and they made plans to meet for a few days across the border in Turkey. When Foley did not show up at the hotel at 5 p.m. as planned, Tung began calling his cellphone, finally reaching his translator.
The man explained that Foley had stopped at an Internet cafe to file his last images in Binesh, Syria. Soon after as he was riding to the border, armed men sped up behind his car and forced Foley out at gunpoint.
“I was sitting on the bed, in this depressing, dark hotel; the fact that the fixer answered the phone — when Jim was not answering his — was the cue that something had gone terribly wrong,” said Tung, who immediately contacted Foley’s family and editors.
Across the ocean at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the chief executive and co-founder of GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, reached for his BlackBerry and had a terrible sense of foreboding: The email informing him of Foley’s abduction was almost an exact replay of the horror his staff had endured a year earlier, when Foley was kidnapped with three others by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya.
“We had joked that we needed to take away his passport,” Balboni said Wednesday. “I don’t want to say it was déjà vu, but in a way it was,” he added. “It just turns your life upside down — in one way, I knew what was coming, but I did not know the fullness of it.”
When he was executed this week, Foley became the second Western reporter to be killed by Islamic extremists since 2002, when Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was beheaded by a top Al Qaeda operative. Pearl’s murder was praised by a leading ideologue in a how-to manual that promoted the tactic of kidnapping foreigners. Since then, the terror network has turned to abducting Westerners to finance itself — seizing more than 50 foreigners in the past five years, almost all of whom were released after their governments paid a sizable ransom, according to a review of the known cases by The Times.
However, in Iraq, where the Islamic State was founded, commanders grabbed foreigners for the sole purpose of killing them. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, became known as the “Sheikh of the Slaughterers” because he personally decapitated his foreign captives.
He created his own execution style, forcing his victims to don orange jumpsuits — a mocking reference to prisoners held at the United States’ detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. So brutal, frequent and graphic were the killings that the then-No. 2 of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, wrote to Zarqawi advising him to quit the graphic executions and just shoot the prisoners instead.
Zarqawi’s Iraq-based fighters regrouped in Syria in 2011, where they eventually rebranded themselves as the Islamic State. Their tactics proved so brutal that Al Qaeda formally expelled them from the terror network this year.
However, in regard to kidnapping, the Islamic State’s tactics initially appeared to be in line with that of other Al Qaeda branches.
Before Foley was killed, his Islamic State captors had asked for a $100 million ransom, according to a representative of the family and a man held alongside Foley.
(The Foley family has not responded to requests for comment.)
Once the United States authorized airstrikes in Iraq this month, it appears that the Islamic State took a leaf out of the book of its founding father: They forced Foley to wear the telltale orange jumpsuit, and beheaded him on camera — a horrifying ode to the “Sheikh of the Slaughterers,” who himself was killed by United States forces in Iraq in 2006.
The eldest of five children from Rochester, New Hampshire, Foley graduated from Marquette University in 1996 with a history degree. He joined Teach for America that year, working at an elementary school in Phoenix, officials with the organization said. In 2008, he earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
“He was so clear on what he wanted to do,” said Ellen Shearer, a professor who taught Foley at Medill.
Unlike most freelancers who often take sizable risks without the safety net of an established news organization, Foley found a second family at GlobalPost, which paid a security firm millions of dollars to try to find him, Balboni said.
After his fortuitous release in Libya, GlobalPost brought him back to Boston where he spent a stint as an editor on the desk, but it did not last long.
“When you are touched by being in a war, you can’t get rid of it,” said Balboni, a veteran reporter as well as a former Vietnam War Army officer.
Foley was remembered by colleagues for his courage — to some a bravery that he took to its extreme. Yet at the time of his capture, Tung said, the tank shell explosion in Syria had spooked him, and he was looking for some time off.
“It landed close enough to feel like it was time to get out,” she said.
His colleagues point to the remarkable bravery he displays in his final moments as a testament to the man he was: Looking straight at the camera, Foley’s face is concentrated. When the jihadist lifts the knife to his throat, and pulls his head back, he does not try to pull away.