My son was beheaded by Isis. Forgiving the US government was harder than forgiving his killers

Diane Foley
Diane Foley: ‘My grief snagged on missed possibilities’ - Cig Harvey

August 2014. It was a Tuesday afternoon in our home in New Hampshire.

Three of us were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, chatting – myself, my husband John and my sister Rita, who was visiting from Texas. It was one of those lazy summer days, birds chirping, a breeze coming in. Our cat Missy curled up in the corner waiting for nothing to happen.

My cell phone rang. It wasn’t a number I recognised, but it wasn’t unusual to get random calls. My son Jim had been taken hostage by Isis almost two years earlier. He was one of at least 18 Westerners who had been kidnapped, and he was being held in Syria by a group of British jihadists that would later become known as the ‘Beatles’. Every phone call came with a thump of the heart. It might be THE call with news that Jim had escaped.

We had remained hopeful all those long months. We awaited an email. A flight to be arranged for him. A welcoming committee at the airport. Someone to untie the yellow ribbons from the trees on our street. We would watch Jim walk into the house, his broad grin leading the way…

‘Hello.’ There was a brief silence, then what sounded like sobbing. I must have thought that it was a prank call, but then a voice announced herself as a journalist I knew of. I could not make out exactly what she was trying to say – something to do with a tweet?

She caught herself and said that she was sorry, but please look at Twitter. Then she hung up. I looked at the phone. I looked at the sink. Eventually I turned on my laptop, clicked through to social media. What I saw didn’t seem possible. A desert landscape. An orange jumpsuit. Time didn’t just freeze: time disappeared entirely. There was my son – or someone who looked like my son – with his bloodied head upon his back.

American journalist James Foley photography while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria
Journalist James Foley photographed in Aleppo, Syria - Nicole Tung

I didn’t cry, didn’t even turn my head away. This had to be Photoshopped. Surely, if it was true, we would have had some sort of official communication? No, it had to be a cruel prank. It couldn’t be real. Not now. Not this way. It was still just an ordinary Tuesday. The sky was blue. There was lunch to prepare. My granddaughter’s birthday to celebrate. News like this could not arrive on a day like this.

Shortly before, Isis had sent an ominous email threatening to kill Jim if the bombing in response to the massacre of the Yazidis in northern Iraq did not stop. But they had threatened this same thing before, and the FBI assured us it was just another idle threat.

A pair of FBI agents had appeared at our house earlier that morning too. We were sitting on our porch when they walked up the driveway. They wanted Jim’s DNA, they said. We wanted to know why. They were kind but insistent. ‘We just need it for records.’ John and I looked at each other: why after two years did the FBI suddenly need our son’s DNA?

They swabbed the inside of our mouths. I offered them tea or coffee. They didn’t want any. Instead, they wanted to know if there was anything of Jim’s DNA left in the house. His DNA was in the very air of everything, I wanted to say. They would find snippets of James Wright Foley throughout, making us laugh, telling us stories.

I went to the basement where Jim had stored his belongings: one old cedar trunk and three big plastic bins. He wasn’t really interested in belongings. There were his plaid shirts, his rugby shirt. Some camera equipment. An old woollen hat in the shape of a football helmet. I found a toothbrush neatly wrapped in a plastic bag. It hadn’t been used in years, but it would still harbour his DNA.

The alarm bells weren’t ringing, or at least they weren’t making a racket in my head. It was an unusual request, yes, but I had come to consider the unusual as a regular guest in our lives. Jim would be coming back to fill these shirts and wear this silly hat again.

Journalist James Foley
Journalist James Foley was held hostage by a group of British jihadists - Diane Foley

When I think back, Jim had an old-fashioned childhood. It wasn’t exactly out of a magazine but it came close. For years we moved around: Massachusetts, New York, Texas, where Jim and his brother Michael would put on coonskin hats and prance around on imaginary horses, playing Davy Crockett at the Alamo. In the end we put roots down in New England. We had five kids. A house in the country. An American life.

They were solid years, hectic and joyful. I was a mother first; my career as a nurse could wait. John, a doctor, established his practice. We had small financial struggles, but I thought of us as the sort of family held together with a strong glue: faith and love.

From the start Jim was curious about the world and that curiosity ran itself wild in books. Tintin, the wandering Belgian cartoon character, was among his favourites. He liked the action-packed adventures of the young reporter, the allure of the nomadic life. Perhaps it was inevitable then, that he became a conflict journalist.

