The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ISIS murdered her son. But she wasn’t going to let that be his only legacy.

Diane Foley poses for a portrait in her office at the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation in Rochester, N.H. Foley started the foundation in honor of her son, a reporter who in 2014 became the first U.S. hostage killed by the Islamic State. (Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post)

Diane Foley picked up the phone on a busy November morning in 2012. It was Jim calling from Syria. He was covering the civil war there as a freelance journalist and videographer, but he knew that his mother had just lost a beloved aunt and was grieving.

They chatted only briefly. Diane noted that she had patients lined up around the block at her nurse practitioner’s office near Rochester, N.H. Jim promised he’d be home by Christmas, when the extended Foley clan always gathered to celebrate the holidays. Then they hung up. And that was the last time Diane heard her eldest son’s voice.

On Thanksgiving, Jim was abducted by Islamic State militants. For nearly 10 months, there was silence as the family frantically tried to find out what had happened to him. In time, they learned that he was being held hostage. The captors eventually sent a ransom demand, then abruptly cut off communication. Then, on Aug. 19, 2014, a shocking video surfaced on YouTube: Jim kneeling before a black-hooded executioner in the moments before being brutally beheaded.

That day, Diane once again picked up the phone. This time, it was to learn of her son’s grisly end from a sobbing reporter who had seen the video, which was reverberating around the globe. Her reaction was “total shock,” she recalls. She had tried for months to mentally brace for the worst, but nothing had prepared her for this. How, really, could any mother prepare for the barbaric killing of her son? And how could she survive it?

Somehow, Diane managed to keep her wits about her. She called the FBI to confirm that the video was real but got no answer, so she went to the Internet. The next day, President Obama condemned Jim’s murderers on television after calling the Foleys. Later on the morning of Aug. 20, in anguish, Diane and her husband walked out to face the reporters who had gathered around the house, and she told them how proud she was of her son’s bravery.

In the days that followed, the four other Foley children flew home to bolster her and her husband. Each day, the letter carrier delivered a bin overflowing with sympathy cards, schoolchildren’s sketches of Jim, oil and chalk paintings of his image, even a huge hand-carved wooden cross from a stranger in Texas. The pope called to offer comfort, and the bishop of New Hampshire asked for prayers for “a deeply pained family.” Money poured in from around the globe to be used in Jim’s memory.

Diane prayed to control her anger at her own government and to avoid bitterness toward those who she felt had turned their backs on Jim. Never one to sit back and let events take their course, she had quit her job after he was kidnapped and trekked back and forth to Washington, where the administration had her “literally running in circles, wearing soggy shoes in the rain, staying in fleabag hotels” as she tried to get an audience and learn what had become of Jim. “No one wanted to listen,” she recalls.

But she knew that her idealistic, peace-loving son would want her to turn his death into a positive. So she got to work. Within three weeks of his murder, she had established the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to put the donations to good use in advocating for hostage families. “This is what we have got to do. We’ve got to make something good out of this,” she remembers telling the attorney friends of Jim’s who helped her set up the organization. She wanted to ensure that no other American family would face the disjointed government response that hers had endured. And she wanted Jim’s death to serve as a lesson to other journalists about the dangers of working in conflict zones, and to help them prepare.

Most of all, she was determined not to yield to her unfathomable grief. She knew that some would see her response — her leap into action, her refusal to retreat into mourning — as cold and remote. But “we’re all different,” she says. “We all react to horror in different ways.”

A devout Catholic, Diane Foley has always found great comfort in religion. From a young age, she had "the realization that God was with me." A small-town girl from Keene, N.H., she considered becoming a nun while attending the University of New Hampshire in the late 1960s. Instead, she majored in nursing and fell in love with aspiring physician John Foley. They married in 1971.

Jim was the firstborn on both sides of the family, his arrival “a cause of great celebration.” The Foleys moved around a lot as John completed his medical training, and by the time they settled in New Hampshire, their rowdy household included five kids. Jim was 15 years older than the youngest, Katie, who sometimes jokingly called him “Uncle Jim.”

Three of the children joined the military, but Jim was a pacifist, always “passionate about the underdog,” according to Diane. The other boys were more traditional. Jim was closest to Michael, the second-born son, who aimed for a career in business. The two older brothers liked to tease middle child John, the straight arrow who became a U.S. Air Force commander and cared about things like job security and benefits, things that meant little to a free spirit like Jim. (A photo of John in uniform on Jim’s laptop reportedly enraged his captors, and Jim condemned John at knifepoint as a tool of the U.S. military in the gruesome beheading video. John, who acknowledges that he and his brother were very different, bears no resentment. His brother’s death, he says, “has challenged me to be better.”)

Jim earned a master’s degree in creative writing but then pursued a second master’s in journalism from Northwestern University before embedding as a reporter with the Indiana National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wanted a full-time reporting job, but as the Arab Spring dawned in the Middle East, he saw freelancing as an opportunity. Media companies knew “how dangerous it was in those areas and were reluctant to send their staffers there,” Diane says. Freelancers flooded into Libya and Syria. Jim earned about $350 for each video report he filed — not enough, his mother points out, to stay in secure hotels or hire the most trusted translators.

The first crisis came in 2011, when Jim and three other freelancers were captured by Gaddafi forces in Libya. For his family, it was an awful time. “Here I had worried about my kids in the military, and here Jim was really in the greater danger,” Diane recalls. The hostages were held for 44 days, then released “by a stroke of God’s grace, really,” she says. She credits the private efforts of David G. Bradley, the multimillionaire owner of Atlantic Media, who used his resources to help free the Atlantic’s kidnapped freelancer, Clare Gillis, as well as the others. Jim later said that he thought of his mother while in prison, knowing that he could communicate with her through the “cosmic reach of the universe” by counting Hail Marys on his knuckles.

