“Jim was my parallel universe”
Today marks one year since Isis released a video of the execution of James Foley. For the 20 months Foley was missing in Syria, his friend and former employer Phil Balboni, the founder and CEO of GlobalPost, desperately tried to win his release. We spoke with Balboni two months after Isis released the horrific video. Here's how he looked back at Foley's life and his tragic death
19th August 2014 (Taken from: #16)
“When I first heard that James, Jim as I knew him, had gone missing, I had a great deal of hope we’d get him back. Even as the situation developed I always thought we would get him back. Jim had been taken before in Libya in 2011 and we had managed to get him out then. I thought we would again.
I first worked with Jim in 2010 when he started reporting for GlobalPost from Afghanistan. He was a classic freelance journalist – talented and versatile, and he knew how to uncover a story. He was a teacher first and then decided he wanted to pursue journalism. Like so many others, he headed overseas in search of stories – first to Iraq, then to Afghanistan, then to Libya where he was captured. It seems strange to say, but it was Jim’s kidnapping in Libya that was our bonding experience. I supervised the effort to free him myself. I had no prior experience with this at all and it was a 24/7 effort, but I formed a security team, hired a security company and we worked together every day for the 44 days he was held.
It was one of those times in life when you bring all your acquired skills to bear: common sense, judgement, focus and sometimes just sheer effort to stay at it. We used a variety of diplomatic and back channels into the very highest level of the Libyan government to convince them that Jim and the other journalists who were captured were innocent. They weren’t spies and should be released. As bad as Gaddafi and the people around him most certainly were, it was an organised government so you could deal with them.
When we managed to get them out Jim revealed his South African colleague had been shot dead when the others had been captured. He died at Jim’s feet. I think that had a profound effect on Jim. It marked him for the rest of his life.
When Jim came back we offered him a full-time role on the desk here at the GlobalPost as an editor. He did it for a while, but you could see he wasn’t happy. When you’re a reporter at heart that’s the only thing that’s going to make you happy. He really wanted to go back to Libya. The civil war was nearing its crescendo and he wanted to be there. We tried to convince him not to, but it’s a free country and he could do what he wanted.
After the war he decided to head to Syria. He was drawn to Islam and the brotherhood and sisterhood of conflict reporting. The last story he filed was on 16th October 2012. I re-read it recently and it really foreshadowed what was to come – it was about the new breed of jihadist groups and how extreme they were becoming. The next news I heard was from a freelancer who Jim had failed to meet. She emailed to tell me he had gone missing.
He was a classic freelance journalist: talented and versatile, and he knew how to uncover a story”
I didn’t anticipate the difficulty we would face this time. It took one entire year until we even knew he was alive and even that news came from a stroke of luck. The father of a young Belgian jihadist went to Syria to get his son, who had joined Isis voluntarily. The father was an incredibly brave man and he managed to find his son, get him out of the clutches of these people and return him to Belgium.
It turns out the son had spent time with Jim. He told this to his father, who contacted us. We visited the son in prison in Belgium and interviewed him, and he had a very convincing story that he’d spent six weeks with Jim in a detention centre in Aleppo and they had become friends. He wanted to help Jim and let his family know that he was OK. That was our first ray of hope in a year. He didn’t know who the captors were. We suspected that it was Isis but had no proof. It’s important to remember that nobody was focused on Isis then. There were scores if not hundreds of brigades there and Isis was not well known until they burst through into Iraq and became important in the eyes of the world. It was the hardest time of my life. Jim became my parallel universe. One part of my life was my ‘normal’ life as CEO of GlobalPost – my family, my friends… Jim was my parallel life, always there. There wasn’t a day without Jim; sometimes only for a minute, sometimes for many hours. He was never out of my thoughts.
Then an email from the kidnappers arrived on 26th November  addressed to Jim’s brother Michael and myself. It said that they had “our friend” James and they didn’t want to hurt him, but they wanted a lot of money from us fast. They offered us the opportunity to ask three proof of life questions – which were constructed very carefully by the family to be impossible to answer unless you were James. They all came back answered correctly. That was a dramatic moment for us. It was our second proof of life and we knew we were dealing with the kidnappers directly.
It was a time of hope. We had communication, we knew Jim was OK – at least well enough to answer the questions – and we had an opportunity to negotiate his release. As we know, many European hostages were released by the paying of a ransom.
I don’t think I ever had any compunction about negotiating with terrorists – you deal in what you have to deal with. Our policy was that we would not pay a ransom, but my job was also to help the family. The Foleys clearly wanted to pay a ransom, and were prepared to do so, but they never had the chance.
In mid-December the kidnappers stopped communicating. It was around that time that fighting broke out among the jihadist groups and Isis was driven out of Aleppo by other groups. They moved east and ended up in Raqqa at some point in January.
There was no communication until the email of 12th August, which threatened Jim’s life in retaliation for US airstrikes. Then came 19th August.
I had to watch that video of Jim, I had to complete that journey with my friend, but I’d implore others not to. It’s a propaganda piece designed to either instil fear in people or – most horribly of all – inspire people to join Isis’s cause. That is its ultimate purpose, to remotely radicalise people, and many thousands have been radicalised – including children of 16, 17, 18.
I think the issue of how you deal with hostage situations like Jim’s in the US and UK needs to be re-examined. There should have been a way to get Jim out alive and it will haunt me forever that I wasn’t able to bring him home.
John and Diane Foley – Jim’s parents – are remarkably strong people. They have a strong faith, a strong family. To lose a son is devastating, but I believe that they see the man he was – the reaction to his death has given them a portrait of their son, a portrait they can be very proud of.”
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #16 of Delayed Gratification
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