His first major job was in 2008 when he embedded with the Indiana National Guard. It meant he might have to go to some risky areas, but we were much more worried about Jim’s brothers John Elliot and Mark, who were in the military and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. We assumed Jim would be a safe distance back, protected even.

In January 2011, he joined Stars and Stripes, a military news organisation, as a reporter; a good position. But in March, I was in Germany where John Elliot was headquartered for the Army when out of the blue, Jim showed up. He looked miserable, his eyes downcast. ‘I’m in trouble,’ he admitted. He had been detained by US military police, who found marijuana in his backpack. He was asked to resign: 37… and busted for weed.

My heart went out to Jim. He was deeply embarrassed and unabashedly apologetic. I am convinced that is why he left so abruptly for Libya that same month. He didn’t have a defined job or a visa. He just slung on his backpack. He wanted to show the world that he wasn’t some vagabond pothead – he was a serious journalist reporting on the Arab Spring.

It was there he was first taken hostage – detained and beaten by pro-Gaddafi forces for 44 days. Michael, who had worked on negotiating his release, strongly suggested to Jim that he didn’t return there. But he wouldn’t be deterred from his chosen career.

The longer he worked in conflict zones, the quieter he became. On one of his last nights in town, Mark took him to a comedy club. Jim, who normally enjoyed a laugh, sat stone-faced. He wanted to live in the present. And the present to him was happening elsewhere: Syria, where he was determined to go next, to bear witness to the bombings of civilians by the Assad regime.

The last time I spoke to Jim was in November 2012. He was in Syria by then, and I was between patients at work. I picked up the phone and told him that I was sorry but I couldn’t really chat. He said: ‘That’s OK, Mom. I’ll call you on Thanksgiving.’ I never heard his voice again.

Diane Foley
The last time Diane Foley spoke to her son was in November 2012 - Cig Harvey

I was concerned when we didn’t get a call that Thanksgiving. Surely he had just lost track of time? The next morning the landline rang – it was an American journalist who had been travelling with him. Jim was missing.

The news came as a chest-thumping shock, but at the same time no shock at all. Deep down we all knew that something like this was possible again. But this was nothing like before. Jim had vanished without a trace.

An FBI agent came to our home. He was kind and polite, but it shocked me that he seemed totally unprepared. When he asked if we had considered asking President Assad for assistance, I thought he must have been joking. Were we to phone and ask for Bashar?

The FBI urged us not to tell anyone that Jim was missing, assuring us it would be better for Jim. I wasn’t sure how silence could help, but I wanted to believe that he would be brought home. I tried to remain calm but I was overcome with horrific anxiety. My chest felt tight. I found it hard to breathe at times.

Our lives paused. In December, when our daughter Katie became engaged, she refused to set her wedding date; she wanted to wait for Jim’s return. Then the next November, just over a year after Jim’s abduction, Michael received the first email from Jim’s captors: ‘hello. we have james. we want to negotiate for him. he is safe: he is our friend and we do not want to hurt him. we want money fast.’

The FBI told us we needed proof of life questions to know if it was real. ‘Proof of life.’ Such an odd notion. Michael thought of cryptic questions: who was the goalkeeper of your high school soccer team? Who cried at Mark’s wedding? I later found out from other hostages that this was one of Jim’s happiest moments in captivity: ‘My family knows I’m alive now!’ he shouted.

James Foley
Officials urged James Foley's family not to tell anyone that he was missing

A new round of emails came. The kidnappers demanded the release of all Muslim prisoners and €100,000,000. The FBI told us to stall for time by telling the truth: we had no ability to meet the demands. They also said that they were unable to directly engage the captors on our behalf.

I decided to travel to Washington, DC, in hopes of getting some action. I didn’t even know into which airport to fly. Then there I was, standing outside the Capitol in soggy shoes, wondering how could I get past the gates.

I sent letters. I left countless phone messages. I made contact with assistants and interns first, persuading them to set up meetings for me. Then I visited ambassadors, dignitaries, bureaucrats, politicians on all levels. I met with the then Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, twice. At the US State Department and the UN, I begged for help. Time and again the reply came hard and fast: the US will not negotiate.

I was received twice at the White House by Susan Rice, then President Obama’s national security advisor. She was cordial and empathetic, repeating that ‘Jim is our highest priority’.

At one stage she suggested that perhaps we could do a prisoner swap with those in Guantanamo Bay, but she quickly caught herself and referred me back to the FBI and State Department.

I felt like I was going in circles with no one taking real responsibility. Everyone said they wanted to help, but few went beyond platitudes.

One day, in a meeting with a large group from the FBI, Colonel Mark Mitchell from the National Security Council coldly told us the US would not do a rescue mission, nor would the government pay ransom, nor ask another country to help get Jim and other Americans being held with him out. Separately, we were threatened on three different occasions with criminal prosecution if we tried to raise ransom money for Jim’s release.

The absurdity of this was plain to me. The government wouldn’t help us, yet we weren’t allowed to help ourselves. Most crushing of all, we did not receive further word from the captors. Just total silence – for months.

Diane Foley
Diane Foley: 'We were threatened on three different occasions with criminal prosecution if we tried to raise ransom money for Jim’s release' - Cig Harvey

Then came the day the FBI turned up wanting Jim’s DNA. Later, after the image was posted on Twitter, hours passed in a blur. I emailed everyone I knew in government; nobody got back to me. No messages were relayed through the local police. Surely this would turn out to be a cruel hoax.

Michael arrived home. The other children called to say they were on their way too – Katie, a Navy nurse stationed in Virginia, Mark, stationed near Tacoma, Washington, and John Elliot, who had just moved to Belgium in his role in the US Air Force. Then, late in the evening, suddenly, and not suddenly, it became horribly true: Jim had been beheaded by Isis.

The ache inside cannot be described except by its own pain. I was sundered, torn apart. Nothing had ever felt even remotely like this. Nothing. The pulverising shock of hatred’s power.

To lose a child is among the worst things that can happen to a parent. But there’s no specific word for it in the English language. Maybe because it seems almost impossible to imagine. I sat in silence with a current of anger surging through me. It was directed against the deranged Isis fighters, of course, but also towards our own government, whom I’d felt had patronised and deceived us all by abandoning our citizens when they claimed to have not.

Diane and James Foley
Diane Foley pictured with her son James Foley before he was taken hostage - Diane Foley

When I parted the curtains the next morning, news trucks and police cars jammed our street. An ambulance idled further along: why in the world would an ambulance be there, except to tend to a house full of broken hearts?

Downstairs, most of our family was already in the kitchen. The smell of coffee drifted up. Toast, eggs, bacon. But who could eat now? John was preparing it all. That’s what John was so good at: he would shoulder things for people, keep himself busy. My elderly mother, at the counter, couldn’t stop crying. I felt like I was moving through water. There was no way through but to embrace ordinary tasks. Make more coffee. Pick up the dishes. John touched my elbow, but I didn’t want to be touched.

I didn’t want to know that I was real.

Jim, James, Jimmy: I heard his name everywhere. I never watched the video of the beheading and I never will. The static image was more than enough. It had burned itself into my brain. There are so many times I wish I hadn’t seen it.

In the weeks to come, buckets of mail arrived. Mass cards, rosary beads, flowers. Children’s drawings. Multiple portraits of Jim in oils and pastels. A stranger planted flowers around our mailbox. I still have some of the abundant plastic dinnerware that flooded into our house too. Food accumulated, delivered from work colleagues, concerned neighbours.

It was difficult to force myself to eat. I took long walks, trying to breathe myself free of the tightness in my chest. One of the things that bothered me deeply was the lack of outreach from the Obama administration. I was seething, I admit.

James Foley
James Foley - Simon Klingert

The President did not call until the third day after Jim’s murder and by then I had allowed bitterness to creep in. All the European hostages, bar the British, had been released. The Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye Ottosen was let free in June 2014. If the Danes could allow the families to raise money for their loved one’s ransom, what was blocking our way?

My grief snagged on missed possibilities. 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. The administration was lying and – if they weren’t actually lying – they were, at the very least, deceiving themselves into believing that they had made Jim a priority. The reality was that they were hamstrung by bureaucracy. Hamstrung, too, by US fears that negotiating with terrorists incentivises hostage taking.

I felt that a good deal of the administration’s behaviour was short-sighted, if not cowardly. Also, the plain fact is that we don’t care as much for our aid workers or our journalists as we do for our military. Civilians – even civilians bringing news of the war – were a lot more expendable than soldiers. If there had been 20 American Marines captured in Syria, I suspect we would have mounted a serious rescue operation.

