BOOK OF THE WEEK
By Colum McCann with Diane Foley (Bloomsbury £20, 240 people)
Ysenda Maxtone Graham
One of the many horrendous and macabre aspects of being informed in the technological age that your child has been beheaded by a terrorist group in the Middle East, is that you have to ‘click on the link’ to look at the photo that proves it.
A light touch with your index finger (the daily movement we all do every day) and you will see a vision that will be etched into your soul and haunt you until you die.
This is exactly what James Foley’s mother Diane did on a Tuesday afternoon in August 2014, at her home in New Hampshire. Her son Jim, 39, a freelance journalist for GlobalPost, had been kidnapped by ISIS in northern Syria in November 2012, along with journalist John Cantlie. Both had disappeared without a trace. Both would never return.
Diane and her family had been through hell, not only imagining the hell Jim must be going through, but also, in the face of the Obama administration’s stubborn and clear policy that “negotiating with terrorists incentivizes hostage takers” , failing to achieve his release. . So there would be no negotiation and Diane’s family could even face federal prosecution if they tried to raise a ransom to bring Jim home.
Jim, the son of Diane Foley, 39, a freelance journalist for GlobalPost, was kidnapped by ISIS in northern Syria in November 2012.
Throughout those agonizing and frustrating months, Diane’s anger toward government policy grew. It seemed that the American government treated journalists like second-class citizens, even though her brave and patriotic missions were vitally important to telling the world the truth about what was happening.
She was sure that if it had been 20 US Marines captured in northern Syria, the US would have mounted a rescue operation. Instead, nothing happened to her and she was asked to remain silent about the situation, which (after a few months of compliance) she refused to do.
They assigned him an FBI agent, who was useless, clueless, and took a long time to respond to emails.
That fateful summer afternoon, 21 months after Jim disappeared, an Associated Press journalist called Diane to ask if she had “seen the tweet.” She hadn’t done it. She sobbed in fear.
Then her brother-in-law called her to tell her there had been an update on social media. Diane’s finger paused over the link and then clicked. The photograph she saw was of the unthinkable: James’ corpse in the desert, with her severed head placed on his back.
His instant reaction was that it must be a joke; a photoshopped image, ‘a gratuitous lie’. He remembers thinking: ‘This can’t be happening.’ We had prayed a lot for Jim’s return. It couldn’t be turning out like this. Not our Jim. Not now. Never.’
Then a journalist from an international news agency called to confirm that Jim had indeed been murdered.
This powerful and devastating memoir, written in the third person at the beginning and end, but with Diane’s first-person testimony in the main middle section, begins with a stunning scene: Diane sitting in a Washington, DC courtroom, facing the table of Alexanda Kotey, one of the British-born ISIS perpetrators who had tortured Jim in captivity and possibly witnessed his execution.
That meeting took place in October 2021, seven years after Jim’s murder. Kotey was wearing shackles. Diane wore bracelets. They both trembled as they faced each other. Kotey had pleaded guilty to taking and torturing American hostages, including Jim, and now faced a life sentence. Part of the plea deal was that he would talk to the victims’ families, if they wanted to talk to him.
And, for some reason she couldn’t even explain, just “a very deep feeling,” Diane wanted to talk to him. Her family was horrified. ‘Why give him any platform?’ They Asked.
Reading Diane’s fierce testimony, one gets the sense that she had taken on Jim’s role as a tireless seeker of truth. “If anyone had wanted to be present to report on his own death, it would have been Jim,” she writes. “Not to celebrate himself, but to delve into reality, into the depths of what the world was becoming and why.” Since Jim couldn’t be there to do this, she took his place.
Jim Foley moments before being beheaded by an ISIS member in the desert
Jim disappeared without a trace along with journalist John Cantlie. They would both never return
“I certainly wasn’t there to forgive Kotey,” he writes. She just wanted to get to the absolute truth and push Kotey to fully and emotionally face what she had done.
There they sat, the perpetrator and the victim’s mother, he 38, she 73, for five hours, and would meet for the second and final time a few months later, just before Kotey was taken to prison by the rest of his life.
Once again, Diane felt like she was hitting her head against a brick wall. Kotey, she was sure, was still not being completely honest or fully facing her guilt. What she had done, she said, she had done “under the auspices of war” and “she was doing what she was told.”
Those barbaric British-born terrorists were nicknamed “the Beatles” by their captives: “Jihadi John”, “Jihadi Ringo”, etc. In a twisted sense, very appropriate, since their main activity was to violently beat their victims. Since they wore balaclavas and never showed their faces, it was difficult to tell which ‘Beatle’ was which.
Kotey (‘Jihadi George’) claimed to Diane that he ‘wasn’t one of the worst when it came to beatings.’ But Diane had heard, from Danish hostage Daniel Ottosen, who was released in June 2014, that Kotey was, in fact, “exceptionally cruel” when it came to beatings, starvation techniques, electric shocks, strangulations, psychological torture. and mock crucifixions.
And it was Kotey who wrote the recorded message that Jim, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was forced to read aloud just before he was murdered: “I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my true murderers: the United States Government, because what will happen to me is only the result of their complacent criminality.’
Kotey claimed that on the day of Jim’s execution, he was not present, but was at home with his family.
Diane was far from convinced. After that first meeting, Kotey wrote two formal letters to Diane in the eerily clean, curly schoolboy handwriting reproduced in the book: “To you and your entire family, my sincere apologies, regards, and best wishes to all.” Diane felt that he was becoming more and more experienced in the art of self-justification behind polite apologies. She insisted that she did not know where Jim’s body was buried.
To read this book is to be at Diane’s side on her long, obsessive quest, first to bring Jim home and then, after that failed, to start a foundation, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, to advocate for the release of American. hostages held abroad.
When Diane was finally granted a ten-minute audience with President Obama, he told her, between sips of tea, “Jim was my top priority.” To which Diane replied: ‘I apologize, sir. It may have been a priority in your mind, but not in your heart.
She wanted this to change.
Of course, Diane writes, no government should be seen as paying for the release of its hostage citizens. “We would simply be providing the terrorists with an ATM.” But behind the scenes, governments can help families raise ransoms, something that clearly happened with the Spanish, French and other European hostages, who were freed with (she assumes) a ransom of about $10 million each.
Thanks to lobbying by the James W. Foley Foundation, Biden issued an executive order in 2022 to strengthen efforts to bring home hostages and unjustly detained American citizens. They achieved the release of seven hostages in Venezuela, among others.
That initiative came eight years too late to save Jim and his fellow hostages. But Diane sees Jim’s life and story as “a candle.” “Sometimes,” she writes, “the world works and one candle lights other candles.”