Will James Foley's Death Raise the Stakes in Iraq?

James Foley, journalist

James Foley near the airport in Tripoli, Libya 2011.
Photo courtesy of FreeJamesFoley.org

Will James Foley's Death Raise the Stakes in Iraq?
| published August 20, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

According to almost everyone who knew him, the American photojournalist James Foley was one of those people that you instantly liked. He wouldn’t know how to make an enemy if he tried. Nevertheless, Foley was regarded as an enemy of ISIS, or, perhaps more troubling—as a pawn to be used as leverage.

Unblinking but empathetic to the subjects he photographed—and an honest broker among the subjects he covered when gathering news—Foley’s horrifying death at the hands of ISIS extremists is reason enough to fear not merely the message being spread by the militants but also their twisted world view.

Foley was an unlikely enemy of ISIS in that sense—neither a spy nor someone easily misunderstood as a spy. But Foley had the misfortune of being captured at gunpoint along the border between Syria and Turkey two years ago. He had been freelancing for several media outlets, including The Global Post (Boston) and Agence France-Presse. Witnesses say that he was abducted by militants who took him from one car and tossed him into another.

Foley was never seen or heard from again until his image appeared in a video, shot and edited by ISIS fighters, which appears to show the photographer being beheaded by an ISIS militant.

Over the last 20 months, his parents had pleaded with the militants (it was not entirely clear who had abducted him in November 2012) to show mercy and release him. Some analysts suggested that Foley would eventually be used in a prisoner trade with extremist groups—Foley in exchange for captured al Qaeda or ISIS militants.

But the dynamics have shifted wildly since the spring, when the de-evolution of conditions in northern Syria gave rise to a more extreme version of anti-Assad militancy. Lawlessness and chaos enabled ISIS to gather momentum, and in June the militant army sprang across northern Syria and into Iraq. Ahead of its advance, Iraqi soldiers retreated, in many cases abandoning their weapons and the vehicles, and in the process allowing ISIS to become even more heavily armed. ISIS has since spread fear and terror across a wide swath of the Middle East, sweeping into towns and cities, forcing the immediate conversion to strict Islamic law (as it is interpreted by ISIS), and summarily executing anyone who did not comply. Beheading became the punishment of choice in some cases, though ISIS has also released many videos which show people being executed at gunpoint, their bodies pushed into hastily dug ditches and mass graves.

Yezidis, an ethnic and religious minority concentrated heavily in the area around Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria, became the target of ISIS’s most recent assaults. Yezidis in a dozen towns and villages were forced to evacuate as ISIS fighters approached, and tens of thousands of civilians fled into the hills and onto Mount Sinjar. Many told horror stories of watching as men were shot, women were raped or tortured, or small groups of Yezidis were executed by gunfire or beheadings.

As a humanitarian crisis unfolded for the thousands trapped on Mount Sinjar, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered targeted air strikes on ISIS positions. More than 100 strikes have taken place since the air campaign began 9 days ago, and a combination of Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have begun to make a considerable pushback against ISIS positions on the ground. Just days ago, Kurdish and Iraqi troops waged a hard-fought battle to regain control of the dam at Mosul, and other ground detachments have been moving to retake other key locations, including oil fields and oil refineries captured by ISIS last month.

The U.S. air strikes have dealt a serious blow to ISIS, disrupting their movements, destroying vehicles and weapons stockpiles, and killing more than 30 militants. The killing of James Foley was intended as a very public form of revenge against the U.S. for its policy of attacking ISIS. In the video of Foley’s death, an ISIS militant threatens more beheadings of captured Americans if the U.S. military continues its campaign against ISIS forces on the ground. Now believed to be at grave risk is American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was freelancing for Time and The National Interest when he was kidnapped one year ago.

Foley, who turned 40 this year, was widely liked by other journalists, videographers and photographers. He was admired not only for his self-deprecating humor, his skills as a photojournalist, but also for his sharing, giving nature and his empathetic approach to his subjects. Foley had been in Syria covering that country’s brutal civil war when he was abducted. Foley often said that he felt it was his calling to be a front-line journalist—that is, a reporter and a videographer willing to put his safety and life at risk if that was what it took to bring the human story of war to a world audience.

Foley had been captured by insurgents before, in Libya in 2011, and was held for 44 days. Despite the experience, Foley insisted on continuing to report from troubled places, including Syria’s brutal civil war.

“I still want to be a conflicts journalist,” he told the Boston Globe after his release in Libya, “but I realize this is life and death.” When Foley was abducted in Libya, he was one of several journalists who witnessed South African photographer Anton Hammerl being shot dead right in front of them.

Foley was working in Syria when he was captured in November 2012. Secretly, the U.S. military had attempted a rescue mission earlier this year to free Foley and other journalists, but the top-secret mission apparently failed because the hostages were not in the location which Pentagon intelligence had led them to regard as the key target.

A video released by ISIS a few days ago shows Foley dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his hands apparently tied behind his back as he kneels in a featureless dessert landscape. Next to him is an ISIS militant dressed entirely in black, his face hooded. After a few minutes in which Foley is allowed to speak, the militant issued threats—interestingly in a British accent tinged with a hint of either Liverpool or Scotland. The militant then produces a large knife and begins to cut Foley’s throat, though the video fades quickly to black.

The U.S. National Security Council verified the video, and in a statement said that “we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned Foley’s beheading, calling ISIS’s actions barbaric.

Foley’s killing may have also had the effect of drawing other nations into the fray against ISIS. So outrageous were the circumstances of his death that Italy and Germany announced their intention to begin supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters (and other minority groups within Iraq and Syria) to aid in their battle with ISIS.

President Obama angrily compared ISIS to a cancer, and promised that the U.S. air campaign would continue unabated despite ISIS’s threat of more beheadings and killings. More air strikes were conducted by U.S. forces today in the area near the Mosul dam and in areas south and southeast of Mount Sinjar.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press called the murder of a journalist during wartime an international crime.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Iraq Airstrikes Continue; Maliki Steps Aside; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 15, 2014.

ISIS, Iraq, and a Humanitarian Crisis; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 13, 2014.