How a grieving mother tried to ‘build a bridge’ with the militant convicted in her son’s murder

Feb 7, 2024, 9:06 PM

Diane Foley, whose son was beheaded by Islamic militants in Syria 10 years ago, poses for a portrai...

Diane Foley, whose son was beheaded by Islamic militants in Syria 10 years ago, poses for a portrait in Washington, Jan. 31, 2024. Foley has written a book, American Mother, in which she describes efforts to connect with one of the men who was convicted in the murder of her son after he was brought to the U.S. for trial. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — After hours of talking about faith and family, redemption and war, the grieving American mother had an additional question for the Islamic militant convicted in her son’s murder.

Do you know, Diane Foley asked, where my son is buried?

The exchange is described in a new book by Foley that recounts face-to-face encounters she had with the British-born Islamic State fighter who was charged in connection with the brutal beheading in Syria of her son James, a freelance journalist.

Sitting in a windowless courthouse conference room with the man who contributed to her son’s death, Foley said in an interview, was meant as a “tiny step” toward reparation — “for him to begin to kind of understand where we were coming from and for me to try to hear him.”

The conversations afforded Foley an opportunity to memorialize a son everyone knew as Jim — curious, full of energy, possessed of strong moral bearing. Across the table, Alexanda Kotey, his ankles shackled, conveyed compassion for the Foley family’s suffering but also made clear his resentment over U.S. actions in the Middle East and remained resolute that he’d been acting as a soldier during a time of war.

He couldn’t say where Jim’s body was buried — he wished he knew, he said, but he didn’t — but for Foley, the conversations were nonetheless profoundly worthwhile.

“I just kind of wanted to somehow build a bridge, that’s all,” Foley said. “The pain and hatred continues unless you take the time to try to listen to one another.”

It’s highly unusual for a victim’s relative to have meaningful interactions with someone convicted of harming their loved one. But this case has never been ordinary — and was also never even a sure thing.

Jim Foley was among a group of mostly Western journalists and aid workers held hostage and ultimately killed by a group of British-born Islamic State militants in Syria during a reign of terror that also involved waterboarding and mock executions. The captors came to be known by the incongruously lighthearted nickname of “the Beatles” because of their accents.

It wasn’t until nearly four years after Foley’s 2014 murder at the age of 40 that Kotey and a future co-defendant, El Shafee Elsheikh, were captured by a Kurdish-led, U.S. backed militia. An American drone strike killed the militant actually responsible for Foley’s killing, Mohammed Emwazi, known by the moniker “Jihadi John.”

After legal wrangling, the pair was brought to the U.S. for prosecution in 2020 after the Justice Department agreed to forgo the death penalty as a possible punishment.

The book traces that saga but also delves into Diane Foley’s dismay over what she portrays as a coldly bureaucratic U.S. government response to her son’s disappearance, two years before his death.

The captors reached out with a multimillion-dollar ransom demand, but the Obama administration warned her she could face prosecution if she paid one. Officials struggled to communicate meaningful, up-to-date information.

The first indication something terrible may have happened to her son, Foley says, was a call not from the government but from a reporter — though in retrospect a possible clue came earlier that morning when two FBI agents arrived at her New Hampshire house to request Jim’s DNA.

President Barack Obama announced her son’s death and later called the family, insisting the administration had done everything possible to save Jim and even revealing to them an unsuccessful military operation to rescue the hostages. But the Foleys were unconvinced and during a subsequent White House visit, Foley says she bristled at Obama’s assurance that Jim was his highest priority, telling him the hostage families had felt abandoned.

Foley channeled that grief into action, pressing the government to do better. The administration in 2015 overhauled its approach to dealing with hostage cases, with Obama saying he’d heard “unacceptable” feedback from families about the government’s interactions with them. An FBI-led hostage recovery team was was created, along with a new State Department special envoy position.

But the heart of “American Mother,” written with Irish author Colum McCann, is about Foley’s interactions with Kotey — conversations mandated under Kotey’s 2021 plea agreement. ( El Sheikh was convicted at trial ).

Inside a conference room at a federal courthouse in Virginia, Foley asked Kotey to describe what he thought of Jim — a “typical white American” was the response, plus naive and optimistic. He was a truth-seeker, she told him, a teacher, a journalist. In another world, she said, you and Jim could have been friends.

Kotey shared details of his own life, too, pulling out photos of his daughters in bright blue and pink dresses that were taken in a Syrian refugee camp. Foley felt instantly moved by the girls’ beauty.

He acknowledged his role in Jim’s captivity but in a limited way; yes, he had punched him and written the message Jim delivered on camera before his murder. But he said he wasn’t present for the killing itself. The indictment doesn’t spell out specific roles for the defendants in the deaths of the Western hostages. What he had done, Kotey said, was what he’d been directed to do as a soldier in war.

At one point, he opened a tissue package, wiping his eyes as he described being moved by an HBO documentary he’d seen about Jim’s life, especially at the sight of his weeping father. He said he was sorry for causing the family pain.

But, he said, he wanted Foley to understand how he came by his resentment.

He told a story of once pulling the remains of a baby from the rubble of an American drone strike, lamenting how no one had been interested in making a documentary about that child as was done for Jim since she was not white or American.

The first two conversations occurred over two days in October 2021, weeks after Kotey’s guilty plea. She returned the following spring, weeks before he was to start his life sentence, after receiving two handwritten letters from him.

He wrote about his “compassion and sympathy for your collective anguish and grief as a family” but also his ambivalence upon learning that Jim’s brother was a U.S. military pilot — something he said he’d been reluctant to bring up in their earlier meetings.

He said he had “struggled to detangle” the “sins of the U.S. government” from “our own misguided and unjust responses towards these grievances” but that he now saw things with “greater clarity.”

In their final meeting, they returned again to the question of regret. He said he wished he had not done certain things he’d been ordered to do, and teared up as he recalled the look on Jim’s face during one particular beating.

He told her his wife and children had left the refugee camp and were now in Turkey and that he hoped he’d be able eventually to serve out his sentence in England. Foley extended her hand and he shook it. She said she would pray for him and wished him peace.

By the end of their time together, Diane Foley said in the interview, the sadness in the room was palpable. Everyone, she says, had lost.

She had lost her son; Kotey, even younger than Jim, “lost his freedom, his family, his country — all of it too.”

“To me,” she said, “that was incredibly poignant, and yet by listening to one another, I think there was a bit more understanding somehow.”

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How a grieving mother tried to ‘build a bridge’ with the militant convicted in her son’s murder