James Foley, a reporter driven to tell the stories of the oppressed

James Foley, beheaded last week by Islamist militants, knew the risks of working in war zones, but wanted to make sense of a dangerous world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 6:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 6:20am

Afghanistan. Libya. Syria. Jim Foley had to go. Had to. He had to be there.

In 2011, editors at GlobalPost - an international news website based in Boston in the US state of Massachusetts - talked him into a stateside writing job. He had just been released after being kidnapped and held by Libyan forces for 44 days while covering the civil war there for the site, and they wanted to give him a safer perch. But he wasn't satisfied.

After six months, "he was chafing to return" to Libya, GlobalPost president Philip Balboni said. And so Foley returned to document Muammar Gaddafi's fall.

Foley returned safely from Libya, but the world is full of conflict, and Foley needed to see more of it.

His mother said the 40-year-old came out of the Libyan scrape more driven to tell the story of people oppressed by thuggish regimes. In a kitchen conversation, Diane Foley tried to steer her son to other pursuits. "Mum, I found my passion. I found my vocation," she recalled him saying.

Former colleagues saw that intensity.

"He was determined to go to Syria, and he wanted to get the point of view of the Syrian people told," said Andrew Meldrum, who worked with Foley at GlobalPost in Boston. "He could have continued to work in the safety of Boston. It wasn't like he even made a decision. He was dead set on going there."

He made his way to Syria, where he was kidnapped again, this time in November 2012. In a gruesome video last week, Foley - looking gaunt and weary in an orange shirt and trousers - was beheaded by a masked extremist.

James Foley - everyone called him Jim - moved among a particularly intrepid and courageous set of international journalists: freelancers who chase big stories without the guarantee of a pay cheque or the continuous support of a major news organisation.

No editor sent him to Syria. Foley got there on his own, then contacted editors at GlobalPost to pitch his stories. The site was glad to take them. The staff admired his knack for assembling the voices of residents traumatised by war, his ability to get in close. Still, Balboni said, "we wished he had not put himself in harm's way another time".

Friends describe Foley as a thinker, a cerebral sort with a tendency to mull the big issues of the world, to turn them over and over in his head, trying to make sense of them. And he seemed to be trying to make sense of his attraction to the dangerous places of the world.

"When you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you," Foley said during an appearance, shortly after his release from captivity in Libya, at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in 2008. "It doesn't always repel you. Sometimes, as you know, it draws you close ... It's a strange sort of force."

A New Hampshire native, Foley took creative writing courses as an undergraduate at Marquette University in the state of Wisconsin, said a longtime friend and classmate, John Fitzpatrick. "He had a very gentle, sensitive, sort of honest way about him," Fitzpatrick said.

Foley was the one who always wanted to do something a little different from the rest, Fitzpatrick said. Once, on a trip to Chicago, all their pals wanted to go to a bar to pick up girls. Foley tried to talk them into going to the Turkish baths. Why? "Because it would be an adventure!" Fitzpatrick recalls Foley telling everyone.

Foley was searching. After graduation, he took the law school entrance exam along with a group of friends. Foley got the best scores, Fitzpatrick said, but he wasn't interested in law school.

He became a teacher, working with juvenile offenders at an Illinois boot camp. In his mid-30s, Foley, who was single, decided to go back to university to study journalism, making a career shift at a time when many of his friends were already well entrenched in their professions and families.

Foley had a quick smile and a mellow manner. As his freelance portfolio grew following his graduation, he fell in easily with other journalists. They often worked together. Safety in numbers. They looked out for one another.

Foley could easily have skipped the Libya conflict. He told students at Medill that one of his editors at GlobalPost said, "Don't go there." Foley thanked the editor for the advice. But, he said, "I had to go."

In Libya, Foley and a small group of journalists came under fire as they were neared the dangerous city of Brega. Foley had to get there. He wanted to know if the rebels had truly taken control, as they'd been hearing. In the barrage of gunfire, a journalist working alongside Foley, a seasoned South African photographer named Anton Hammerl, was killed. Foley and two others were kidnapped.

Foley was deeply affected by the death of Hammerl, friends say. After he was released, he helped organise a foundation and an auction at Christie's to raise money for Hammerl's wife and children.

"Following one of the worst years for photojournalism in recent memory, the community is banding together around this event," Foley wrote in an email to friends and colleagues announcing the auction.

In Syria, Foley was appalled at the lack of resources at the Dar Al Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, where he did some in-depth reporting. Once again, he became the organiser, building support among freelance reporters and their networks to raise money for a much-needed ambulance that was later delivered from Europe.

He started his pitch with a quip, recalls a close friend, freelance photographer Nicole Tung. "I know you guys are all battling your gastrointestinal issues," Tung remembers Foley writing in an email.

The dangers in Aleppo were acute, but Foley was dug in. "He kept working there, even as the situation got worse and worse," said Daniel Etter, a freelance photographer.

In particular, Etter remembers a piece Foley filed from Syria's Idlib province - a month before he was abducted. Foley got people talking who didn't normally talk. Yet even in that violent land, Foley found a way to start his article with a twinkle.

"Behind the mansion they were occupying, a group of half-naked rebels whooped with joy as they [jumped feet first] into the murky, half-filled swimming pool," Foley wrote. But once he'd drawn in readers with a smile, he showed them how bad things had got, interviewing a former taxi driver named Faez: "While Faez visited his children in Idlib province last month, one rebel group broke down his apartment door and set up shop. 'They use everything. They changed my house into a camp,' he said. 'They make a mess of everything.'"

When he complained they were wearing his clothes and destroying his property, the young rebel commander told him: "This is a time of war."

And Jim Foley was there. He had to be. It was not always comfortable for his colleagues.

"He took you right there, and sometimes we were looking at things and thinking, 'He's too close. He's too close,"' Meldrum said. "And you wanted to say, 'Pull back,' but it was compelling video. He really found his purpose in life in going out and reporting that story."

Additional reporting by Associated Press