ROCHESTER, N.H. —
Shortly after James Foley was released in 2011 from 44 days of captivity in Libya, the U.S. journalist returned to Boston to work at GlobalPost, the startup website that had published much of his work from the Middle East.
But it soon became clear that despite his Libya ordeal, Foley wanted nothing more than to get back into the field.
“You could just tell that this was a guy who — sitting at a desk was not who he was,” said Katrine Dermody, 27, a Foley friend who also worked at GlobalPost at the time. “We used to joke, ‘Jim, you look like a caged animal.’ He just yearned to be out” in the field.
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Foley disappeared in Syria in November 2012. A video released Tuesday by the militant group Islamic State showed him being beheaded in the desert after reciting a statement about the military actions of the U.S. government.
It was not immediately clear where or when the video was recorded. His death capped more than 600 days of pleas from his family, friends and employer to find the 40-year-old from New Hampshire and return him to safety.
At a news conference outside the family home in Rochester, N.H., John and Diane Foley said they did not watch the video and had learned about their son’s death along with the rest of the nation. Diane Foley said that at one point during her son’s captivity, the family began thinking of him as Jesus.
“We know Jimmy’s free. He’s finally free,” John Foley said Wednesday. “We know he’s in God’s hands,” he added, breaking down in tears. “We know he’s in heaven.”
During the nearly two years of Foley’s captivity, the family led an intensive effort to win his release. At the time of his death, they believed they were close to achieving that goal, Diane Foley said, and were hopeful after a recent trip to France and Denmark, where they tried to arrange his release.
John Foley added that the family was at the point of considering “fundraising/ransom” and was making a video to publicize their son’s work and plight.
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 with Foley.
From teaching to reporting
Foley, who was known as Jim, was the oldest of five siblings in a Roman Catholic family. His family described him as a “very daring but fun-loving kid.” He graduated from Marquette University in 1996 with a history degree and went on to work as an educator through Teach for America in Phoenix. But he was drawn to the world of reporting and eventually returned to school and got a master’s degree in journalism in 2008 from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
From there, he set out for conflict zones in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, filing vivid dispatches and videos that highlighted the struggles of people in war. When he was held captive in Libya in 2011 with two other journalists, he always found ways to distract fellow captives with questions about their favorite books and movies, which famous person they would most like to meet, how they could become better people when they got out of Libya, fellow captive Clare Morgana Gillis later wrote.
Foley acknowledged the peril journalists face covering the world’s most dangerous places, in a speech at Medill not long after his Libya ordeal. “It’s pure luck that you didn’t get killed there. Pure luck,” he said. “And you either need to change your behavior right there or you shouldn’t be doing this. Because it’s not worth your life. It’s not worth seeing your mother, your father, brother and sister bawling and you’re worrying about your grandmother dying because you’re in prison.”
When Foley told his family he was leaving again, this time ending up in Syria, some of his siblings were angry, his mother said. But the family compared his intense desire to return to that of a firefighter who keeps rushing back into a burning building.
During one conversation in the family’s kitchen, Diane Foley said, she urged her son not to go back to Syria, noting that he could do many other things with his talents. “He said, ‘Mom, I’ve found my passion. I’ve found my vocation.’ He just felt compelled,” she said.
She said he was drawn to conflict journalism in part because several of his brothers were in the military. “Jim wanted to be there,” she said, noting that one of his first assignments was in Afghanistan, where one of his brothers was serving in the Air Force at the time. “He wanted to cover what was happening at the human level.”
Getting “too close”
Former co-workers saw that intensity.
“He was determined to go to Syria, and he wanted to get the point of view of the Syrian people told,” said Andrew Meldrum, assistant Africa editor for The Associated Press, who worked with Foley at GlobalPost in Boston. “He could have continued to work in the safety of Boston. It wasn’t like he even made a decision. He was dead set on going there.”
It was not always comfortable for his colleagues.
“He took you right there, and sometimes we were looking at things and thinking, ‘He’s too close. He’s too close,’ ” Meldrum said. “And you wanted to say, ‘Pull back,’ but it was compelling video. He really found his purpose in life in going out and reporting that story.”
Foley was abducted Nov. 22, 2012, and hadn’t been heard from since. GlobalPost had spent millions of dollars on efforts to bring him home, Chief Executive Philip Balboni said.
The Islamic State said it killed Foley as a warning to the United States after U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq.
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-Qaida operative. Pearl’s murder was praised by another al-Qaida operative in a how-to manual that promoted the tactic of kidnapping foreigners. Since then, al-Qaida has turned to kidnapping 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 New York Times review of the known cases.
Didier François, a longtime reporter for Europe-1 radio, was held hostage for eight months with Foley in Syria and was among four French journalists released in April. He called Foley “an extraordinary guy, a superb journalist” in comments carried on Europe-1’s website.
In the 2011 appearance at Medill, Foley said he was in Libya to give voice to people who hadn’t been able to speak out against their government.
But the Internet-fueled Arab Spring uprising posed challenges that he said made front-line reporting essential.
“It was so hard for a journalist to nail down some facts, and I think that’s part of the reason you’re drawn to the front line,” he said. “I mean, I’m drawn to the front line naturally, but, it’s like: Facebook, news conference by this transitional council, and you’re like, I’ve got to confirm this.”
Foley was also a big-hearted, charitable friend. The day he was abducted in Libya, South African colleague Anton Hammerl was killed. When Foley got back to the U.S., he and the other two journalists who survived the ambush vowed to support Hammerl’s three children.
More than 100 people gathered Wednesday to grieve for Foley at a service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in the New Hampshire community where he was raised.
“There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity,” Father Paul Gousse told parishioners during his homily. “War begets war; the only answer is in prayer.”
Gousse told the congregation that he had joined Foley’s parents at their home Tuesday night and that Diane Foley told him: “Father, pray for me that I don’t become bitter. I don’t want to hate.”
“That’s a woman of deep faith,” Gousse said.
He urged everyone in the congregation to follow her lead, noting that there was a danger for all Americans to “become bitter and hate.”
Meanwhile, Foley’s colleagues pointed to the remarkable bravery he displayed in his final moments as a testament to the man he was: Looking straight at the camera, his face was concentrated. When the killer lifted the knife to his throat and pulled his head back, Foley did not try to pull away.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.