Late last night, the militant jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) released a video purporting to show the beheading of James Foley, a US journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012. In the video he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and was forced to read a statement blaming the US for his death, before he was executed. The group threatened the death of a further journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, who they claim is in their hands.
YouTube took the video down late last night, and it is still being verified. I should mention that I could not bring myself to watch it, although I knew I would write about it, because I knew whatever I saw I would never, ever be able to unsee. Which is relevant, because while media outlets often protect their readers from the most gruesome, unforgettable images of war, if you’re a war reporter you confront them every day, in the hope of translating this horror to your readers and giving those caught up in conflict a voice. I could never do the same job as Foley or Sotloff, and my gratitude and respect for them is unending.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 69 reporters have been killed in Syria and 80 kidnapped. Twenty are still in captivity, many of whom are believed to be held by IS. Foley entered Syria knowing the risks: he had been kidnapped once in Libya in 2011. “Captivity is the state most violently opposed to his nature,” his friend, fellow captive and reporter Clare Morgana Gillis wrote. She described his generosity, he had been fundraising for a friend, Anton Hammerl, killed in Libya before his own capture, “If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month,” she wrote. In an interview on his release, Foley had spoken of his trauma at Hammerl’s death and sense of responsibility for Hammerl’s children, but he also reconfirmed his passion for journalism. “I’m trying to expose untold stories,” he told the BBC, “but I’m also drawn to the human rights side.”
Another piece of sad news is that this may not be the only time IS uses this brutal propaganda technique. They know executions will rightly provoke outrage (though ISIS is unlikely to find it effective as a bargaining tool), and the principles that motivate journalists like Foley are the complete antithesis to ISIS’s ideology: their narrow, unforgiving, inhumane interpretation of Islam, the ease with which they sacrifice human life to their political ends, their black-and-white view that divides the world into believers and infidels, righteous and evil. Honest, brave, humanitarian reporting is the enemy of dictators, hypocrites and religious zealots, which is why even if you had never met or heard of James Foley you should view this as a tragedy.
On Twitter last night, people began trying, in their own small way, to re-write ISIS’s narrative. Rather than share pictures of Foley in his jumpsuit, remember him as he would want to be remembered, doing a job he approached with passion, dedication and fearlessness. You can view some photos of him working here. His mother, Diane, released this statement: “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” The website dedicated to his release, Findjamesfoley.org appeared to crash several times this morning due to the weight of traffic.
The internet has changed the way in which people publicly share and express their grief. At a time when too many journalists are dying in conflict (30 have died already this year), a modern expression of solidarity might be to declare that “we are all James Foley”, but we are not. The fearlessness and commitment Foley demonstrated are rare qualities, but these qualities remain a source of hope for those caught in conflicts around the world.