WASHINGTON – It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2012 when top executives at the Boston-based GlobalPost received an email from one of the news service’s freelance correspondents near the Syrian border.
“Hate to be writing this to you but Jim has gone missing in Syria,” she wrote.
The prospect that James W. Foley had been taken hostage left GlobalPost co-founder Charles M. Sennott with “a terrible, sinking sense of deja vu” – a “here we go again” feeling.
Foley, the war correspondent beheaded by militants from the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State, had previously been kidnapped in Libya in 2011 and released, with the considerable help of the news organization’s intervention, 44 days later.
But this time, there was an even deeper feeling of dread. Indeed, his colleagues at GlobalPost weren’t all that surprised.
“He always pushed it to the edge,” Sennott said. “He always went as far as you could go to get the story.”
What began that fall weekend nearly two years ago was a highly organized effort – led primarily by his family and GlobalPost executives and drawing in top U.S. officials, private investigators, and refugee workers – in what ultimately proved to be an unsuccessful quest to free him.
“It’s been an almost indescribable series of events, efforts, and mistakes and ups and downs, trying to – first of all find out where Jim was, who held him – and once we succeeded in that, find out how he might be freed,” said Phil Balboni, chief executive officer of GlobalPost.
Foley’s parents and brother this week said they were grateful for the effort but wished the United States had done more to win release of their son, including following the blueprint for winning release of hostages set by European countries.
While the United States does not pay ransoms for hostages, European nations have made multimillion-dollar payments in exchange for the safe return of kidnapped citizens. The Foleys had begun raising money in an attempt to pay the ransom themselves. But they never got the chance.
The United States needs to put a premium on the safety of journalists who are doing their jobs, John Foley said of his slain son.
“He felt this was his job. It was his passion. So he was not crazy,” John Foley said. “He was motivated by what he thought was doing the right thing, and gave him energy to continue, despite the risks.”
“There’s more that could have been done directly on Jim’s behalf,” said Jim’s brother, Michael Foley, 38, in an interview Friday with Yahoo Global News anchor Katie Couric.
“I really, really hope that in some ways, Jim’s death pushes us to take another look at our approach, our policy to terrorist and hostage negotiations, and rethink that.”
James Foley was respected by his peers. His foreign coverage was widely recognized as pioneering. His reporting from Libya, amid the Arab Spring, earned the prestigious Overseas Press Club award for breaking news. He was a regular freelance correspondent, or “stringer,” for GlobalPost, although he also worked for other news outlets.
Two days after Foley’s disappearance was discovered in late 2012, GlobalPost hired Kroll International, a security firm that specializes in kidnapping and ransom cases – the same one it had enlisted when Foley went missing in Libya. Within days, the investigators were on the Turkey-Syria border, where Foley was last seen, interviewing people and gathering information, Balboni said.
Weeks later, in late November, the kidnappers sent their first email to Foley’s parents and Balboni. To verify that Foley was alive and that the captors were indeed holding him, Foley’s parents, John and Diane, sent detailed and obscure questions that only Jim Foley could answer. When the correct answers came back, “that was a real signal moment when we knew that we were in direct communication with the people who we knew were holding Jim captive,” Balboni said.
Soon after that, the captors asked for money, he said, 100 million euros – or about $130 million – and the release of Muslim prisoners.
As bits and pieces of information flowed in over the next excruciating months, the Foleys enlisted help from the U.S. government and began to engage the public in his plight.
New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, also began urging the Obama administration, in a series of letters to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the FBI, urging them to “take all reasonable measures to secure Mr. Foley’s immediate release.”
GlobalPost, which over the months spent millions trying to help Foley, certainly had nowhere near the sum demanded by Foley’s kidnappers.
“You were given many chances to negotiate the release of your people via cash transactions as other governments have accepted,” the email stated. “You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings! The first of which being the blood of the American citizen, James Foley! He will be executed as a DIRECT result of your transgressions towards us!”
It was not until Wednesday at noon, when President Obama called to offer condolences about Foley’s beheading, that the Foleys learned about a secret and failed U.S. rescue mission in Syria to save their son, Balboni said.
GlobalPost said the Foley family did not have “many chances” to negotiate for their son’s release, and had been presented only with the demand for the extraordinary sum of $132 million.