Search for James Foley consumed family, colleagues

In e-mails, captors sought $130 million

This September 2012 photo posted on the website shows journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria.
Associated Press
This September 2012 photo posted on the website shows journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria.

WASHINGTON — It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2012 when top executives at the Boston-based GlobalPost received an e-mail from one of the news service’s freelance correspondents near the Syrian border.

“Hate to be writing this to you but Jim has gone missing in Syria,” she wrote.

The prospect that James W. Foley had been taken hostage left GlobalPost co-founder Charles M. Sennott with “a terrible, sinking sense of deja vu” — a “here we go again” feeling.


Foley, the New Hampshire-born war correspondent beheaded by militants from the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State, had previously been kidnapped in Libya in 2011 and released, with the considerable help of the news organization’s intervention, 44 days later.

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But this time, there was an even deeper feeling of dread. Indeed, his colleagues at GlobalPost weren’t all that surprised.

“He always pushed it to the edge,” Sennott said. “He always went as far as you could go to get the story.”

What began that fall weekend nearly two years ago was a highly organized effort — led primarily by his family and GlobalPost executives and drawing in top US officials, private investigators, and refugee workers — in what ultimately proved to be an unsuccessful quest to free him.

“It’s been an almost indescribable series of events, efforts, and mistakes and ups and downs, trying to — first of all find out where Jim was, who held him — and once we succeeded in that, find out how he might be freed,” said Phil Balboni, chief executive officer of GlobalPost.


Foley’s parents and brother this week said they were grateful for the effort but wished the United States had done more to win release of their son, including following the blueprint for winning release of hostages set by European countries. While the United States does not pay ransoms for hostages, European nations have made multimillion-dollar payments in exchange for the safe return of kidnapped citizens. The Foleys had begun raising money in an attempt to pay the ransom themselves. But they never got the chance.

RELATED | Obituary: James Foley, exemplar of bravery to many, dies at 40

The United States needs to put a premium on the safety of journalists who are doing their jobs, John Foley said of his slain son.

“He felt this was his job. It was his passion. So he was not crazy,’’ John Foley said. “He was motivated by what he thought was doing the right thing, and gave him energy to continue, despite the risks.’’

* * *

James Foley was respected by his peers. His foreign coverage was widely recognized as pioneering. His reporting from Libya, amid the Arab Spring, earned the prestigious Overseas Press Club award for breaking news. He was a regular freelance correspondent, or “stringer,” for GlobalPost, although he also worked for other news outlets.

GlobalPost had all too much experience with their correspondents going missing in the field. One was imprisoned in Iran for seven days. Others simply fell out of touch for extended periods in some of the most remote corners of the globe before popping back up on the grid.


“The first thing you do is immediately call the State Department,” said Sennott, who was previously a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe in the Middle East and wrote a 2009 field manual for correspondents operating in war zones.

‘We never took the 100 million seriously It was such an incredible sum.’

Phil Balboni, GlobalPost chief executive officer, referring to a 100-million Euro ransom demand for Foley’s return 

Foley’s colleagues initially believed that he had been detained by government forces loyal to the regime of Bashar Assad, who was cracking down mercilessly on an insurgency consisting of a mix of rebel groups and Islamic militants that later came to be known as the Islamic State.

Two days after Foley’s disappearance was discovered in late 2012, GlobalPost hired Kroll International, a security firm that specializes in kidnapping and ransom cases — the same one it had enlisted when Foley went missing in Libya. Within days, the investigators were on the Turkey-Syria border, where Foley was last seen, interviewing people and gathering information, Balboni said.

RELATED: James Foley’s parents hope his values endure

“We didn’t know who took Jim, if he was alive or dead,” he said.

It would take nearly a year to learn where Foley was being held and that it was Islamic State, the terrorist group, that was holding him, Balboni said. The details came in September 2013, from a Belgian captive who had been held with Foley and then released. The Belgian got word to Foley’s brother that Foley indeed was alive.

Weeks later, in late November, the kidnappers sent their first e-mail to Foley’s parents and Balboni. To verify that Foley was alive and that the captors were indeed holding him, Foley’s parents, John and Diane, sent detailed and obscure questions that only Jim Foley could answer.

