Family, friends of James Foley say war zones called to the journalist

Family, friends of James Foley say war zones called to the journalist
American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by his captors, is shown in Syria in 2012. (Manu Brabo)

Shortly after James Foley was released from 44 days of captivity in Libya, the American journalist returned to Boston to work at GlobalPost, the start-up website that had published much of his work from the Middle East.

But it soon became clear that despite his Libyan ordeal, Foley wanted nothing more than to get back into the field.


"You could just tell that this was a guy who — sitting at a desk was not who he was," said Katrine Dermody, 27, a friend of Foley who worked at GlobalPost at the time. "We used to joke, 'Jim, you look like a caged animal.' He just yearned to be out" in the field.

Foley disappeared in Syria in November 2012. A video released Tuesday by the militant group Islamic State showed him being killed in the desert after reciting a statement about the military actions of the U.S. government.

U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Wednesday that the video was authentic, though it was not immediately clear where or when it was recorded. His death capped more than 600 days of pleas from his family, friends and employer to find the 40-year-old from New Hampshire and return him to safety.

At a news conference on the lawn outside the family home here in the quiet town of Rochester, John and Diane Foley said they did not watch the video and had learned about their son's death along with the rest of America. Diane Foley said that at one point during her son's captivity, the family began thinking of him as Jesus.

"We know Jimmy's free. He's finally free," John Foley said Wednesday. "We know he's in God's hands," he added, breaking down in tears. "We know he's in heaven."

During the nearly two years of Foley's captivity after he disappeared in Syria, the family led an intensive effort to win his release. At the time of his death, they believed they were close to achieving that goal, Diane Foley said, and were hopeful after a recent trip to France and Denmark, where they tried to arrange his release.

John Foley added that the family was at the point of considering "fundraising/ransom" and was making a video to publicize their son's work and plight.

Foley, who was known as Jim, was the oldest of five siblings in a devout Roman Catholic family. His family described him as a "very daring but fun-loving kid." He graduated from Marquette University and went on to work as an educator through Teach for America in Phoenix. But he was drawn to the world of reporting, and eventually returned to school to get a graduate degree in journalism from Medill-Northwestern University.

From there, he set out for conflict zones in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, filing vivid dispatches and videos that highlighted the struggles of people in war. When he was held captive in Libya in 2011 with two other journalists, he always found ways to distract his fellow captives with questions about their favorite books and movies, which famous person they'd most like to meet, how they could become better people when they got out of Libya, fellow captive Clare Morgana Gillis later wrote.

When Foley told his family that he was leaving again, this time ending up in Syria, some of his siblings were angry, his mother said. But the family compared his intense desire to return to that of a firefighter who keeps rushing back into a burning building.

During one conversation in the family's kitchen, Diane Foley said, she urged her son not to go back to Syria, noting that he could do many other things with his talents. "He said, 'Mom, I've found my passion. I've found my vocation.' He just felt compelled," she said.

She said he was drawn to conflict journalism in part because several of his brothers were in the military. "Jim wanted to be there," she said, noting that one of his first assignments was in Afghanistan, where one of his brothers was serving in the Air Force at the time. "He wanted to cover what was happening at the human level."

Foley's ability to connect with people in war zones and at home, which led him to journalism, also served him well as a teacher, said Edward Farinas, 30, who was a student of Foley in Arizona and saw him for a reunion at the school in 2010.

"Any problem you had, you could talk to him about," Farinas said in an interview. "He wasn't that much older than we were, so he understood where we were coming from."


Farinas talked about an afternoon when the school had irrigated its fields, creating a watery playground. Though it was off-limits, a bunch of boys sneaked in and started playing football. When they saw a teacher walking toward them, the boys figured they were in big trouble — until Foley smiled a huge grin and jumped into the water with them to play ball. Foley never breathed a word of the transgression to school officials, Farinas said.

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday to grieve for Foley at a service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in the New Hampshire community where he was raised.

"There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity," Father Paul Gousse told parishioners during his homily. "War begets war; the only answer is in prayer."

Gousse told the congregation that he had joined Foley's parents at their home Tuesday night and that Diane Foley told him, "Father, pray for me that I don't become bitter. I don't want to hate."

"That's a woman of deep faith," Gousse said.

He urged everyone in the congregation to follow her lead, noting that there was a danger for all Americans to "become bitter and hate."

Family friends and fellow parishioners said after the service that Foley's first release from captivity had given them hope that he would be freed this time.

"We have been praying for him for so many years," said Marianne Bruneau, a family friend who works at the school that Foley attended as a child. "They are a beautiful and faithful family."

Joanne Rivers, a Rochester nurse who worked for nearly two decades with Foley's father, said the community had rallied around the family when Foley went missing in 2011.

"When he was captured," Rivers said, "he became everyone's son."

Semuels reported from New York and Reston from Rochester.