There is a certain small justice in the idea that Baghdadi’s death has brought renewed public attention to ISIS as a continued threat. (“Trump Declares ISIS ‘100%’ Defeated in Syria. ‘100% Not True,’ Ground Reports Say,” a New York Times headline read in February.) The ISIS leader’s demise has been, in its own way, a catalyst. And the attention itself helps, in its way, to carry on Foley’s work: He went to Syria in the first place because of the stories that he believed needed to be told.
In his murder, ISIS tried to turn James Foley, the person, into James Foley, the symbol. The group tried to treat Foley as a stand-in for America itself. (The video of Foley’s death—ISIS titled it “A Message to America”—included the group’s declaration that Foley’s execution was intended as retaliation for U.S. military actions in Iraq.) In the years since his death, however, Foley’s family and colleagues—including many of the people with whom he was held captive, who were freed—have worked to effect another kind of justice: to ensure that Foley, despite all his tragic symbolism, would be remembered in his full and individual complexity.
In the aftermath of her son’s capture, Diane Foley, as those touched by tragedy sometimes will, became an accidental activist: She advocated on behalf of James, first fighting for his release and then, after his death, speaking on behalf of the many other people who are still held hostage by ISIS and other groups. She founded and leads the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for the safe return of those hostages and works to help protect freelance journalists working in conflict zones. Because of that work, Foley was one of the small group of people who learned that Baghdadi had died before President Trump announced the news yesterday morning: On Saturday night, Foley told me, she and her family received a phone call from the FBI’s Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell informing them only that, as Foley put it, “one valuable target had been located.”
Diane Foley learned the extent of the news before most other Americans—this time in a call from Robert O’Brien, the Trump administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (and, as of September, its national security adviser). O’Brien confirmed to Foley what would soon be widely reported: Baghdadi was dead. He had killed himself, reportedly detonating a suicide vest while being pursued by American forces in northwest Syria.
And so came, for Foley, that repeated horror—the reopening of wounds that can never be fully healed. But the pain was accompanied by something else as well: a sense of relief. “I’m grateful, I’m very grateful, that we still had U.S. troops in the country,” she said of Syria, “and that our intelligence and our president chose to pursue Baghdadi and find him.” Foley has been vocal about her conviction that ISIS members should stand trial rather than be killed in theaters of war; she has said as well that, when it comes to justice for convicted ISIS fighters, she prefers life imprisonment to the death penalty. In this case, though, she told me, “Baghdadi would not allow himself to be captured.” Her years of advocacy have given her an expertise in ISIS’s inner workings; tragedy’s education has led her to see Baghdadi’s suicide in broad, and historical, terms. “I’m very grateful,” she said of his death, “that it’s a blow to ISIS.” The rest of what she sees and feels in this moment is deeply, unavoidably personal.