ROCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE – In 2011, just after he was released from the Libyan prison where he’d been held for six weeks, James Foley acknowledged the peril journalists face covering the world’s most dangerous places, soberly conceding that a mistake could mean death.
“It’s pure luck that you didn’t get killed there. Pure luck,” Foley said during the appearance at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “And you either need to change your behavior right there or you shouldn’t be doing this. Because it’s not worth your life. It’s not worth seeing your mother, your father, brother and sister bawling and you’re worrying about your grandmother dying because you’re in prison.”
Foley went back overseas, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and held captive for months before he was slain. Islamic State militants on Tuesday posted a video on the Internet that showed his killing.
His mother said Wednesday that the 40-year-old from New Hampshire came out of the Libyan scrape more driven to tell the story of people oppressed by thuggish regimes. In a kitchen conversation, Diane Foley tried to steer her son into other pursuits.
“Mom, I found my passion. I found my vocation,” she recalled him saying.
Former co-workers saw that intensity.
“He was determined to go to Syria and he wanted to get the point of view of the Syrian people told,” said Andrew Meldrum, assistant Africa editor for The Associated Press, who worked with Foley at GlobalPost in Boston. “He could have continued to work in the safety of Boston. It wasn’t like he even made a decision. He was dead set on going there.”
It was not always comfortable for his colleagues.
“He took you right there, and sometimes we were looking at things and thinking ‘He’s too close. He’s too close,'” Meldrum said. “And you wanted to say, ‘Pull back,’ but it was compelling video. He really found his purpose in life in going out and reporting that story.”
Foley was abducted Nov. 22, 2012, and hadn’t been heard from since. The militant Islamic State group said it killed him as a warning to the United States after U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq. The group said a second hostage, journalist Steven Sotloff, would be executed unless the U.S. halts its intervention in Iraq.
Sotloff published articles from Syria, Egypt and Libya in publications including Time.com, the World Affairs Journal and Foreign Policy. He posted links to many of them on his Twitter feed, and several focus on the plight of average people in war-torn places such as Aleppo, Syria.
Didier Francois, a longtime reporter for Europe-1 radio, was held hostage for eight months with Foley in Syria and was among four French journalists released in April.
“He was an extraordinary guy, a superb journalist, someone extremely strong, who never cracked despite extremely difficult conditions,” Francois said in comments carried on Europe-1’s website.
In the 2011 appearance at Medill, Foley said he was in Libya to give voice to people who hadn’t been able to speak out against their government. But the Internet-fueled, Arab Spring uprising posed challenges that he said made front-line reporting essential.
“It was so hard for a journalist to nail down some facts, and I think that’s part of the reason you’re drawn to the front line,” he said. “I mean, I’m drawn to the front line naturally, but, it’s like: Facebook, press conference by this transitional council, and you’re like, I’ve got to confirm this.”
Foley was also a big-hearted, charitable friend. The day he was abducted in Libya, South African colleague Anton Hammerl was killed. When Foley got back to the U.S., he and the other two journalists who survived the ambush vowed to support Hammerl’s three children.
John Foley called his son a hero for shining a light on stories of oppressed people and said that outweighed the danger he faced.
“Yes, there was a war,” he said Wednesday. “Yes, there was conflict, but there are people involved. And there are feelings involved and there are sacrifices involved and he felt that was worth sharing. And I couldn’t agree more.”
In the Medill talk, Foley said he was initially drawn to foreign reporting because he had a brother in the air force in Iraq.
“I guess (it’s) some kind of romantic notion about yourself. You want to be a writer. You want to see the world,” he said. “Fiction didn’t work out too well. Let’s try the real thing. There’s an amazing reach for humanity in these places, in these barren places.”