Finding James Foley

GlobalPost tracked down its missing reporter in Syria--now to bring him home

After 162 days with no information about his whereabouts, GlobalPost announced Friday that James Foley, an American journalist who went missing on November 22 in Syria, is almost certainly being held by the Syrian government in a detention center near the capital city of Damascus.

Surrounded by Foley’s family during a speech in Boston marking World Press Freedom Day, GlobalPost CEO and President Philip Balboni said:

With a very high degree of confidence, we now believe that Jim was most likely abducted by a pro-regime militia group commonly referred to as the Shabiha and subsequently turned over to Syrian government forces.

We have obtained multiple independent reports from very credible confidential sources who have both indirect and direct access that confirm our assessment that Jim is now being held by the Syrian government in a detention facility in the Damascus area. We further believe that this facility is under the control of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence service. Based on what we have learned, it is likely Jim is being held with one or more Western journalists, including most likely at least one other American.

In the last few weeks, GlobalPost’s representatives have been meeting in Beirut with the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon to secure his support and assistance in gaining Foley’s freedom, Balboni said, adding:

The ambassador has been very cooperative with us and he has facilitated the delivery of letters of appeal from the Foley family to the leading ministries of the Syrian government, including the ministries of Defense, Interior, Information and Foreign Affairs.

We have also been in contact with the Syrian government at a high level through both private and diplomatic channels, to appeal to them to acknowledge that they are holding Jim and then to release him so that he can return to his family. We very hopeful of Jim’s release and we are totally committed to bringing him home safely and as quickly as possible.

Foley, a freelance reporter, had been covering the country’s civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse (AFP), and failed to show up for a rendezvous with a colleague on Thanksgiving Day. That colleague later learned that while en route, Foley had been pulled from the car he was traveling in and abducted at gunpoint.

With no word from Foley’s his captors, GlobalPost hired and international security firm based in Washington, DC and launched exhaustive, ground level investigation in Northern Syria and along the Turkish border to locate him. “We deployed trained kidnapping and ransom specialists to the field working out of Turkey and across the border, interviewing everyone who had any contact with Jim,” he said in an interview following his speech on Friday. “We developed, pursued, and rejected literally hundreds of leads, but slowly we were able to piece together and develop sources that were reliable and credible, and that brought us to where we are today.”

Foley’s family and GlobalPost went through another kidnapping ordeal in 2011 when forces loyal to former dictator Muammar Qaddafi captured Foley and three other journalists (one of whom was killed) while they were traveling with rebel forces in Libya. In that case, however, Foley’s employer and his loved ones quickly learned of his whereabouts and an international media campaign successfully pressured the Libyan government to release him 45 days later.

The situation in Syria, where 37 journalists have died since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, has been vastly more complicated, Balboni said on Friday. Initially, the Foley family decided to request a media blackout, which isn’t uncommon, but after six weeks with no information about their son, they decided to go public with an appeal to whoever was holding him to get in touch, and they launched a website to solicit tips and information. Even now that they know where their son is, however, the Foleys and GlobalPost are proceeding with the utmost caution.

“It’s tough, because on the one hand, thank God he’s alive, but I’ve always felt he was alive. I’ve never doubted,” said Foley’s mother, Diane, when asked about the progress. “But it’s still very difficult and there’s a lot of angst about getting to hear his voice—we still haven’t heard from him—and getting him released. So we appeal to the Syrian government to do the right thing and recognize that Jim was an objective journalist, witnessing what was happening in that country, and free him.”

Foley, who grew up in New Hampshire, came to journalism as a second career. With a bachelor’s degree in history from Marquette University and an MFA in creative writing from UMass, Amherst, Foley instructed inner-city students in Phoenix, AZ with Teach for America and then taught reading and writing to inmates at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp in Chicago. Then, at age 35, he enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Asked what had drawn her son into reporting, Diane Foley said, “He had started writing fiction when at UMass, but afterward, the more he worked with the disadvantaged in Phoenix and Chicago, which he also was passionate about, he realized that the stories he wanted to tell were real stories—stories about people’s lives—and he saw journalism as a vehicle for talking about what’s really happening in the world.”

Foley participated in Medill’s conflict reporting course in Washington, DC, and after graduation, his first assignment was as an embed with the US Army’s 173rd Brigade and 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. He loved it, and even after the kidnapping in Libya, remained committed to covering conflicts.

“Before leaving for Syria this last time, Jim said that he finally had found his passion,” said Foley’s father, John, on Friday. “Journalists play a vital role in bringing the light of truth to darkness of war and suffering. We are proud of Jim’s commitment to his work. Jim convinced us that on the ground reporting was one of the best ways to let the world know the truth.”

GlobalPost has a plan that centers on diplomatic efforts to secure Foley’s release in Syria, Balboni said. Currently, there is no plan for the US government to make a public appeal for Foley’s release, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did after he was captured in Libya, but the Foleys and GlobalPost say they’ve have had its full support. An online petition might prove helpful, Balboni added, but he discouraged people from mounting a direct letter-writing campaign to the Syrian government.

In trying to determine the best course of action, the four-year-old GlobalPost, whose only previous experience in the realm of hostage negotiations was Foley’s abduction in Libya, has relied primarily on the advice of the security experts it hired, but it has also relied on the experience of other outlets that have faced similar challenges.

“There are no road maps for dealing with a problem like this,” Balboni said. “There’s no way to be sure that anything you’re doing is right, but we have had extensive conversations with other news organizations that have faced kidnappings in Syria and with the journalist who have been kidnapped.”

Figuring who was holding Foley, and where, was only the first step, however. Now, his family and friends must secure his release. A panel of conflict reporters who spoke at Friday’s event, including three that had been taken hostage or prisoner, said that it is usually better to be dealing with a government, even a dictatorial one, than an autonomous militia or terrorist cell, but the situation remains delicate.

“Hopefully, we are close,” Balboni said. “The next few weeks will tell us exactly how close.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,