We woke today to the horrifying news that James Foley, an American journalist who was captured in Syria in November 2012, was brutally beheaded at the hands of Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS. As part of the grisly video the people who killed him made, they showed that they apparently hold another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, who has been missing for almost a year after being kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border.
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Islamic State militants said in the video entitled “Message to America” that they killed Foley in response to U.S. air strikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq. And if U.S. President Barack Obama continues, they said, Sotloff would be next.
What Foley and Sotloff have in common is that they worked as freelance journalists who risked their lives to cover the conflict in Syria, and before that, elsewhere in the Middle East. They didn’t do so because they were thrill-seekers or had axes to grind, but because they truly cared about people of the region and the human tragedy unfolding as the result of the war in Syria –which has since spilled over into Iraq. “We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” said his mother, Diane Foley. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Seeing the image of Foley forced to kneel in his orange jumpsuit threw me back a decade in time, to a period when I was a reporter intermittently covering Iraq. Journalists, diplomats and other foreign nationals in Iraq were being kidnapped by Islamic insurgents in Iraq, and then a few days later, showing up in a video pleading for their lives, reading from a script. The orange jumpsuit was apparently intended as an echo of the dress given to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay by the Bush Administration, many of them picked up in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and declared “enemy combatants.”
But of all the horrid kidnappings in Iraq, the one that really broke my heart was not a journalist at all. She was an Irish, British and Iraqi citizen named Margaret Hassan: She had been the head of the Iraq office of CARE and was married to an Iraqi for several decades. All of which, many hoped, would work in her favor. She was killed in November 2004, a few weeks after she was kidnapped.
Then, like now, the kidnappers had unrealistic demands: They asked the British army to withdraw from Iraq as the price of her release. More likely, though, the kidnappers had been planning to set a price on her freedom, had they succeeded in negotiating her release with British authorities. That, after all, is one of the key motivations that drives kidnapping of journalists and other Westerners. Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have learned that kidnapping foreigners for ransom is a lucrative business, and the proceeds are a key source of funding for further militant activities. When New York Times reporter David Rhode was kidnapped in Afghanistan, he convinced his captors that he was more valuable to them dead than alive, because what he was worth, he offered in a moment of desperation, was “money and prisoners.”
One of the other key factors, of course, is hatred. It was hatred that killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. His death shocked the world and shook the journalist community to its core. Until that point, we somehow thought that unless we got caught in the crossfire, at worst we could end up like AP reporter Terry Anderson, who was held for over six years in Lebanon, from 1985-1991. The murder of Pearl, who choose to do in-depth investigative stories in Pakistan rather than cover what was then the big story - Afghanistan - because his wife was expecting their first child, changed forever the hope that if we reported wisely and thoughtfully and stayed away from the front lines, we could do our important work safely.
After Hassan’s death, I decided I wouldn’t go back to Iraq. But a year later, I changed my mind, and spent December 2005 in Baghdad. Hardly a week after I left, a fellow journalist I had worked alongside, U.S. freelancer Jill Carroll, was kidnapped. Our interpreter or “fixer,” Allan Enwiya, was killed by Sunni insurgents at the moment of her kidnapping. Jill was held for three months, and through exhaustive efforts on the part of The Christian Science Monitor, her family and the U.S. government she was released.
It is not a coincidence that Carroll, like Foley and Sotloff, were freelancers. Journalists who work without the backing of a major news organization are often easy targets for kidnappings because they don’t have the benefits of added security detail and staffing. In an age of shrinking foreign news budgets, there are fewer staff jobs to go around but more opportunities for freelancers – and also greater risks. But to blame the news organizations who benefit from journalists who are willing to take these risks would be to miss the truth. Being a staff writer didn’t save New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid or The Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin, who also died in Syria in 2012. It didn't prevent Sky News cameraman Mick Deane from being killed in Tahrir Square a year ago this week, and no security detail could have foreseen the tragic death of AP videographer Simone Camilli, an Italian national who was killed in Gaza a week ago while filming the work of a bomb-disposal unit.
We do the difficult work of telling some of the most harrowing stories on earth. Our coverage can move the hand of presidents and prime ministers, and can call the world’s attention to the most pressing humanitarian disasters. Had James Foley and others like him not been willing to take those risks, we would have no idea of the scope of suffering unfolding around the world, of the horrific behavior of governments, armies and militias across the Middle East. Or, as Foley put it about week before he last traveled into Syria, according to BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel: “It’s a story we need to cover, and if we don’t go in, who will? If we don’t give the people in there a voice, no one will.”