How a grieving mother tried to 鈥榖uild a bridge鈥 with the militant convicted in her son鈥檚 murder


WASHINGTON (AP) 鈥 After hours of talking about faith and family, redemption and war, the grieving American mother had an additional question for the Islamic militant convicted in her son鈥檚 murder.

Do you know, Diane Foley asked, where my son is buried?

The exchange is described in a new book by Foley that recounts face-to-face encounters she had with the British-born Islamic State fighter who was charged in connection with the brutal beheading in Syria of her son James, a freelance journalist.

Sitting in a windowless courthouse conference room with the man who contributed to her son鈥檚 death, Foley said in an interview, was meant as a 鈥渢iny step鈥 toward reparation 鈥 鈥渇or him to begin to kind of understand where we were coming from and for me to try to hear him.鈥

The conversations afforded Foley an opportunity to memorialize a son everyone knew as Jim 鈥 curious, full of energy, possessed of strong moral bearing. Across the table, Alexanda Kotey, his ankles shackled, conveyed compassion for the Foley family鈥檚 suffering but also made clear his resentment over U.S. actions in the Middle East and remained resolute that he鈥檇 been acting as a soldier during a time of war.

He couldn鈥檛 say where Jim鈥檚 body was buried 鈥 he wished he knew, he said, but he didn鈥檛 鈥 but for Foley, the conversations were nonetheless profoundly worthwhile.

鈥淚 just kind of wanted to somehow build a bridge, that鈥檚 all,鈥 Foley said. 鈥淭he pain and hatred continues unless you take the time to try to listen to one another.鈥

It鈥檚 highly unusual for a victim鈥檚 relative to have meaningful interactions with someone convicted of harming their loved one. But this case has never been ordinary 鈥 and was also never even a sure thing.

Jim Foley was among a group of mostly Western journalists and aid workers held hostage and ultimately killed by a group of British-born Islamic State militants in Syria during a reign of terror that also involved waterboarding and mock executions. The captors came to be known by the incongruously lighthearted nickname of 鈥渢he Beatles鈥 because of their accents.

It wasn鈥檛 until nearly four years after Foley鈥檚 2014 murder at the age of 40 that Kotey and a future co-defendant, El Shafee Elsheikh, were captured by a Kurdish-led, U.S. backed militia. An American drone strike killed the militant actually responsible for Foley鈥檚 killing, Mohammed Emwazi, known by the moniker 鈥淛ihadi John.鈥

After legal wrangling, the pair was brought to the U.S. for prosecution in 2020 after the Justice Department agreed to forgo the death penalty as a possible punishment.

The book traces that saga but also delves into Diane Foley鈥檚 dismay over what she portrays as a coldly bureaucratic U.S. government response to her son鈥檚 disappearance, two years before his death.

The captors reached out with a multimillion-dollar ransom demand, but the Obama administration warned her she could face prosecution if she paid one. Officials struggled to communicate meaningful, up-to-date information.

The first indication something terrible may have happened to her son, Foley says, was a call not from the government but from a reporter 鈥 though in retrospect a possible clue came earlier that morning when two FBI agents arrived at her New Hampshire house to request Jim鈥檚 DNA.

President Barack Obama announced her son鈥檚 death and later called the family, insisting the administration had done everything possible to save Jim and even revealing to them an unsuccessful military operation to rescue the hostages. But the Foleys were unconvinced and during a subsequent White House visit, Foley says she bristled at Obama鈥檚 assurance that Jim was his highest priority, telling him the hostage families had felt abandoned.

Foley channeled that grief into action, pressing the government to do better. The administration in 2015 overhauled its approach to dealing with hostage cases, with Obama saying he鈥檇 heard 鈥渦nacceptable鈥 feedback from families about the government鈥檚 interactions with them. An FBI-led hostage recovery team was was created, along with a new State Department special envoy position.

But the heart of 鈥淎merican Mother,鈥 written with Irish author Colum McCann, is about Foley鈥檚 interactions with Kotey 鈥 conversations mandated under Kotey鈥檚 2021 plea agreement. ( El Sheikh was convicted at trial ).

Inside a conference room at a federal courthouse in Virginia, Foley asked Kotey to describe what he thought of Jim 鈥 a 鈥渢ypical white American鈥 was the response, plus naive and optimistic. He was a truth-seeker, she told him, a teacher, a journalist. In another world, she said, you and Jim could have been friends.

Kotey shared details of his own life, too, pulling out photos of his daughters in bright blue and pink dresses that were taken in a Syrian refugee camp. Foley felt instantly moved by the girls鈥 beauty.

He acknowledged his role in Jim鈥檚 captivity but in a limited way; yes, he had punched him and written the message Jim delivered on camera before his murder. But he said he wasn鈥檛 present for the killing itself. The indictment doesn鈥檛 spell out specific roles for the defendants in the deaths of the Western hostages. What he had done, Kotey said, was what he鈥檇 been directed to do as a soldier in war.

At one point, he opened a tissue package, wiping his eyes as he described being moved by an HBO documentary he鈥檇 seen about Jim鈥檚 life, especially at the sight of his weeping father. He said he was sorry for causing the family pain.

But, he said, he wanted Foley to understand how he came by his resentment.

He told a story of once pulling the remains of a baby from the rubble of an American drone strike, lamenting how no one had been interested in making a documentary about that child as was done for Jim since she was not white or American.

The first two conversations occurred over two days in October 2021, weeks after Kotey鈥檚 guilty plea. She returned the following spring, weeks before he was to start his life sentence, after receiving two handwritten letters from him.

He wrote about his 鈥渃ompassion and sympathy for your collective anguish and grief as a family鈥 but also his ambivalence upon learning that Jim鈥檚 brother was a U.S. military pilot 鈥 something he said he鈥檇 been reluctant to bring up in their earlier meetings.

He said he had 鈥渟truggled to detangle鈥 the 鈥渟ins of the U.S. government鈥 from 鈥渙ur own misguided and unjust responses towards these grievances鈥 but that he now saw things with 鈥済reater clarity.鈥

In their final meeting, they returned again to the question of regret. He said he wished he had not done certain things he鈥檇 been ordered to do, and teared up as he recalled the look on Jim鈥檚 face during one particular beating.

He told her his wife and children had left the refugee camp and were now in Turkey and that he hoped he鈥檇 be able eventually to serve out his sentence in England. Foley extended her hand and he shook it. She said she would pray for him and wished him peace.

By the end of their time together, Diane Foley said in the interview, the sadness in the room was palpable. Everyone, she says, had lost.

She had lost her son; Kotey, even younger than Jim, 鈥渓ost his freedom, his family, his country 鈥 all of it too.鈥

鈥淭o me,鈥 she said, 鈥渢hat was incredibly poignant, and yet by listening to one another, I think there was a bit more understanding somehow.鈥

Tucker covers national security in Washington for 老澳门六合彩, with a focus on the FBI and Justice Department and the special counsel cases against former President Donald Trump.