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Shaking hands with Islamic State

When James Foley was murdered in Syria in 2014, his mother’s search for redemption began.

By Anthony Loyd

Diane Foley was repulsed by the thought of shaking the hand of the shackled prisoner seated in the courthouse room. As she prepared to meet Alexanda Kotey for the first time, the prospect of touching the terrorist who had beaten and helped murder her son played heavily on her mind. There was no doubting his guilt. Kotey was a British-born Islamic State fighter and a leading member of the three-man gang dubbed “the Beatles” (he was “Jihadi George”) by the foreign hostages they delighted in torturing in Syria. He had already pleaded guilty in a US court to all eight of the counts against him: charges including kidnap, torture and conspiracy to murder four American hostages.

Diane’s son James Foley was the first Western captive the gang had killed. The August 2014 image of her eldest-born, shaven headed, hands bound and wearing an orange Guantánamo-style jumpsuit, kneeling in the desert with a knife held to his throat moments before he was beheaded, became emblematic across the world as testament of Islamic State’s cruelty and intent.

Seven years after James Foley’s brutal killing, the meeting between his mother and the Isis terrorist, the first of three occasions she met Kotey, is the opening scene of American Mother, Diane Foley’s profoundly moving account of the kidnap and killing of her son, its prelude and aftermath. Charting her efforts to save him, and then to cope with his horrific public murder, her story encompasses too her role as an activist successfully pushing for a reform of the grievously flawed American hostage policy, which, through a combination of ignorance, hypocrisy and ineptitude, had as good as guaranteed the deaths of every US hostage held by Islamic State in Syria.

Starting and ending with her meetings with Kotey, American Mother is as much about a search for forgiveness – and its limits – as a description of horror, love and spiritual endurance.

Kotey had been extradited to the US in 2020 from Syria, along with fellow Beatles member El Shafee Elsheikh. The pair had been captured two years earlier by Kurdish fighters allied to the US. Elsheikh pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and was later tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kotey pleaded guilty, and part of his plea agreement allowed for family members of the hostages to meet him if they chose to.

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In late 2021, held in a Virginia prison, the 38-year-old was awaiting sentence when Diane Foley asked to see him. She wanted to face the terrorist, both to confront and communicate. Deep down, she hoped to find Kotey contrite. Even so, as she readied herself to talk to him, the issue of whether or not to shake Kotey’s hand gnawed her mind. I knew how she felt. Three years earlier, as I prepared to interview Kotey in prison in Syria, I had felt the same way. Yet when she finally entered the room and saw Kotey seated and waiting, Diane Foley was relieved to notice that the width of the table that separated them was such that the question of a handshake never arose. Even so, the unshaken hand lingered in her thoughts. It was as if, in the absence of touch, no true communication could really occur.

Do not be put off by the book’s schmaltzy title, nor the style of the opening chapter in which the co-author, Colum McCann, uses the third person to describe Diane Foley’s first meeting with Kotey. McCann, an accomplished novelist whose skills are used elsewhere in the book with devastating effect, is jarring to begin with, and the staccato sentences of the first pages deny the reader enough rhythm and pace to engage with the depth of the moment. Fortunately this stylistic discomfort is only fleeting, as McCann quickly changes role, using his talents to assist Diane Foley in the telling of her own eviscerating first-person account.

Foley is a woman of remarkable courage and emotional intellect who describes her profound religious belief with humility. Her nightmare began in November 2012 when her son, working in Syria alongside the British photojournalist John Cantlie, failed to call home on Thanksgiving.

James Foley – Jim – was also a remarkable, and effortlessly charming, individual. I first met him in Afghanistan in 2010, and in Libya the following year. The last time I saw him was in southern Turkey in 2012, a couple of weeks before he was abducted. Jim had just come out of Syria, and I was getting ready to cross in. “Hey, brother,” he greeted me, smiling as if the moment of our meeting was the best of his day. The next time I saw him was on the video in August 2014, bound and kneeling, about to be beheaded.  

In the months that followed Jim’s disappearance in 2012, the Foley family’s desperation had been exacerbated by the void of information surrounding his fate. They did not even know the identity of his captors. Help from US officials was scarce. The first FBI agent assigned to the case spoke no Arabic, and had neither knowledge of Syria, nor Turkey, nor any of the Islamic groups involved in the Syrian civil war.

