Eight years after James Foley’s murder by Isis, his mother sat down with his captor. Why?

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Footage of James Foley’s murder by Islamic State in 2014 was seen around the world. His mother Diane’s book, written with Irish author Colum McCann, documents the family’s struggle

“Jim has challenged me,” Diane Foley says candidly of her son before looking across the living room to her husband, John.

“We didn’t fully know the man that Jim had grown into.”

James Foley has not been in this home for a full 12 years, but his presence remains all about the rooms, the conversations, the afternoon light. “It’s been a journey for us,” John says, selecting his words carefully. “Everyone should have their funeral before they die. So that they can feel what they meant to the world that they lived in.”

Jimmy Foley, as his parents call him, was 39 when he was murdered, in 2014, in one of the most barbaric episodes in the first rush of the performative atrocities by Islamic State (also known as Isis). The image became emblematic: a young man kneeling in the Syrian desert, wearing an orange jump-suit. Behind him stands a jihadi, dressed in black, face covered, armed with a knife. This group of jihadists, British-born and raised, it turned out, filmed their captive reading words they had given him: a warning to America.


Even in that moment, Foley’s steadfastness and poise didn’t fail him. He reads the words in a monotone, denying the message its relevance. He doesn’t falter. In the 2016 documentary Jim, The James Foley Story, made by his childhood friend Brian Oakes, his war-correspondent friends would laugh about Foley’s good looks. And it was true: he was sallow and had a jawline straight out of Old Hollywood, and he somehow managed to appear dauntless while accepting of his fate.

[James] was always looking for the truth. One of his favourite sayings was: everybody has a story

—  Diane Foley

His captors filmed the beheading. And then they circulated the image and video around the world with the intent of provoking and shocking. It did provoke, and it did shock. James Foley’s family found out in the happenstance, accidental manner in which millions of others did. Through the two years of their son’s captivity, the Foleys had been open to journalistic enquiry: their son, after all, had been of that tribe. A phone call from someone in the Associated Press conveyed a sobbing message of regret. Then the image landed on the webpage of a fund that had been set up to help the effort to free James.

There is footage in the documentary of the family gathered in the garden in New Hampshire, distraught, comforting one another and not hiding their grief from the cameras. The August weather is dreamy-beautiful. There’s a surfeit of love. That devastating summer would mark the start of an extraordinary passage of life for Diane Foley, which is chronicled in American Mother, the powerful new book she has co-written withIrish novelist and journalist Colum McCann. In a strange, circular story, Diane ended up sitting down in front of Alexanda Kotey, one of her son’s persecutors, during his trial in a Virginia courthouse in 2022. They met three times. Kotey wrote her several letters. Both shed tears.

“They were another experience, really, of grace,” Diane says now of those encounters.

“Kind of odd. For some reason I knew I had to talk to Alexanda. My family thought I was crazy. And other hostages I talked with thought it was a bad idea. But I knew Jim would have wanted me to meet him and listen to him – and tell him about Jim. So, it was very clear to me. Alexanda was quite loquacious. He was awkward at first. We each had teams of attorneys and FBI agents. And yet they all faded away. The best meeting was the second one. I think he consented to meeting victims because he wanted to justify himself in some way. But I was praying that I could interact with him like Jim would have.”

James Foley was captured by Islamic State on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He was with a group of journalists who had been skirting the Syrian border, filming, gathering material. They were close to the safety of their base in Turkey when they stopped at a cafe with an internet connection to send files to their agencies.

Foley was in touch with his sister on Facebook, his final interaction with the family. Minutes after they left, they were stopped and snatched. In 2011, he had been imprisoned in Libya and released after several harrowing weeks. But the mood in Syria now was extreme and uncompromising. A ransom demand for $130 million was issued. The Foleys learned that not only would the US government not respond to ransom demands, it would be considered an offence for the family to raise the money themselves.

