On the 18th of October in 1973, James Wright Foley was born in Evanston, Illinois. Though he began his professional life as a teacher in the Midwest, Foley would go on to have a storied career in wartime journalism, covering events that transpired all over the globe. His prolific involvement in the Middle East would end in tragedy in 2014, but his work helped to expose the suffering of thousands of Syrian citizens living under a cruel and terroristic regime.
GlobalPost Journalist James Foley talks about being held by the Libyan Government. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Let’s take a look back through Foley’s early career, culminating with his crucial work in Syria, and the lasting impression it left on the American people, the war effort, and the world itself.
Early Career Moves
After graduating from Marquette University in 1996, Foley began his career as a teacher through Teach for America. After working with the program for several years, he would find himself drawn toward the world of journalism. This interest culminated in the mid-2000’s, when he went back to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, graduating in 2008. Shortly after, he would find himself on the opposite side of the globe, working in Baghdad on USAID-funded efforts to help rebuild a civil service for the local community.
A photo taken on September 29, 2011 shows US freelance reporter James Foley resting in a room at the airport of Sirte, Libya. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Soon afterward in January of 2011, Foley found himself working for American military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
He would then travel to Afghanistan on assignment, only to be removed from his position after being suspected of possession and use of cannabis. He admitted to the charge shortly after and resigned from the position. Almost immediately, he began working with the Boston-based GlobalPost, relocating to Libya to cover the ongoing uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Foley would be embedded with rebel soldiers in the area, and it was here that he encountered his first serious run-in with hostile forces.
First Brush with Danger
One morning in early April, Foley was reporting on a story near Brega, Libya, accompanied by a host of other professionals, including freelance reporter Clare Morgana Gillis, Spanish photographer Manu Brabo, and photojournalist Anton Hammerl. The group was taken by surprise by forces loyal to Gaddafi, and Hammerl was killed shortly after the fighting began. The forces quickly captured and beat the rest of the party, taking them prisoner and relocating them to a jail nearby.
Journalist Jim Foley films Libyan NTC fighters attacking the west side of Colonel Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte on October 05, 2011 in Libya. NTC forces are continuing their advance on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. (Photo by John Cantlie/Getty Images)
After 44 days in confinement, the party (along with Nigel Chandler, a previously-captured English journalist) was released and brought to the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya. Shortly after the ordeal, Foley retreated to America to thank the people of Milwaukee for praying for his safety. Though he enjoyed a brief respite from the dangers of the frontlines, Foley quickly returned to Libya, where he was witness to the capturing of Gaddafi on October 20th, 2011.
James Foley would remain active in the Middle East for several months, covering a variety of stories for the GlobalPost, as well as several other publications. This period represented the height of the Syrian Civil War, and these dangerous conditions would soon mean that danger would find Foley once again, this time while in the company of John Cantlie, a British journalist. The pair were ambushed and abducted as they were leaving an internet café en route to the Turkish border. According to several sources, the journalists were working on a film depicting Cantlie’s first abduction, as well as his eventual rescue by the Free Syrian Army.
Buttons in support of James Foley are displayed during a panel discussion about the importance and dangers of reporting on world conflicts at a Free James Foley event on May 3, 2013 in Boston. (Photo credit DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Family members of Foley’s claim that they believe the Shabiha militia were responsible for the kidnapping that would ultimately cost Foley his life. Initially, there were different reports that Foley and Cantlie were being held at a Syrian Air Force Intelligence base somewhere in Damascus. Starting in late 2013, Foley’s family had made contact with his captors, who were demanding a ransom of approximately 100 million euros (or 132 million US dollars) from them and the GlobalPost. Reportedly, his family was planning to attempt to negotiate a lower amount for his release, which constitutes a breach of US laws. Though his employer and US intelligence made progress as to the whereabouts of the imprisoned journalist, nothing was done until the summer of 2014, when a window of opportunity for a rescue operation presented itself.
A Rescue Attempt Gone Awry
In July of 2014, President Obama provided a bit of hope for Foley and the other hostages whenever he authorized a rescue operation that he described as “substantial and complex.” US intelligence had gathered what they believed to be sufficient evidence that the group was being held in a compound near the city of Raqqa in Syria. The massive military maneuver would involve several branches of the US military, including the famed US Army Delta Force unit, supported by drones, helicopters and other attack aircraft. Sadly, the mission was ultimately a failure, as it quickly became clear upon arrival that all of the prisoners had been moved to another location several days prior.
Journalist James Foley’s parents John and Diane Foley speak to reporters about James’ murder outside of their home in Rochester, New Hampshire August 20, 2014. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The militant ISIL forces defending the compound took heavy losses during the raid, while US forces suffered just one, minor injury. All the same, no new intel was acquired that would help the rescuers learn the new location of the captives, and Foley’s location would not be known until August 19th, 2014, when tragedy struck.
The Execution of James Foley
Pictures stand at Our Lady of the Rosary Church for a special mass in remembrance of journalist James Foley August 24, 2014, in Rochester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
On this day, ISIL forces uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “A Message to America.” The website took down the clip within hours of its posting, but this was long enough for it to spread like wildfire amongst other sources. In the video, Foley is shown kneeling in the desert and is forced to read a statement of regret. Shortly after, he is beheaded (off-screen), with the camera then showing his beheaded corpse. His death was confirmed by the National Security Council on August 20th.
A Lasting Legacy
In the aftermath of the video being released, many of the outlets Foley worked for revised their policies regarding contracting freelancers in active war zones, including the GlobalPost, who spent millions attempting to bring Foley home during the months leading up to his execution. English artist Sting wrote and recorded a song about the journalist’s fate, which was released as “The Empty Chair” on his solo studio album 57th and 9th.
Over 200 supporters gathered for a vigil remembering James Foley in Rochester, NH on August 23, 2014. (Photo by Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Foley’s pictures, videos, and writings centered around active warzones survive him, helping to awaken millions of people around the world to the horrors of daily life in these violent areas. Looking forward, it is up to us to learn from the trials he endured, ensuring that the same mistakes are never made again.