When the correct answers came back, “that was a real signal moment when we knew that we were in direct communication with the people who we knew were holding Jim captive,” Balboni said.

Soon after that, the captors asked for money, he said, 100 million euros — or about $130 million — and the release of Muslim prisoners.

* * *

As bits and pieces of information flowed in over the next excruciating months, the Foleys enlisted help from the US government and began to engage the public in his plight. Foley had been missing for six weeks by the time it was revealed publicly that he was last seen about 12 kilometers from the border with Turkey on his way back from reporting in Aleppo, Syria.

That same month New Hampshire’s two US senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, also began prodding the Obama administration, in a series of letters to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the FBI, urging them to “take all reasonable measures to secure Mr. Foley’s immediate release.“

Shaheen helped Diane Foley secure meetings with the Russian Embassy, high-level officials at the United Nations, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and other world and national officials. As 2013 wore on, the Foleys also met with David Wade, Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s chief of staff, FBI officials, and White House staff, “all of whom were very sympathetic and desirous of helping,” Balboni said.

“Secretary Kerry personally discussed the hostages over two dozen times with over a dozen different foreign leaders. He implored his counterparts in other governments to use their contacts and leverage, but the tragic reality is that ISIS answers to no one anymore,’’ a senior administration official said.

But unlike many other governments, the United States was unwilling to pay the terrorist group for the release of hostages. The White House declined to discuss the decision-making process that ensued after the ransom demands were received.

RELATED: Islamic State pressed for James Foley ransom before killing

But National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden responded that “the United States government, as a matter of longstanding policy, does not grant concessions to hostage takers. Doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive.

GlobalPost, which over the months spent millions trying to help Foley, certainly had nowhere near the sum demanded by Foley’s kidnappers.

“We never took the 100 million seriously,” Balboni said. “It was such an incredible sum.“

“The United States and Great Britain are different because we’ve both always opposed paying ransom for hostages, because we know it costs more lives and creates more hostages,’’ a senior administration official told the Globe. “But the truth is, there was never a credible ransom offer on the table. Extremists made propaganda demands for hundreds of millions of dollars. The truth is, every real option was exhausted.“

The Foley family would learn what European countries had paid for the release of at least nine prisoners held with Foley, Balboni said, and they believed that they might win his release if they could raise about $5 million privately.

Over the time of Foley’s disappearance, his family received a handful of e-mails from his captors, according to Balboni, but “it was complete silence” from December 2013 until last week.

The family said it had recently been producing a video featuring Foley as part of a planned appeal to the public, to help raise the ransom. Family members refused to give up hope, with good reason.

A hostage released a few months ago memorized a letter from Foley “and within hours of his freedom he was good enough to call and voice that letter, and it just spoke of his yearning to see all of us again,” recalled Diana Foley.

“We had some eyewitness reports last fall that we knew he was alive,” she said.

* * *

It was not until Wednesday at noon, when President Obama called to offer condolences about Foley’s beheading, that the Foleys learned about a secret US rescue mission in Syria to save their son, Balboni said.

Earlier this summer, based on what was considered highly reliable intelligence, an elite US special forces team was secretly taken by helicopter into a rural area of Syria where intelligence officials believed Foley was being held. A deadly firefight ensued, said Pentagon officials, and several militants were killed. But Foley and other suspected hostages were not there. The exact timing and other details of the mission have not been made public.

“The operation “was focused on a particular captor network within” the Islamic State, according to Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location.’’

The last time the Foley family heard from James Foley’s captors was on Aug. 12, according to GlobalPost, which released the full text Thursday of the final e-mail sent by someone claiming to represent the Islamic State.

“You were given many chances to negotiate the release of your people via cash transactions as other governments have accepted,’’ the e-mail stated. “You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings! The first of which being the blood of the American citizen, James Foley! He will be executed as a DIRECT result of your transgressions towards us!’’

GlobalPost said the Foley family did not have “many chances’’ to negotiate for their son’s release, and had been presented only with the demand for the extraordinary sum of $132 million.

It was just days later that the video of an Islamic State militant showing that Foley was beheaded appeared on YouTube.

Globe correspondents Claire McNeill and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at bryan.bender