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

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 21 August 2014 10:45

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.

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.

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