For two years, Foley was moved from location to location in Syria with a group of internationals. His captivity was defined by fear, boredom, rationed food, extraordinary conversations and brutal rites of torture and punishment beatings by his captors. In the small room in Virginia, Alexanda Kotey told Diane that he had seldom physically hurt her son. She believes it doubtful that this could be true. At one stage, he described to her in detail a specific look that James gave him while gripped in a headlock.

Because Foley was American, he was singled out for more severe punishments than his European companions. The European prisoners who were eventually freed – through the ministrations of their governments – would testify to Foley’s singular gifts throughout the daily physical and psychological horrors: his empathy, his ability to remain silent, to listen, to keep spirits and faith up, his humour.

When Diane saysthe family didn’t know the man James Foley became, she is talking about this aspect of their son: the extraordinary depth of moral and physical courage which defined him.

“Well, he aspired to moral courage,” John says now.

“Where did that come from? We didn’t know. Jim, as he became older, spent quite a lot of time … pondering things. He took philosophy. He studied different religions. It was a gift for us. Who wants to see their kid crumble in public? For Jim to be the hero was a gift for us. I have always said we don’t know who we are until we are tested. I think God gave him that courage. It had to come from within him and above.”

When Jim was killed in such a brutal way, our government was as shocked as we were

—  Diane Foley

In some ways, the Foley family are still figuring their oldest boy out.

The first of five, he was a mixture of quiet and goofball. The family moved to Wolfeboro when he was six and if the lakeside town of 6,000 sounds like an animated postcard, that’s because it is. “America’s oldest summer resort” proclaims the sign on the way in, and even on this day, in the midst of a New England ice-storm, the vast Winnipesaukee lake is frozen and the shop fronts are immaculate through the afternoon gloom.

So, Jim Foley was one of the blessed ones: a privileged middle-class kid from a loving family in the carefree final decades of the last century. He loved it there too: the larks and drinks by the lake in the summer; the energy, his school friends. But he had no interest in perpetuating it. He had no interest in the conventions of a steady career or material gain. He burned with something else: a white fire that wasn’t immediately evident to the family. Rather than opt for college in New England, he headed to the Middle West and Marquette.

“I don’t think we noticed his gifts as a kid,” Diane says.

“He befriended all kinds of people. He was curious. And he saw the other side of how Americans lived. It changed him, I think.”

Certainly, it set him on a path. Foley was imbued with the frontier spirit, but there are no frontiers left in North America. After studying literature and religion, after teaching and volunteering, he found his way into journalism.

“He was always curious,” Diane says. “He wanted to know: what’s going on? What are people thinking? He wanted to hear their stories. I think he slid into it through creative writing. He was always looking for the truth. One of his favourite sayings was: everybody has a story.”

He moved into foreign correspondence after becoming embedded with Stars and Stripes, a military media organisation. The Foleys are a military family; three of the Foley children are in the military. Jim, though, was always a sort of pacifist. In an episode famous in family lore, he was disastrously late for his own brother’s wedding – at which he served as best man – after getting himself arrested at a protest at the Republican national convention in New York.

In the book, Diane chronicles his profound embarrassment after he was busted for possession of a small amount of marijuana while embedded in Kandahar. He was asked to resign from Stars and Stripes. He was 37 and mortified. He struck out for Libya during the Arab Spring, at a time when increased danger and shrinking media budgets meant fewer staff journalists were covering trouble spots, leaving openings for freelancers with nothing like the same support structures. Footage taken by Foley during that extraordinary time shows the danger and adrenaline that were plain to see.

“They had no money,” Diane says.

“They stayed in the scummiest places. They took whatever driver was available. There was very little security and digital security was limited. The bad guys knew more than journalists, if you will.”

Our government can be kind of arrogant. And I don’t think they knew what to do. We had nothing set up

—  Diane Foley on US government reaction after James was killed

It was only after the kidnapping in Syria that the Foley family began to understand the full implications of the US government’s policy of never negotiating with terrorists. They were taken aback by the lack of preparedness of the official agencies. When a member of the FBI visited the house, the first advice they were given was to contact President Assad of Syria to see if he would intervene.

