Use Your Voice

Sign up for our newsletter

James Foley


Country: Syria

Kidnapped: November 22, 2012

Status: Deceased


The kidnapping and execution of journalist James Foley by Terrorists in Syria is not the first of its kind.  Kidnappings are becoming increasingly institutionalized, and used as a primary source of funding for terrorist activities.  Yet this case is representative of the growing trend of terrorists groups and authoritarian regimes learning how to leverage new and traditional media platforms in an attempt to force the world to bow to their demands.  This case spotlights the fact that media outlets are magnetically drawn to crisis situations like this.  The sensationalized nature of such stories draw audience viewership and ratings.  Terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes now know this, and media manipulation it is being built into the way that they operate when it comes to institutionalized kidnappings.

Foley’s victimhood also highlights the new international reality of Americans coming under risks abroad.  Americans are traveling, living, and working abroad more than ever before—becoming increasingly susceptible to terrorist activity and ShowTrials. The media whirlwind around the Foley kidnapping and execution led the public to question whether the right steps had been taken, and whether this crisis could have been averted.  However, with little assistance from the US Government in the negotiations, the family of James Foley was left to navigate the complex matrix of media, ransom demands, and international negotiations on their own.


James Foley was an American journalist, photojournalist, and conflict zone reporter.  The oldest of five children, he was born in Rochester, New Hampshire.  After graduating with a degree in history from Marquette University in 1996 he joined Teach for America.  He taught in Arizona, Chicago, and Massachusetts until 2006 when he began working on development projects in Baghdad, Iraq funded by USAID.

In the mid-2000s Foley decided to change careers.  He received a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2008.  As a freelance journalist working for several news outlets, including the Global Post and Agence France-Presse, he covered conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  He also covered the uprising in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi.  Foley and three other journalists were detained by Gaddafi supporters in April of 2011 and held for forty-four days.

The following year, Foley returned to the Middle East to cover the Syrian Civil War.  On Thanksgiving day, November 22, 2012, Foley and his translator were heading towards the Turkish border when their vehicle was stopped by four men near the small town of Taftanaz in northwestern Syria.  Foley, along with his translator, were abducted again.  Foley’s translator was released a few days later, but neither Foley nor his captors were heard from for a year.

Case Report

Many demanded Foley’s release including Reporters without Borders and the International Center for Journalists.  In a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Agence France-Presse requested help in locating Foley.  The Foley family utilized social media to seek information, mainly from Syrians, about James’ whereabouts. 

“Kidnapping has become the main source of revenue for terrorist groups.  Al Qaeda and its affiliates have earned at least $125 million USD in ransom payments over the past five years.”

It was not until a year after his capture that Foley’s family first heard from James’ captors and was able to confirm James was alive.  Foley’s captors demanded US $132 million from the Foley family, his employer Global Post, and the U.S. government.  However, paying ransom to a terrorist organization is a criminal offense in the U.S. and strictly forbidden.  Kidnapping has become the main source of revenue for terrorist groups.  Al Qaeda and its affiliates have earned at least US $125 million in ransom payments over the past five years.  Despite the threat of prosecution, Foley’s family was attempting to raise funds to pay a ransom and gain the release of their oldest son.

As soon as they heard Foley had been taken, Global Post hired a private international security firm to investigate the abduction.  They revealed that in September of 2013 they had found Foley’s location and had tracked his movements throughout his captivity.  They reported Foley was held in a Syrian Air Force Intelligence complex in Damascus under the control of the Syrian air force intelligence service.  Many believe pro-government militia, referred to as Shabiha, captured Foley and then turned him over to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS.  It is widely believed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aided the formation of ISIL in Syria in an attempt to force the U.S. to choose between the regime and ISIL as the two overpowered the U.S.-backed rebel fighters.

Another theory was that Dawood Brigade, a group originally affiliated with moderate opposition groups like the Free Syrian Arm, held Foley, but they recently defected and joined ISIL.  Foley may have been used as a token of allegiance to ISIL.

The U.S. military attempted a rescue mission of Foley and other hostages on July 4, 2014.  U.S. intelligence agencies believed they knew the location where Foley and the others were being held.  But Foley’s captors were tipped off when Americans were seen asking about the hostages in the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border.  Foley and the other hostages were moved by the time the mission took place.

That same summer, ISIL began to make substantial gains in Iraq.  In response, the U.S. began to deploy its military to Iraq in June of 2014.  The U.S. began aerial attacks in August.  They were directed at ISIL in northern Iraq.

“Foley was held under the control of the Syrian air force intelligence service.”

A couple weeks later, on August 12, Foley’s parents received another email from his captors.  The tone of this email was much more grim than previous correspondences.  Foley’s captors expressed their anger over the U.S. government’s actions.  They wrote, the U.S. refused to pay a ransom, refused to negotiate prisoner exchanges, and they “had no motivation to deal with the Muslims except through force”.  Foley’s captors stated they had left the U.S. alone since its “disgraceful defeat in Iraq,” but they would avenge the U.S. bombings.

On August 19, 2014 ISIL uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “A Message to America”.  The video showed the execution and decapitation of a prisoner believed to be Foley.  Though quickly deleted, the video continued to circulate online.  Although gruesome and disturbing, the video did not show the actual beheading, a departure from previous propaganda. The video was edited making it more useful as propaganda piece, and, as a result, was more widely distributed than previous unedited videos.

The same day the video was released, Foley’s family confirmed his death.  The following day, the United States National Security Council confirmed the video was authentic. 


There has been love and outrage both domestically and abroad.  Pope Francis called the Foley family to express his condolences, and the U.S. Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation into the death of Foley with cooperation of other nations.  Indian artist Suarsan Puttnaik built a sand sculpture of Foley’s face using four tons of sand.  Puttnaik included the message “Don’t kill innocents!” in the sculpture.  In honor of Foley, the James Foley Scholarship was established at his alma mater, Marquette University and his family established The James W. Foley Legacy Fund. 

James Foley was the first American citizen to be executed in the name of ISIL and the second western reporter to be killed by Islamic extremists since 2002.