In the end, Jim Foley died just as he wanted to live, pursuing a story that mattered on the front line of hard news journalism. In Afghanistan, Libya, and finally Syria he recorded the horror, chaos, and occasional compassion that define the war on terror. But it was his gruesome killing on the barren sands of a foreign land that truly conveys the evil that envelops the Islamic Caliphate’s hooded assassins.
I got to know Jim Foley in 2009 when both of us worked on USAID-funded development projects in Baghdad. A former Teach for America instructor, Foley helped organize conferences and training seminars for a program designed to rebuild Iraq’s civil service, crippled by decades of isolation and autocratic administration.
We lived in a Red Zone compound guarded by African mercenaries and surrounded by concrete T-walls topped with razor wire. It was possible to see the surrounding Mansour neighborhood by climbing to the roof of a bombed-out building once used by Saddam’s intelligence service. But for the most part Jim Foley’s Iraq was an aural experience punctuated by nightly small arms fire, daily calls to prayer, and nearby car bombs that would blow out office windows and leave his apartment carpeted with glass.
Foley’s job took him “outside the wire,” but his glimpses of Baghdad came through the thick windows of an armored car that would drive as fast as possible directly to a government ministry. Put in place in early 2004 after al Qaeda beheaded several Westerners involved in the rebuilding effort, the tight security prevented further kidnappings. But the restrictions also made it difficult for private contractors hired to implement development programs to really get to know Iraq.
Foley chafed under these restrictions. He wanted to understand the passions driving the conflict and meet the people whose lives had been upended by war. So in 2010 he left Iraq and moved to Afghanistan to become a freelance journalist.
Foley had been in Afghanistan for about six months when I called him on Skype. The company I worked for had an opening in Kabul for a communications director. Would he be interested in the job? “I know it will pay more than you’re earning as a freelance journalist,” I hinted. “Try it for six months.”
Foley laughingly said no thanks. “I’m finally doing what I want,” he said. “Yeah, the money’s not great, but I think I’m making a difference. Somebody needs to report what’s going on here.”
In 2011, Foley moved to Libya, where he was captured and held along with two other journalists for 44 days. Following his release he briefly returned to the United States and visited Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. There he tried to explain to students the attraction of war zones. “The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you,” he confided. “It doesn’t always repel you; it draws you closer. Feeling like you’ve survived something—it’s a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to. I think that’s the absolute reality.”
David DeVoss worked as a Time magazine war correspondent in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan.