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Covering War to End War: New Film Recounts Life & Legacy of James Foley, Journalist Killed by ISIS

StoryJanuary 28, 2016
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As we broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival, we feature a new film about James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State in August of 2014. Foley was a freelance journalist who covered Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. In 2011, he was kidnapped and held for 44 days in Libya. A year after his release, he was kidnapped again—this time in Syria. He wasn’t seen again until images of his beheading were broadcast around the world. Discussing his work, Foley said, “I believe frontline journalism is important. Without these photos and videos and firsthand experience, you can’t really tell the world how bad it might be.” Since his death, his mother Diane Foley has become a leading critic of a U.S. policy to refuse to negotiate or pay ransom to captors unlike European nations. In November, she told Congress that her son would be alive today had he been French, Spanish, German, Italian or Danish. In part due to her campaigning, the Obama administration announced last year plans to change aspects of the U.S. hostage policy. We speak with James Foley’s parents, Diane and John Foley, who have started the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, and with Brian Oakes, the director of the HBO documentary, “Jim: The James Foley Story,” which will premiere on HBO on February 6. Oakes was a childhood friend of Foley.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we turn now to a new documentary about James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State in August of 2014. The film is titled Jim: The James Foley Story.

JAMES FOLEY: I believe frontline journalism is important. Without these photos and videos and firsthand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be.

CLARE GILLIS: It’s the event with the second most recognition in recent American history after 9/11. Jim would have been horrified by that.

DIANE FOLEY: I think I was in denial about how dangerous this really was.

NICOLE TUNG: These four guys with guns, they stopped the taxi, and they put Jim into the back of their van. I didn’t know if I was going to see him again.

DIANE FOLEY: We didn’t know who was holding him. I was frantic.

UNIDENTIFIED: ISIS was on nobody’s radar.

DIANE FOLEY: They threatened to kill Jim.

MICHAEL FOLEY: I hadn’t heard Jim’s voice in two years. I never, ever imagined that it would end in that fashion.

DANIEL RYE OTTOSEN: We lost all hope in captivity. But James didn’t. He saw the light instead of the dark.

JAMES FOLEY: There’s physical courage, but that’s nothing compared to moral courage. If I don’t have that moral courage, we don’t have journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: The HBO documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story, is currently at the Sundance Film Festival and will premiere on HBO on February 6.

James Foley was a freelance journalist who covered Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. In 2011, he was kidnapped and held for 44 days in Libya. A year after his release, he was kidnapped again—this time in Syria. He wasn’t seen again until images of his beheading were broadcast around the world.

Since his death, James’s mother, Diane Foley, has become a leading critic of a U.S. policy to refuse to negotiate or pay ransom to captors, unlike European nations. In November, she told Congress Jim would be alive today had he been French, Spanish, German, Italian or Danish. In part due to her campaigning, the Obama administration announced last year plans to change aspects of the U.S. hostage policy.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Jim Foley’s parents, Diane and John Foley, who have started the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. We also spoke to Brian Oakes, the director of the film Jim. He was a childhood friend of James Foley. I began by asking Diane Foley when she learned her son had been kidnapped in Syria.

DIANE FOLEY: It was Thanksgiving. It was actually the day—the morning after Thanksgiving, when we had begun to be concerned because we had not heard from Jim. And that was very unlike him, because even when he was in the field, he would always, you know, reach out at holidays, and particularly Thanksgiving. And we have not heard from him. So the next morning, we were on the couch having a cup of coffee, and the phone rang. And we heard from his colleague, Clare Gillis, and she informed us that Jim had not returned the night before and that a witness said he had been kidnapped. We were in shock that it could happen again, really, you know, within a year of his other—well, a year and a half of his other capture in Libya. So we were incredulous that it could happen again, and very much in shock.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Foley, can you talk about your son Jim? You have—you had five children.

DIANE FOLEY: Jim was our oldest, you know, marched to his own drummer. He was his own—very much his own person. But Jim had many gifts in that he was just curious in people, wanted to get everybody’s story. And so, when he finally found journalism, or it found him, it was like a perfect match. It was like—you know, Jim was an incredible listener. And so it really—he had found something that—a way to give voice to a lot of people who had stories to tell, important stories for the world to know.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of Jim: The James Foley Story.

