James Foley and the Plight of Americans Kidnapped Abroad

American journalist James Foley in 2011.
American journalist James Foley in 2011.Steven Senne / AP

On Tuesday, members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria posted a video of the execution of journalist James Foley. On his knees in the desert, wearing an orange jumpsuit that resembles the garb of Guantanamo Bay detainees, Foley tells the camera, “I wish that I had more time, but that ship has sailed."

As we reported in the September issue, ongoing wars and recent civil unrest overseas have lured waves of freelance journalists and international aid workers to some of the world's most violent locales. At the same time, a growing number of militant groups have discovered the political and monetary value of holding a Western captive. While European nations usually pay the ransom (and, some argue, encourage further kidnapping by terrorism), the United States does not.


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Foley's story is typical of many Americans now kidnapped abroad. In 2011, he snuck into Syria from Turkey to cover the civil war for Agence France-Presse and the Global Post, an online newspaper based in Boston. On Thanksgiving in 2012, he was on his way back to the border, when four gunmen overtook his taxi. His Syrian fixer was released, but Foley vanished into the chaos of the conflict. Remarkably, this wasn't Foley's first kidnapping. Covering the revolution in Libya the year before, Qaddafi loyalists abducted him on a road outside of Benghazi, keeping him hostage for 44 days, before letting him go.

Foley, who was 40 years old, was the eldest of five children from New Hampshire. After college, he worked for Teach for America in Arizona, Illinois, and Massachusetts, before attending Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. He embedded as a photojournalist with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, then covered the Arab Spring as a freelance reporter. "I'm drawn to the front line naturally," he once told an assembly of Medill students. "I mean there's an amazing reach for humanity in these places, in these barren places."

ALSO: Europe Pays Ransom, While Americans Get Left Behind

During his captivity in Syria, his family petitioned the U.S. government and media for help. His employer at the Global Post hired a security contractor to find him. This summer, a team of U.S. Special Forces air dropped into the conflict to rescue him. They exchanged fire with militants, but failed to locate Foley. The rescue mission was aborted, and his whereabouts remained unknown until the video of his murder appeared. Yesterday, his mother Diane met with reporters outside of her home in New Hampshire. "He was strong, courageous, loving to the end," she said. “He was just a hero."

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