It took three weeks before they sent someone to the region to investigate – and because the person had no Arabic, communications were impossible. As the weeks turned into months, Diane made regular pilgrimages to Capitol Hill, trying to persuade people to open doors, to listen. She quit her job.

“Jim was unknown,” she says now. “That is what was so hard. He was considered collateral damage. I think it is important to point out that that was our consistent policy. Not to negotiate with terrorists. And [Barack] Obama was trying to get the G10 to agree with that. He got the Brits to agree to that. And naturally, the Brits and Americans died. When Jim was killed in such a brutal way, our government was as shocked as we were. Our government can be kind of arrogant. And I don’t think they knew what to do. We had nothing set up.”

When the execution was confirmed, Obama made a statement live on television. He sounded terse and uncomfortable and his first phone call to the family, a few days later, was equally so. Diane Foley had two meetings with Obama. In the book, she describes how he was drinking tea when they met, the November after Jim’s death, at the White House.

She wasn’t offered anything. It felt like a small but significant oversight. The meeting was as brief and sombre as the afternoon itself. Obama told her that Jim had been his “highest priority”. She begged his pardon and said that that might have been true in his mind, but not his heart.

“He is a brilliant man,” she says now. “But he is not a compassionate man.”

“Jim was out there with all our allies. We could have chosen, as an international group, to figure out a way to get him out. But in all fairness to president Obama, he is just a person. He did what he thought was right. And he ended up making amends. It wasn’t just Jim. Six Americans were killed or abandoned on his watch. He did order a hostage review. And that gave us the structure to start our US Hostage Enterprise.”

In the decade since Jim Foley’s death, his mother never really stopped. She lobbied and set up groups in her son’s name and did everything in her power to push for a better outcome for other hostages. Along the way, Colum McCann came into her orbit. Like millions of people, McCann was horrified by the final image of Foley. He knew of the American’s work and of his kidnapping and was transfixed on the August evening when he saw the image of his killing.

Then someone sent him another photo, of Foley sitting in a bunker absorbed in Let The Great World Spin, McCann’s beloved novel which took the 2009 National Book Award.

“It was devastating and powerful and all those things,” McCann explains from his home in New York of how he felt in that moment.

“And I wrote to Diane. I was still pondering it. I said if ever you would like someone to write about your son, I would be happy to talk to you. And I didn’t hear from her. I heard then she had a contract to write her own memoir.”

As it turned out, he didn’t hear from her because in the deluge of emails and communiques in the blurry months after James Foley’s death, McCann’s message simply never reached her. It wasn’t until years later, through a conference at Marquette, and Tom Durkin, a former lecturer and friend of Foley’s, that they finally made contact. The planned memoir for Diane had never materialised. And although close to a decade had passed, McCann had never stopped thinking about James Foley. For a long time, that photograph was pinned to his office door.

“The other thing I heard was when he was in captivity, he would talk about the plot of Let The Great World Spin. And I am sure it was one of hundreds of books: I am not saying it was the special book for him or anything like that. And then this horrific unimaginable act happened. To me, it gave me a connection to him that was… it felt as though he was an old comrade from the [Irish] Press, in a way. Because I identified very deeply as a journalist. My Dad was in the Press. And I started out there and still consider myself a novelist and journalist.”

[Kotey] saw Jim as the epitome of white American privilege. He objectified him. That is what we do in war. And we Americans are no saints. Look at what we did after 9/11

—  Diane Foley

Within weeks of their first conversation, McCann got in his car and drove to Wolfeboro, to the Foleys’ home.

“Jim was all around the house,” he says now.

“Diane said to me that I reminded her of Jim. And I found that very flattering. Because I did feel and do feel an ongoing kinship with Jim.”

