James Foley, the American photojournalist whose abduction I wrote about for Vanity Fair (May 2014), has been executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)—the same group that, starting from bases in Syria, is currently marauding its way through the Sunni heartland of Iraq. The execution video, reminiscent of a spate of grisly beheadings of Western hostages early in the Iraq war, is narrated by a masked, British-sounding jihadi who ties the decision to kill Foley to President Obama's decision to mount air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. His only direct charge against Foley the journalist is that his brother may have been an airman.
Foley went missing after a three-week reporting stint in northern Syria's Idlib province on November 22, 2012—before the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham was even born. In all likelihood he was taken by a secretive fringe group working alongside other Islamist factions in the Idlib area, one that, after a series of twists and turns, folded itself into the structure of ISIS in the spring of 2013. At one point Foley, along with other foreign hostages, was possibly being held under the noses of the Free Syrian Army, whose barracks were next door. That he could be kept captive for so long, and that he fell into the hands of ISIS, tells us something about the chaos of rebel-held northern Syria. It also tells us a good deal about the ISIS and its methods. Other rebel groups in Syria kidnap for money or to be able to engage in hostage barter, and so, on occasion, does ISIS. But ISIS kidnaps (and, reportedly, also buys or takes hostages from other groups) as part of a longer game. "They might keep Americans for special occasions," one Syrian activist turned bounty hunter told me last year—as if they were bottles of wine to be kept in the cellar for a rainy day.
Foley was not alone. I'd known for some time that he, along with a number of other Westerners, remained in the custody of ISIS. Many people who knew Jim, including his family and his employer, GlobalPost, had been making patient and valiant attempts to secure his release. In the video, the executioner shows off another kidnapped American journalist, Steven Sotloff, a freelancer who has contributed to Time magazine and was seized by ISIS in northern Syria in the summer of 2013, and threatens to kill him too. Foley's family went public early with the news of his abduction, but most people don't know about many of the other kidnappings. In large part this is because governments and families have persuaded themselves that the best strategy is to institute a "media blackout" in the hope of quietly securing the release of loved ones. Such blackouts don't necessarily end with the release of hostages. The few who have been released from the custody of ISIS (about a half dozen, none of them American) appear to have been let go for money or other benefits—and to have been sworn to secrecy. There are arguments for and against such blackouts, and there have been lively debates among the families of the missing about their strategic value, but in principle they seem inimical to the spirit of journalism—and potentially counterproductive.
As a crime, kidnapping is uniquely cruel. Amid all the international concern about chemical weapons, thousands of ordinary Syrians have quietly been kidnapped in the last three years; there are no security companies to look out for them, and there is little outcry when they don't come back. For a long period of time, Foley's family, like many other families, had no idea whether their son was alive or dead. According to someone close to one of the cases, other prisoners who spent time with Foley noted that he had been severely tortured. He was also well liked: despite his travails over nearly two years of captivity, he remained upbeat and optimistic until the end. His killing will likely ignite a furious debate about the merits of President Obama's decision to intervene in Iraq, and whether the administration could have done more to protect kidnapped Americans in Syria.
But what could in fact be done? Some will say that the United States might have tried to buy the kidnappers off with money, or leaned more firmly on its regional allies to use their influence. But money begets more acts of terror, and hardly anyone has influence on ISIS. One reason given for media blackouts is that publicizing cases will put undue pressure on governments to act, thus driving up the price of a release. But "something must be done" is not a satisfactory principle on which to base foreign policy. And the end result of keeping secrets is that the initiative passes to the kidnappers themselves, who can release news of their captives whenever they please. What is clear is that we need to begin a conversation about how to deal with this cruel and growing threat to human life and dignity – and how we can keep ourselves from being held hostage to such threats. Otherwise it's not only fine and brave journalists like James Foley who will be held at gunpoint. The hostages will also be us.