DIANE FOLEY: Jim was the kind of guy who never needed much. Some of the lifestyle of a conflict journalist is tough. But that didn’t bother Jim.

THOMAS DURKIN: The only possessions I think Jim cared about were books and CDs—I mean, his camera, ultimately.

UNIDENTIFIED: He’d come home without a toothbrush, just use whatever toothbrush was available.

NICOLE TUNG: Jim could fall asleep anywhere. All he needed was just a little space on the floor. He was like a cat.

BRIAN OAKES: This is a good one.

MANU BRABO: Yeah, there was shelling not so far, shooting. And this guy was calm, taking things easy, sleeping.

DIANE FOLEY: Over time, you know, he slowly got rid of his apartment, sold his car. He just ended up really owning nothing. So, what he would want for Christmas, this last time, before going to Syria, he wanted a tough pair of pants. He really did have less and less, and it didn’t bother him at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Diane, in the film, your son John, who’s in the military, talked about his ongoing arguments and battles with his older brother about war. Can you talk about that? And is it fair to say that Jim covered war to end war?

DIANE FOLEY: I think that’s very true, Amy. He was—he wanted to understand the issues, and certainly particularly the issues of the civilians and the children. And he really felt our world, the Western world, really needed to know those stories. So he—the more suffering he saw, truly the more committed he became to all of that. He really felt he had promises to keep. He became very committed. He was very touched by the goodness of so many of the local Syrians, so therefore he became very passionate about that story.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! was in Chicago in 2012 for the major anti-NATO protests that were happening there because of the summit that was taking place. And that was the same time that the great late cinematographer, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Haskell Wexler was there making a film about the protests and met Jim. After Jim was killed, we talked to Haskell about that meeting and his actual interviews, video recordings of his conversations with Jim. I want to play a clip.

HASKELL WEXLER: What countries recently have you been filming, taping?

JAMES FOLEY: Libya, Syria. I was in Afghanistan with U.S. troops in 2010. And I’m really interested in the young guys, the ones that are just coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, those guys’ perspectives, you know, because that—that has a huge impact, you know. And if they’re giving their medals back, that’s—that harkens back, right, to the Winter Soldiers, right, essentially in Vietnam and Kerry and what those guys did, right? So, I’m really interested in that young mentality. I’ve seen young vets that are in Occupy in D.C. and New York, and kind of gravitated towards them a little bit, because I think, I mean, they are the most authentic—they have the most authentic voice to criticize, you know, NATO right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you made this film and your connection to the film? You’re unusual in that most filmmakers get intellectually interested in a story, but yours is a very personal, longtime connection.

BRIAN OAKES: I’ve known Jim since we were seven years old, and we were first graders together in a little town called Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Very rural, picturesque, kind of Norman Rockwell upbringing. I’ve known the Foley family my—pretty much my entire life, as well. So it’s a very personal story for me. And, you know, knowing Jim my entire life and all that’s happened in the past three, four years, you get very protective of your loved ones and your friends after they pass. And, you know, Jim became a—went to Medill journalism school and in 2008 was when he did his first embed, and it was with the Indiana National Guard, and he went to Afghanistan. So—and after that, he—that’s when he went to Libya to cover the Libya revolution. So, when Jim was captured in Libya, I was in New York City. And, you know, I’m sure the Foleys can speak more about reactions, but as a friend, it was shocking and scary and—

AMY GOODMAN: He would eventually be released. When he told you he was then going to Syria, what did you tell him?

BRIAN OAKES: I—you know, Jim and—my relationship with Jim has always been very open and honest and trustworthy. So, you know, you always want to support your friends, but at the same time you always want to understand why they want to do the things they do. Personally, you know, I—I think what we have to understand is that when Jim went into Syria, we knew it was dangerous, but, you know, ISIS was not—didn’t even exist. So I think a lot of misconceptions about when Jim went into—first went into Syria is, well, why would he go there when ISIS was around? ISIS was nowhere on anyone’s radar at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. John Foley, when your son Jim told you, after he was held captive for 44 days, he was going back to Syria—many journalists would no longer be war correspondents after the first time. They’d be afraid. They wouldn’t want to take that risk. Jim was very committed. What kind of conversations did you have with him at that time?