Diane Foley describes, in a catalogue of suffering, how insult followed injustice when James’s captors finally made contact with her family directly, demanding money in return for the hostage’s liberty. Yet when the Foleys reached out for help from the authorities, US officials declined to negotiate with Isis, and threatened the family with prosecution if they attempted to raise a ransom for James’s life. In the meantime, every single European hostage held by the same Isis gang in Syria was released after their countries paid ransoms.

Distraught at her inability to secure her son’s release and enraged by the lack of help from US authorities, in 2014 Diane Foley entered deep prayer and entrusted James’s fate to God. Yet she was cut no celestial deal either. A week later, a phone call came from a journalist to the family’s home in Rochester, New Hampshire. The reporter asked Foley if she had seen the pictures posted on Twitter. She had not.

McCann’s writing here is excoriating in its detail. As Foley listened to the journalist on the phone she noticed a drip form on the kitchen tap. It fell. Minutes later she was sent an online link to look at, and opened it: “Time didn’t just freeze: time disappeared entirely from time. There was my son – or someone who looked like my son – with his bloodied head upon his back.”

It is difficult not to weep among these pages. The task defeated me early. As much as anything it was Diane Foley’s goodness in this cold and brutal world that overwhelmed me with sorrow. That, and the way she and McCann described the primal parental horror – the agony of being unable to prevent protracted torturous cruelty against your child, of being unable to secure their freedom, of being unable to save their life, and then having the savagery of their final moments broadcast around the world. Indeed, I cannot recall ever crying so much while reading a book. 

The injustices did not stop there. Press vehicles parked up outside the family home, and swarms of reporters arrived. President Obama confirmed James Foley’s murder to the nation that evening, but not a single official called the Foleys. When Diane Foley met with Obama three months later, she found the president cold and aloof, drinking tea at the end of a long table. She was not even offered a glass of water. 

It is here that we learn what it means to be an “American mother” in Foley’s eyes: a woman who has seen a government abandon its people; a woman lied to and patronised, whose faith was savaged; a woman who had seen her eldest son murdered, and captive “journalists treated like mere specks of dust”, even as the US government negotiated with the Taliban for the release of a captured soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in return for the freeing of five top-ranking Taliban commanders held in Guantánamo Bay.

Yet Foley fought back. There is redemption, of a kind, in her story, as she turned her grief and anger into action, challenging the Obama administration to reform US hostage policy, which had so shamefully failed to save the lives of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, all of whom were murdered by Islamic State, along with the British hostages Alan Henning and David Haines. John Cantlie remains missing, presumed dead.

In the wake of James’s murder, Diane Foley and her family founded the James W Foley Legacy Foundation to advocate for US citizens held hostage abroad, and she became central to the chorus of voices in the US demanding a change in the way the country dealt with hostage cases. Responding to this pressure, President Obama finally ordered a full review of hostage policy. A Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell was formed to coordinate efforts between US agencies working to free hostages, and a special envoy for hostage affairs appointed. Never again would the families of US hostages be sidelined and intimidated as the Foleys had been. Subsequent administrations have added further weight to the reforms, and by 2023, 27 US nationals held as hostages had been freed under President Biden’s auspices. In contrast to Foley’s case, Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter currently held as a political hostage in Russia, is at the forefront of the Biden administration’s consciousness. No one is telling the Gershkovich family that nothing can be done. 

Yet redemption found its limit with Foley’s final meeting with Alexanda Kotey. In 2022, responding to two letters she received from him in jail, which suggested contrition, she agreed to meet with the terrorist one more time. She found Kotey arrogant and knowing, offering partial apology then reining it back with moral equivocation. There was no final revelation. Without remorse, forgiveness seemed impossible. 

Kotey, by then sentenced to life, disappeared into solitary confinement in the ADX Florence supermax prison in Colorado shortly afterwards, deprived of further visits or human contact.

Nevertheless, in her final moment of seeing Kotey, Diane Foley suddenly reached out and shook his hand, moved by an awareness that the man before him was a parent too, father to four daughters who he may never again see. In this way, Foley’s gesture ensured that the last time that the terrorist would ever likely be touched by the hand of a woman, he was touched by the mother of a man he helped to murder.

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

American Mother
Colum McCann and Diane Foley
Bloomsbury, 240pp, £20

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[See also: Journal of an American plague year]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown

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