The mother of journalist James Foley, murdered by the ISIS ‘Beatles’, says her son was abandoned by the Obama government. Now she is fighting for other American hostages overseas

Photo of author
Written By Maya Cantina
  • Diane Foley says her son and others were abandoned until it was too late 
  • They were murdered by an ISIS gang in Syria nicknamed the ‘Jihadi Beatles’
  • Now she is working to make sure other families know what options they have 

When the State Department, the F.B.I. and other officials told Diane Foley that her journalist son Jim was their highest priority she had no other option to believe them.

He had been kidnapped by ISIS in Syria in 2012. 

It wasn’t until 2014, three months after her son had been murdered in a made-for-television execution, and a meeting with President Barack Obama that she called out the platitude.

‘Jim was my highest priority,’ she is told by the most powerful man on the planet.

‘I felt the oxygen disappear from the air,’ she writes in her powerful memoir, ‘American Mother,’ written with Colum McCann.

Diane Foley, whose son was beheaded by Islamic militants in Syria 10 years ago, is fighting for hostages and other Americans unfairly detained overseas

Dinae Foley with her son Jim, who was 39 when he was captured by ISIS in Syria

Dinae Foley with her son Jim, who was 39 when he was captured by ISIS in Syria

'American Mother' by Diane Foley and Colum McCann is published by Etruscan Press

‘American Mother’ by Diane Foley and Colum McCann is published by Etruscan Press

‘”I beg your pardon, sir,” I replied. “He may have been a priority in your mind but not in your heart.

“Jim and the others were abandoned by our government until much, much too late.'”

In her telling, the distance between them is clear: A president sitting at a long table with a cup of tea while his guest, a grieving mother, is not even offered a drink.

He does not argue with her analysis but takes another sip of tea.

Foley has spent the past 10 years working to make sure that other families in her terrible position are not patronized, threatened or ignored in the way that she was.

But that doesn’t change the missed opportunities that meant American hostages were left to die in the hands of ISIS terrorists when European journalists and aid workers were released. 

‘I did my best, but I failed miserably,’ she told DailyMail.com during a visit to Washington. 

‘I think I have to recognize that not only did the government abandon him, but I also didn’t really know what to do. I had no idea.’

She does now. Today, Foley is president of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. 

In this November 2012, file photo, journalist James Foley is seen while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. He was snatched days later as he was leaving the country for Turkey

In this November 2012, file photo, journalist James Foley is seen while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. He was snatched days later as he was leaving the country for Turkey

James Foley of Rochester, N.H., a freelance journalist for GlobalPost, in Benghazi, Libya

James Foley of Rochester, N.H., a freelance journalist for GlobalPost, in Benghazi, Libya

Foley said President Barack Obama told her that he son had been his highest priority, even though his administration effectively 'abandoned' him after he was captured in Syria

Foley said President Barack Obama told her that he son had been his highest priority, even though his administration effectively ‘abandoned’ him after he was captured in Syria

It works to provide help for the families of kidnapped and wrongfully detained American citizens around the world. And she has been at the forefront of overhauling American policy on rescuing hostages.

But in 2012 she was a nurse practitioner working in New Hampshire when her son, the eldest of five children, phoned her at the family clinic she ran with her husband. 

She was too busy to chat long.

‘I’ll call you on Thanksgiving,’ he said. But he didn’t. It was the first sign that something was wrong. 

Jim Foley, then 39, ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time in Syria, just as he and a British journalist, John Cantlie, were headed back to the border with Turkey.

They were among a group of mostly Western journalists and aid workers held by a murderous group of British-born Islamic State terrorists, nicknamed ‘the Beatles.’ 

It took a year for a ransom demand to arrive.

(Top L to Bottom R) Japanese freelance video journalist Kenji Goto, US aid worker Peter

(Top L to Bottom R) Japanese freelance video journalist Kenji Goto, US aid worker Peter “Abdel-Rahman” Kassig, US freelance reporter James Foley, Japanese national Haruna Yukawa, US freelance writer Steven Sotloff, British national Alan Henning and British aid worker David Haines, the victims of Islamic State militants known as the ‘Beatles’

Also known as 'Jihadi George', Alexanda Kotey was part of the four-person cell of British-born Islamic State fighters known as the 'Beatles.' Foley's mother has written about her encounters with Kotey in a bid to understand him, in her new book called American Mother

Also known as ‘Jihadi George’, Alexanda Kotey was part of the four-person cell of British-born Islamic State fighters known as the ‘Beatles.’ Foley’s mother has written about her encounters with Kotey in a bid to understand him, in her new book called American Mother

‘hello. we have james. we want to negotiate with him,’ said the email, all in lower case letters. ‘he is safe: he is our friend and we do not want to hurt him. we want our money fast.’

More demands arrived, asking for the release of all Muslim prisoners and $130 million. 

In the end, Foley writes in ‘American Mother,’ it wasn’t about the money. There was no way the American government wanted to get involved in a negotiation.

Three times the Foleys were warned that they could be prosecuted if they tried to pay a ransom to sanctioned group. 

‘When I heard that, I was appalled. I just couldn’t believe a fellow America was gonna threaten us with that,’ said Foley. But the reality was one of the few people who was honest with us.’

Being told they could be prosecuted and that the president had decided against any negotiations made a difference from the platitudes that Jim was the administration’s highest priority.

Officials, she explained, often had little information to share. 

And the first indication that something terrible had happened came not through government channels but again in a phone call from a reporter. 

The family only received official confirmation that Jim had been killed came when Obama appeared on TV to condemn his murder.

Her book opens with the extraordinary moment seven years later when she comes face to face with Alexanda Kotey, one of the killers convicted of her son’s murder.

In a courthouse conference room he told her he was very sorry but he didn’t know where Jim was buried.

For Foley, the conversation was part of the healing process. 

‘There’s a lot of hatred out there,’ she said. ‘And we need to recognize that and protect ourselves, try to keep building bridges when we can. 

American freelance journalist and photojournalist of the Syrian Civil War Jim Foley (pictured) who was abducted on November 22, 2012 in northwestern Syria

American freelance journalist and photojournalist of the Syrian Civil War Jim Foley (pictured) who was abducted on November 22, 2012 in northwestern Syria

Americans are more of a target than ever as the world fractures amid competing conflicts

Americans are more of a target than ever as the world fractures amid competing conflicts

‘That’s partly why I went to speak with Alexanda, because I knew had Jim survived he would have gone to see him.’

Other captives did survive. Ransoms were negotiated. Deals were done. Two Spaniards, four French journalists, a Danish photojournalist. All released while the Foleys were told they faced prosecution if they tried to pay off the kidnappers.

Things might have been different, she said, if she had learned much earlier that there would be no deal for her son.

‘One of the things to do in that situation would have been to get money together and hire a private security team,’ she said, describing how kidnap and ransom specialists would have cost $4,000 a day. 

Or she might have gone to talk to the father of another hostage who risked his life traveling to Syria to bring back his son instead of relying on the FBI to talk to him.

Her experience, and the experiences of other American families, fed into an overhaul of hostage policy. It set up the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, coordinating efforts across several parts of government, and established a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

Any anger at the way she was treated is moderated by praise for his later efforts to change things. 

The work is more important than ever. The world is even more dangerous for journalists and Americans abroad. 

Russia has made snatching Americans a cornerstone of its relations with Washington, and Hamas terrorists are holding five U.S. nationals. 

‘More than 100 US nationals who never would have been freed have been freed, thanks to Jim’s legacy and the legacy of the other,’ said Foley. ‘I’m very proud of that legacy.’

ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

Leave a Comment