DR. JOHN FOLEY: Well, certainly, I was very, very concerned, and asked him, “Well, why do you have to do this?” And, you know, he was nearly 40 years old at that point in time. And as a parent of an adult child—as a parent of an adult child, it’s very difficult to say, “You can’t,” you know. Diane and I often—or at least on one occasion—asked him what his passion was. He said, “Ma, I found it.” You know, so, I’ll be honest with you, and this sounds very naive: I was excited for him because he was excited. I, obviously, at that time wasn’t aware of the risk. And Brian’s point is exactly correct: ISIS wasn’t around. In fact, one of the last articles that Jimmy wrote was one indicating the revolution was becoming contaminated by groups like al-Qaeda and eventually ISIS. So he was there when this began. I think the second trip back was more difficult, because by that time we knew the risk, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the second time he went back to Syria.


AMY GOODMAN: That he had gone to—he had been in Libya, was captured, got out, went to Syria, then returned to Syria.

DR. JOHN FOLEY: Yeah, came home and then returned to Syria in October. And we had a very difficult time with that, because it’s—you know, I mean, passion is one thing, but the question is, where was the common sense, or where was the—not to say, as Brian says, that he was reckless. But, I mean, I’m not a hero. I guess my point is, is that I couldn’t see why or how somebody could go to a place where he or she could be captured, tortured and killed. And again, I’m going to express my cowardice in that no story was worth that to me.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Jim say when you would raise those issues?

DR. JOHN FOLEY: I think he listened. But he, I think, had made commitments with people in country that he was coming back. I don’t know what they were. Either that or he had this deep, deep conviction that he had to be there to tell the story, because if he wasn’t going to do it, nobody else was. And he could feel the suffering and see the destruction and the needlessness of this whole thing, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we will continue our conversation with Dr. John Foley, his wife Diane, the parents of slain journalist Jim Foley, as well as Brian Oakes, Jim’s friend and the director of Jim: The James Foley Story. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Somebody Got Lost in a Storm” by Joan Baez, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we continue to discuss the life and legacy of slain journalist James Foley. I want to turn to President Obama’s remarks on September 10, 2014, one month after Jim Foley was beheaded by ISIS.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threaten the religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists, Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff. So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Twelve days after President Obama gave that speech, the U.S. began bombing Syria. Earlier this week, I spoke with journalist Clare Gillis, who was held with Jim Foley in Libya, went on to work in Syria. She came to Park City, Utah, here for the premiere of the film Jim: The James Foley Story. She said she’s deeply concerned about how Jim Foley’s death is used to justify more war.

CLARE GILLIS: Well, I saw a very interesting article. I reference it in the movie, and you can look it up pretty easily yourself. It’s a Wall Street Journal poll that showed that 94 percent of the Americans they had surveyed, which were all registered voters, 94 percent of them were aware of who James Foley was and how he died, which makes his beheading the second most known event in recent American history after 9/11, which is staggering to me. And I think it would have been very disturbing to him, because his—you know, he never wanted his face to be anywhere near what he—what he went there for. He went there to show the suffering of the Syrian people. He devoted, you know, quite literally, his life to doing that. And to have become the sort of poster boy for renewed American involvement in the region, for—you know, he’s a propaganda element on any side of the conflict. You can see how he has been used for the coalition aircraft that are striking against ISIS. And if you take a look at ISIS recruiting material, you’ll see a tremendous amount of his imagery and his words being used to draw new recruits to ISIS. So it’s just this—it’s this propaganda, horrible gift that keeps on giving and reaping very bad fruits.