His intention was to lend a hand if Diane wanted to put the Foley story into words. But the book became a collaboration. Diane will say that McCann moved hell and high water to make sure the book found a publisher when many were wary of tying themselves to a tragedy from a decade ago.

When it became clear that Alexanda Kotey would meet with Diane, the matter of a companion arose. None of the other family members wished to be in the same room as him. McCann offered to go. In the memoir, he is the “friend” who is in the room with Diane. It was, he says now, an experience that will stay with him for all his days.

“Certain people felt there was a recklessness to Jim, and he shouldn’t have been going into those places. But I felt he was propelled by something beyond himself. He was embarking on an adventure that he knew would change him. And he was a very good listener. He was someone who wanted to go, to talk, to understand.

“Diane said at one stage to Kotey: you might have been friends with Jim. And I could see that. That was one of the odd things. Going into that room and sitting down with that man: one of the confusing things was that we liked him. He wasn’t the thug he had been made out to be.”

Long beyond the completion of the book, McCann has found himself thinking regularly about Jim Foley, and about what his mother has achieved on his behalf. “Diane has made his voice come alive again. She has changed the entire landscape of the political hostage-taking environment. In Russia, Gaza now. Who changed that? Diane Foley.”

One of the most moving details in the book concerns the night of what would have been Jim Foley’s 40th birthday. It was October time. His parents marked the occasion with an early dinner. When they returned to their home, they found, laid out by neighbours, 40 fairy candles lit upon the lawn.

[Kotey] didn’t apologise for what he had done. But he was sorry for what we had been through

—  Diane Foley

In the decade since then, Diane Foley has pressured and worked with the Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations to respond differently to hostage situations. More than 100 Americans have been returned since Jim Foley was murdered. Trump appointed Robert O’Brien as the US special envoy, the first appointment of that kind. “Diane Foley has turned tragedy into purpose and relentless advocacy,” President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in 2022. “That has made a real difference.”

It has made the ultimate difference: it has saved lives, and will save more. Of course, that shining fact doesn’t stop John and Diane and their children, scattered now, from feeling the weight of it all. It’s almost senseless, the distinct circumstances and ideologies that brought Jim Foley from this gorgeous corner of New England and Kotey from the struggles of immigrant Britain to their intense and life-defining encounter in Syria. Kotey was sentenced to life imprisonment after his trial in Virginia, with the possibility of a transfer to a British prison after 15 years.

“I felt sad for Alexanda,” Diane Foley says.

“He has lost everything too. Everything! He is in his early 30s, the same age as our youngest son. He has lost his freedom, family and his reputation. Alexanda lost his dad when he was young. His mum struggled to support the family. What is ironic is that Jim worked with people like that. He [Alexanda] is a very devout Muslim. And I think he was trying to justify himself. It was in war! I was a soldier. And I reminded him: but your prisoners were non-combatants. None of them had guns. And in that second encounter, he was very remorseful. He didn’t apologise for what he had done. But he was sorry for what we had been through. He saw Jim as the epitome of white American privilege. He objectified him. That is what we do in war. And we Americans are no saints. Look at what we did after 9/11. Look at Abu Ghraib. And that was the stuff he had programmed into him. ‘And we are going to restore the Caliphate’. He bought into the propaganda.”

The afternoon turns towards evening. They are a naturally hospitable family, and the Foleys try to offer tea, coffee, soup: stay and eat. At one stage, John says something that serves as a sort of epitaph for this extraordinary story. “We knew Jimmy would have wanted to speak with Alexanda. If God gave him the opportunity to come back, he would want to see his mother, he would want to see the family – and Alexanda Kotey.”

So, Diane Foley had that conversation. She had it on her son’s behalf.

American Mother by Colum McCann with Diane Foley is published by Bloomsbury on Feb 22nd. Colum McCann and Diane Foley will be in conversation with David McWilliams at a special Dalkey Book Festival event on Tuesday Feb 20th at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire. www.PavilionTheatre.ie

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times