Diane Foley extols the power of faith and storytelling in American Mother

A decade after her son James was murdered by ISIS in Syria, his mother looks back at her battles with the US government and conversations with the man who took him hostage

FILE - In this June 19, 2019, file photo, Diane Foley, mother of journalist James Foley, who was killed by the Islamic State terrorist group in a graphic video released online, speaks to the Associated Press during an interview in Washington. The indictment charging two Islamic State militants in the torture and deaths of American hostages, including Foley's son, in Syria is the culmination of a yearslong legal and diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and Britain. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
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American Mother begins with a scene that most parents would find unimaginable: a woman prepares to come face to face with the person involved in the murder of her child.

Horror is woven through the mundane as she chooses her outfit and jewellery while trying to decide how she will address one of the men responsible for her son's death – should she call him by his first name or use honourifics? How will she look him in the eye?

Before leaving, she kneels at her bedside, taking strength from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Diane Foley needed “a lot of prayer” at that time, she said at a recent event in Washington. “Time, God and a lot of prayer” was what helped her the most after her son James, a freelance journalist, was executed by ISIS in Syria in August 2014.

The new book, written by Irish novelist Colum McCann with Ms Foley, is a meditation on trauma and grief, memory and mercy, and the stories that make up a person's life.

In the book, the reader accompanies a parent on a journey through deepest grief as she forges a complex path of forgiveness, compassion, strength and a fight for change.

It is a story of an unmoored youth who eventually discovers a love of journalism and telling the stories not often told.

It is a story of a man's captivity, gleaned from fellow prisoners who were ultimately released.

But above all it is a story of a mother's desperate fight for answers and then justice after her beloved son's death.

“Scientists say that the world is held together with atoms and, of course, it is,” the book states. “But it is also held together with stories.”

Meeting the kidnapper

American Mother describes the hours-long sessions between Ms Foley and Alexanda Kotey – one of the “ISIS Beatles” convicted of involvement in the deaths of a number of people, including James Foley – in October 2021 and around the end of the trial in 2022 inside a Virginia courthouse.

“He is guilty, he admits, entirely guilty of the counts as they were presented to him – conspiracy to murder, hostage-taking resulting in death and providing material support to the Islamic State [ISIS],” the book says.

The footage of Foley’s beheading shocked the world and became the most horrifying example of ISIS's reign of terror in parts of the Middle East.

While Kotey, who is serving life in prison, says he was not present at Foley's execution, he admits to beating him twice over the course of his two years in captivity.

“He was not present at the execution. He had not pulled the knife across her son’s throat. He had not filmed the moment in the desert. He had not been there when her son’s severed head was placed upon his back. He was a soldier of Islam,” the book says of Kotey.

Though Kotey apologises to her, Ms Foley notes that he was “only sorry for what she went through, not sorry for what he has done”.

She adds, however, that “listening is the quiet soul of storytelling” and that she decided to meet Kotey to honour her son.

“Sometimes what we listen to is what we do not necessarily want to hear,” the book says. “But we have to hear it anyway.”

At the National Press Club event in Washington, which also featured the husband and two daughters of Alsu Kurmasheva, the Russian-American journalist detained last year, she told the audience: “I know Jim would have wanted me not to be afraid, and to hear his [Kotey's] side of the story. But, as a mum, I wanted him to hear who Jim was and to tell our side of the story.

“Alexanda, in a way, was a vulnerable kid who lost his dad as a child, grew up in poverty and was bullied. He was very susceptible to radicalisation. So, some of what he ended up doing kind of made sense.”

'Our government failed us totally'

During her son's detention and after his death, Ms Foley developed a deep mistrust of the US government.

“We spent months depending on our government to help us bring Jim home when they never planned to. That was their policy,” she said in Washington, writing in the book that “there was no single piece of absolute truth coming our way” after the kidnapping.

“I wanted people to know our government failed us totally. They really considered Jim and the other Americans collateral damage.

“I thought 'that's unacceptable'. It made me mad, to be honest. And it's OK to have some anger, I think, when things are unjust.”

In the book, she speaks about how the government was “afraid that the terrorists would claim it as a victory, and nothing stings more in the American psyche than a public loss”.

“I thought as a nation we could do better,” she said. That feeling gave her energy to try to find the answer to the question: “What can be done better?”

Since 2014, more than 100 US citizens captured abroad have returned home.

But back then, Ms Foley said, “the US had nothing” – no US hostage enterprise, nobody whose job was to help its citizens return home.

The Foley family were not even officially informed about the death – they found out through the media.

President Barack Obama – for whom their son had campaigned in 2008 – called them three days after his death was announced.

“I had allowed a portion of bitterness to creep in,” she says in the book. “His administration had always said that Jim was their highest priority, but I felt that if that were true then his captivity wouldn't have lasted two months, let alone two years.”

In the 10 years since her son's death, she has worked to help and support other families whose loved ones have been wrongfully detained.

Ms Foley's search for justice began immediately after her son's death. She decided to quit her job and visit Washington to raise awareness and ask for help.

The anger that can be felt throughout the book is levelled not only at those who killed her son but also at the US government.

Ms Foley describes how only one person was “full transparent” with the family about what was happening – “there would be no rescue mission to save the hostages, no foreign country would be asked to intervene” and that they “might face federal prosecution” if they “tried to raise a ransom to bring Jim home”.

Murdered journalist's mother grateful as US charges ISIS 'Beatles' – video

Murdered journalist's mother grateful as US charges ISIS 'Beatles'

Murdered journalist's mother grateful as US charges ISIS 'Beatles'

“The sad truth was that I don’t think our government had the will, or the desire, and that truth blocked Jim’s way home,” she says in the book.

“I later learnt that Jim was never the administration’s highest priority. Nor was any American hostage anywhere in the world, at any time, in any condition.”

But things are different now, she told the audience in Washington.

“Families are not going to be threatened [now],” she said.

“At least we have a family engaged with people who are compassionate, a team of incredibly caring people who will listen and be honest.”

She also created the non-profit James Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates freeing Americans held hostage abroad.

“Families need to make noise and show up,” she told the audience in Washington. “And that’s why we try to support in any way we can.”

Writing about her son’s story was “therapeutic”, Ms Foley said, and felt like a confession because “stories help us to remember”.

“And I hope it helps others to do their part.”

Updated: April 12, 2024, 6:00 PM