AMY GOODMAN: Freelance journalist Clare Gillis, who was held hostage with Jim Foley in Libya. Well, we return now to our conversation with John and Diane Foley, the parents of slain journalist Jim Foley, as well as Brian Oakes, his friend and the director of Jim: The James Foley Story.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the progression of your efforts to get him freed or keeping in touch with the government, or the government, U.S. government, keeping in touch with you to tell you what they were doing to try to free Jim.

DIANE FOLEY: Well, we began to be a bit public after Christmas, you know, of 2012, because we were frantic. It was already, you know, six weeks into his captivity, and he had vanished. And so, you know, Jim’s older brother—or our next youngest, actually, brother Michael, initially was very involved, and I was. And also GlobalPost, one of the media organizations that he was working for, very quickly offered to stand up a security team to help our efforts. So we felt very grateful that we had the FBI, the security team, all of Jim’s colleagues on the ground. Clare Gillis, Nicole Tung and many others were looking for him. There was a big outreach at that point. But we couldn’t find him.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel the government was doing all they could?

DIANE FOLEY: We certainly did, absolutely. We didn’t know otherwise. And I—there were—you know, one of the things the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation is trying to do is to collaborate with the government so that there can be better interagency communication and better support for American families. There obviously was some of that lacking during our experience.

AMY GOODMAN: What was missing?

DIANE FOLEY: Mainly communication. You know, I think we have a very big government, and it was very hard for there to be communication between our many agencies, between FBI and State and intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: I think you have been instrumental in making the government re-examine how they deal with families of hostages. Your testimony before Congress in 2015, just a few months ago, was fierce in its critique. And you weren’t afraid to name names about who you felt let you down.

DIANE FOLEY: We were deceived as an American family. We were told repeatedly that Jim was their highest priority, your highest priority. We trusted our government to help him return home. During the brief month that Jim’s ISIS captors reached out to negotiate for his release, our government refused to engage with the ISIS captors, leaving us alone as parents to negotiate for our son’s freedom. Eighteen months after Jim’s captivity, our family and three other families of hostages held with Jim in Syria were threatened by Colonel Mark Mitchell, member of our National Security Council, with prosecution by our government—although there was never any precedent—if we attempted to raise a ransom to free our loved ones. He also very clearly told us that our government would not ask allies to help negotiate for release and would never conduct any military operation to rescue them. He made it very clear that our United States government planned to abandon these four Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: They threatened you with prison if you tried to save your son?

DIANE FOLEY: Well, we can’t say “they.” You know, this individual did. And, you know, that was very intimidating. And we had had legal counsel that there was no precedent for that, that other American families had in fact needed to raise ransom in a kidnap situation. So, I knew, we knew, John and I knew, that that was not true. But it was very intimidating because he was from the National Security Council. So it was obviously very upsetting to all of us as families, and frightening, you know, because we wanted and needed the help of our government to get them out, hopefully, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Then the issue of countries that negotiated for their hostages and countries that didn’t. The U.S. didn’t. Countries like France clearly did. And this is something, Diane, you raised in your testimony very forcefully.

DIANE FOLEY: Our government’s abandonment of Jim allowed their deaths to be used as propaganda for ISIS recruitment, thus strengthening and emboldening ISIS. It surely helped in their recruitment of other violent people who want to destroy us. As I said before, at one point there were more than 20 Western hostages held together, all of whom are citizens of our allies. All our Western allies valued their citizens enough to negotiate for their freedom. Had Jim been French, Spanish, German, Italian or Danish, he would be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian, you interviewed Nicolas Hénin, who we also interviewed, the French hostage who was released, as well Pierre Torres, who is in your film. And Pierre is very clear about why they were freed. He says, “Our country negotiated.”

PIERRE TORRES: You have to realize that France is not America. It’s a small country. We don’t have such a thing as CIA, and we don’t put this amount of money in those things. But they managed to get their guys out, while the Americans’ government completely failed. So now I think the American government, and also the British government, have to give back big accounts on what’s failed and what they did, because it’s not acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Diane Foley, what do these countries do that the United States refused to do?