When the phone finally rang and we were told it was the President, a shiver sluiced along my spine. John took the call. I stood nearby, listening, paralysed by expectation, anger and dread. The President wanted to say he was sorry for what had happened. John replied that Jim had been counting on the Obama administration.

The President again said that he was sorry, and that he had done all he could do. John replied that there was so much more that could have been done, and then the President told him that he had, in fact, ordered a top-secret rescue mission into Syria in early July, but the site had already been abandoned, the prisoners moved.

We were unsure how to take this. In the end, the call lasted no more than two or three minutes. ‘Thank you, Mr President.’ And that was it.

James Foley
James Foley

I later found out, watching CNN, that the President had almost immediately gone to a golf course on Martha’s Vineyard where he was photographed laughing with his golf partners. It bothered me, and it knocked me off-kilter, but I suppose I understood it.

We had two funerals for Jim. The first was hastily put together weeks after his death. It was a funeral without a coffin, but somehow, in the midst of the grief, it turned into a celebration of togetherness. More than a thousand people came to the Mass. Boy scouts lined our streets with flags. The church was jam-packed. Then it was over, but it didn’t feel over at all. There was a sense that there was so much still undone.

Three months after Jim died, I had a meeting with President Obama at the White House. I was still upset with the President and his administration. I felt they had abandoned my son. However, I was grateful to him for giving me his time and I wanted to be respectful.

I recall being ushered into the room and sitting alone with him at a long dark table. He was sipping a cup of tea. I was a little surprised that nothing was offered to me. Still, it wasn’t a time to worry about manners.

I found him sombre and rather cold. The length of the table seemed to reflect a distant emotion. I got the sense that he didn’t want to have the meeting. We exchanged pleasantries and then the President stunned me by saying: ‘Jim was my highest priority.’ I felt the oxygen disappear from the air. ‘I beg your pardon, Sir,’ I replied. ‘He may have been a priority in your mind but not in your heart. Jim and the others were abandoned by our government until much, much too late.’

The President didn’t argue, just continued sipping his tea. I teared up a little and he rose up from his chair and handed me his white handkerchief. I was grateful for that momentary kinship, but then it was over, and the door was opened for me to leave. A few photos were taken of us and later sent to me. I didn’t put them in a frame.

Diane and John Foley talk to reporters after their son's death
Diane and John Foley talk to reporters after their son's death - AP/Jim Cole

It would be eight years before Jim’s killers were sentenced. One of the ‘Beatles’, Alexanda Kotey, originally from London, admitted to four murders and inflicting torture – he was given eight life sentences. But El Shafee Elsheikh, known as ‘Jihadi Ringo’, pleaded not guilty.

I went through a lot of his trial in a fog. Sometimes it was so harrowing that there was nothing John and I could do but hold one another’s hands and close our eyes. There was little press attention. When I opened the papers all I saw was Johnny Depp’s face – his and Amber Heard’s court case was taking place at the same time.

And when the jury delivered the verdict – guilty on all counts – there was no gasp in the courtroom. No outrage. El Shafee Elsheikh was led away. He didn’t even glance over his shoulder.

Sometimes I still wonder what might have happened if we had been able to take the email from Jim’s captors seriously. I think: what if we had communicated directly? What if we had gone through different channels? Where might we be now? Would he be home?

Another of my questions in the years since has been: why did we get the Z-team – the essentially uncoordinated response – when Jim was first captured, and why did we get the A-team – the very best of American justice – after he was killed?

Now, some 10 years on, the US government has finally seen the necessity of beginning to operate in a coordinated and proactive way in relation to the taking of American hostages. In 2022, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Bolstering Efforts To Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home. Sometimes the world works, and a candle gives light to other candles.

I suppose at a certain stage you have to bid goodbye to a portion of your life. For an instant you almost hover outside of yourself. You see yourself clearly, or as clearly as you will allow yourself to see. For me, that time came after the trial. I was 73. I had seen enough sadness to fill every molecule. I had been forced to contemplate all the worst things that the world had to offer. I had been lonely, and I had been lost. I had been led to the edge of despair. But I didn’t need to succumb to the dark.

Abridged extract from American Mother, by Diane Foley and Colum McCann, which is published on 22 February (Bloomsbury, £20); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk 

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.