He came back to Rochester to regroup and seemed “over the moon” to be home, says Diane. He rejected counseling, insisting that he was fine. But he became restless as civil war consumed Syria. He worked behind a desk in Boston for three months, editing copy for an online news service. Then, abruptly, he announced that he was leaving once more.

Diane wrestled with what a mother should do when a child is heading into harm’s way. Jim was 38 years old, and he did not need his parents’ approval to return to the field. And so she watched him go again.

Throughout Jim's captivity, she found support among friends and parishioners at her church, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. She prayed, read daily scripture and tried to attend Mass even when on the road. Her God is a loving and merciful one, which made it even harder to accept Jim's brutal killing. But eventually, "through a whole lot of prayer and a whole lot of love," she says, she came to accept that his murder was God's will and the only way that her son could ever be freed.

She planned his memorial service and stored his things in a home office that came almost to resemble a shrine, filled with his photographs, awards and videos. She discovered new things about him as admirers reached out by email, on Facebook and in handwritten letters. She did not realize until his death that he had continued to mentor kids he had met in inner-city Phoenix when he was a Teach for America instructor, that while studying creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, he had helped unwed mothers in the town of Holyoke find their voices by giving them tape recorders. “We didn’t even realize how special he was,” she says. “He would hide anything good he did.”

At 69, Diane is a slender woman with dark hair and angular features, a grandmother who never expected to earn international stature as a hostage advocate. Yet when people talk about her, the phrase “force of nature” comes up often. “She has this energy and moral force that makes people care about these issues,” says New Yorker online editor David Rohde, a Foley foundation board member and former New York Times correspondent once imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I first met Diane at a gathering of veteran foreign-news editors in Massachusetts in 2016, where she listened intently as they caught up on new global risks for reporters. Diane held her own among the seasoned pros, asking sharp questions. At the end of the long meeting, she shook hands, thanked them for caring and handed each a handsome black notebook imprinted with the Foley foundation name.

Jim was one of four Americans killed by the Islamic State, and the first priority of the families was to push the U.S. government to improve its handling of hostage cases. In 2015, largely in response to the deaths, Obama created a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell to coordinate among the intelligence agencies, the National Security Council, the State Department and other parts of the federal government in dealing with hostage cases. In short order, hostage advocates say, the system improved. But a key part of Obama’s reform still awaits action: the appointment of a permanent special envoy in the State Department to oversee hostage negotiations. Thus far, President Trump has left the position vacant.

Many families still slip through the cracks. Americans detained by foreign governments — as opposed to terrorist groups — do not qualify as hostages and are ineligible for fusion cell services. Their families still must navigate complex bureaucracies on their own to get basic help.

Take Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University researcher who was arrested in Iran while researching a dissertation on 19th- and early 20th-century Iranian history and has been imprisoned for nearly two years. In 2017, Qu says, Diane called her to offer the Foley foundation’s help as she works to win her husband’s release. “She spent a lot of time talking to me about how to handle the uncertainties,” says Qu, who with Wang has a 5-year-old son. “I gained a lot of strength from her.”

Since launching the foundation, Diane has stayed on the road, giving speeches and interviews and working with journalism schools to improve safety training for reporters in crisis zones. She helped organize A Culture of Safety Alliance, which regularly brings together foreign-news editors from major outlets to discuss common safety concerns. She worked with Jim’s friends to produce a documentary about his life to serve as a journalism training tool.

During Jim’s captivity, she had coffee with Rachel Briggs, then the director of Hostage UK, a London-based organization offering support to families of British hostages and detainees. “In the middle of this horrific family tragedy,” Briggs says, “she was composed, articulate and so engaging.” Briggs shared her hope that she could one day launch an American version of her organization, and Diane seized on the idea, securing Ford Foundation money to start Hostage US. The group helps families sort through such everyday issues as reduced income and child-care pressures.

In June, national security officials will gather in Washington for a formal Foley foundation dinner in Jim’s honor, and Diane will present awards to counterterrorism official Jen Easterly, Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and C.J. Chivers, the New York Times correspondent whose eyewitness account of Jim’s abduction in Libya helped identify and locate his kidnappers.

Diane's path toward healing hasn't been without its rough patches and familial disagreements. Her children have struggled with their brother's death, and John is the only one who wants any role in the foundation's work. Her husband believes in her mission but has had his fill of public attention. In deference to the others, Diane has scaled back some of her efforts. In 2016, she signed a book contract with a Penguin imprint but then suspended it because her children wanted no more public exposure.

“You can’t do everything,” John gently chided his mother over a recent lunch near the White House, responding to questions about her frenetic travel schedule. “You can’t be a mother, wife, grandmother, president of the Foley foundation, all at once, in the same time zone, in the same day. You just can’t do that, right?”

Diane nodded, glancing briefly down at the table. Over time, she admits, she has grown weary of the travel and reliving again and again her awful loss. She longs for a break.

And yet so much remains undone. She tried unsuccessfully to convince the Trump administration to work with the foundation on a study of how the 2015 reforms are working. The government still keeps the exact number of American hostages secret and considers the names of hostage families confidential. But she has not backed down and has forged a partnership with the New America think tank and the West Point Combating Terrorism Center to independently study “which families need help, what gaps in services there are.”

Each step forward is a "little victory," Diane says, remembering the days of Jim's captivity, when she was "literally begging for help." But she survived those days, and possibly the worst thing a mother could ever experience. In fact, she more than survived. "A lot of good things have happened since 2014," she says. "That is Jim's legacy." And hers.

Marilyn W. Thompson is an editor on The Washington Post’s national desk.

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