DIANE FOLEY: Well, we don’t know all of the details at all. All we know is that they were willing to talk with the—or find ways to talk with the captors, and thus find a commonality, a way to get their hostages released. So—but, however, our government finds that problematic, because, of course, large sums of money were exchanged in these negotiations, which of course funds the terrorism and the continued kidnapping. So this is a very complex problem.

There were a lot of disconnects. And that is partly why this is one of our major campaigns, Amy. It is—there were, you know, issues, problems. But again, we want to be part of that solution, Amy. And we are seeing some progress, some real progress, in a very complicated situation, very complex, dangerous world. So, that is what is making us hopeful.

AMY GOODMAN: John Foley?

DR. JOHN FOLEY: Yeah, and I can’t understate the fact that our government, President Obama, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the evaluation of that policy that led to the cell, has been extremely honest and extremely thorough. So, the deficiencies that we dealt with have been addressed. And I think that it’s—going back is not going to do Jimmy any good. It’s not going to do us any good. What we have to do is focus on the future. And I think we have a brighter future because of what was done because of the four Americans and their loss of life.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you feel—what is your understanding of what the U.S. ransom policy will be, going forward?

DIANE FOLEY: It hasn’t changed, Amy. The policy really hasn’t changed. Our policy states that we can negotiate but not make concessions. You know, our policy is certainly against ransom and, you know, the trading of prisoners and such. The problem is, this is not black and white, and our government certainly realizes that. There’s a lot of grey areas. And I guess—we would like Jim’s legacy to be such that at least this issue is a priority, that American hostages are important, and that we need the best of what our FBI, intelligence and State Department can do to free them.

BRIAN OAKES: When we talk—when you start talking about responsibilities, I think it’s really important to expand the idea of responsibility. You know, you can talk about government responsibility, you can talk about personal responsibility. And I think we all, in a way, have a responsibility. And I think one other big factor that I hope that the film brings up is that, you know, Jim was a freelance journalist, and that’s a very different job description than a journalist who works for a foreign bureau.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Jim: The James Foley Story, to a clip that features two freelance journalists, Clare Gillis, who was held hostage with Jim in Libya, and Nicole Tung, who worked with him in Syria.

CLARE GILLIS: Freelancers decide to work together just on the basis of this initial, quick-read chemistry. I saw this new guy who I hadn’t met before. He looked friendly enough. So I said, “Hey, what’s up?” He said, “Oh, not much, going to the front line.” And he had heard a lot about Libya and the fact that it was very cheap to work. Rebels and protesters were eager to show us their side of the story. You know, they were driving us all over for free. They were translating for us for free.

NICOLE TUNG: Many of us never really experienced the luxury of journalism in its heyday. What we do is journalism on a shoestring budget. So we’ve had to be a lot more resourceful in a way and just more street-savvy.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Oakes, continue talking about freelance journalists.

BRIAN OAKES: I personally believe that we also have to look at the people that hire journalists, whether freelance or [inaudible]. So I think with the foreign bureaus and the media companies, I think there’s also—you know, we can talk about government responsibility, but I think there’s also the employer responsibility, and I think that’s just an important part of the equation.

DIANE FOLEY: Absolutely, Brian. And that is our second campaign in the Foley Foundation, that very thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian, you clearly touched many people with this film. And among them was one of the world’s most famous musicians, Sting. He actually helped to compose the final song in Jim: The James Foley Story, “The Empty Chair.” I had a chance to talk to Sting, with Diane and John, right after the premiere of the film.

STING: I think the film is probably one of the most important things anyone will see this year, I guarantee it. I’m here to support it. It’s a vitally important message, because Jim Foley is the antidote to so much nonsense that’s being spouted in the world about immigration, about religion. And he was a good, courageous man. The answer is not guns and bullets. It’s compassion, it’s love, it’s infinite mercy.


STING: And Jim Foley represented that in a very, very powerful, irresistible way. So, this is a message that needs to go out. We need to hear this message.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the legendary musician Sting, along with Jim Foley’s parents, John and Diane Foley, and Brian Oakes, director of Jim: The James Foley Story. The film premieres on HBO on February 6.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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