James Foley: My memories of a brave, selfless journalist

Kim Sengupta on a man who was willing to take huge risks in pursuit of his work

Two summers ago, Jim Foley was working hard trying to secure the release of two colleagues who had been kidnapped by jihadists in Syria.

John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans, freelance photojournalists, were eventually rescued by another rebel group; but these were the early signs of what was to come as the revolution against Bashar al-Assad began to be taken over by increasingly vicious extremists.

Nicole Tung was equally busy alongside Jim in the Turkish border town of Antakya, trying to get John and Jeroen out. I met both of them again in Aleppo a week later, with the regime and the revolutionaries locked in a ferocious struggle for the control of Syria’s largest city.

Both were hugely talented photographers, taking breathtaking shots. Jim, however, wanted to linger in the most dangerous areas. One day, two activists - Bari and Yassir - and I had to go quite deep behind regime lines to get the pair out after they had been stranded amid shellfire without any transport.

I remember discussing with Nicole at the time that, in a way, this summed up Jim; selfless in helping others, but taking huge risks in pursuit of his work.

 

But Jim’s lonely and terrible death 21 months after being taken hostage cannot be blamed on recklessness. He is the victim of a murderous movement, which had deliberately targeted journalists and the few foreign aid workers who had been venturing into the country.

It is not surprising that the man who beheaded him appears to speak with an English accent; the British Muslims who had joined Isis and other Salafist groups had built up a reputation for being not particularly brave, but the nastiest and the most bloodthirsty among the foreign volunteers.

The threat by Isis that they would kill another American journalist they hold, Steven Sotloff, if the US does not stop its air strikes in Iraq, has to be taken, unfortunately, at face value. There is also the danger that if the involvement of Britain and other western European powers in the mission rises to more than the current limited one, their nationals too would be in grave danger from the Islamist terrorists.

There had been conflicting and contradictory accounts of Jim’s abduction after he disappeared in November 2012 along with another photojournalist. The pair had been in northern Idlib, they were last seen near the village of Taftanaz, where a regime airbase was under siege from the rebels.

One report was that they had been picked up by a criminal gang and sold to two sides in the conflict: Jim to the regime because he was an American, his companion to the jihadists.

I was in Gaza at the time for the last Israeli offensive and heard what happened through a phone call from a mutual friend. The consensus among us journalists was that the regime would want to use Jim as a bargaining chip, and that they would also think twice about executing a US citizen. Austin Tice, another American freelance, had been captured near Damascus three months previously; he was, as far as we knew, still alive.

James Foley in Syria, 2012 James Foley in Syria, 2012
GlobalPost, his employers, said it had spent “many, many hundreds of thousands of dollars” just in the first six months after Jim went missing. The conclusion of an extensive investigation it “believed the Syrian government is holding Foley in a detention centre near Damascus”.

This is not a criticism of GlobalPost. Northern Syria had turned into an anarchic state with rebel groups fighting each other, temporary local truces being forged at times with regime forces. Indeed, a senior American official said “it was 80 per cent certain that Assad’s men have got Foley”.

Friends and colleagues sought reassurance in the fact that Jim was seasoned in covering conflicts and indeed had endured captivity in the past. It was true that he had spent plenty of time in places like Iraq and Afghanistan charting strife, however the experience of being a hostage differs.

Jim went missing in Libya during the revolution against Muammar Gaddafi; many of us there feared the worst, since a South African journalist in the same group had been shot and killed. Jim and some others had been captured. Over dinner after a group of us had come out of Syria he described how, after initial rough treatment, the captives were well treated once they got to Tripoli, with senior members of the regime taking an interest in their welfare.

Being taken by al-Qa’ida in Syria would be a different proposition, it was pointed out by one of the diners. Jim was quick to acknowledge that that would the case: that was three months before he was abducted.

By early last year, the number of journalists being abducted in Syria had grown to alarming numbers; at one point around 30 were being held by the regime and rebels. The jihadist groups now in ascendancy, Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, did not view Western journalists as people exposing the abuses of Assad’s forces, as the revolutionaries had done in the past, but enemies of the caliphate.

But it has not been a case of all hope being lost. Some were freed in March, among them the Spaniards Javier Espinosa of El Mundo and freelance photographer Ricardo Vilanova, and four French journalists, Nicolas Henin, Pierre Torres, Edouard Elias and Didier Francois, albeit after enduring months of privation.

But at the end, Isis, with its victorious advance in Iraq stymied by American intervention, decided to take barbaric revenge on a helpless captive. The last words Jim Foley spoke in the video of his execution were under duress, but his real voice will always be there in the powerful and moving journalism shedding light into some of the darkest corners of the world.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?