Conflict & Justice

Media backgrounder: The investigation into James Foley’s kidnapping


Journalist James Foley reporting for GlobalPost from Benghazi, Libya in mid-March. Foley, along with three other foreign journalists, was detained by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on April 5.


BOSTON, Mass. — American journalist James Foley was killed on Aug. 19, 2014 by Islamic State militants. The Foley family, private security consultants, the US government and GlobalPost had been investigating Foley’s whereabouts inside Syria and pursuing his release since Nov. 22, 2012.

What follows is a timeline of major events during the 21-month attempt first to find and later to free Foley. Throughout those months, GlobalPost withheld significant amounts of information out of concern for the safety of hostages held in Syria and at the request of families whose loved ones were missing there. Some are still missing.

Following his death, we are releasing details of Foley’s case that help to explain the story of his captivity, and which may inform ongoing attempts to free foreign hostages held by the Islamic State.


Nov. 22, 2012: James Foley goes missing in Syria. Shortly after, GlobalPost hires consultants to assist with an investigation, in conjunction with the Foley family and government authorities, into his whereabouts.

Jan. 2, 2013: GlobalPost first publicizes Jim’s kidnapping by gunmen in Idlib Province. CEO and Co-founder Phil Balboni says the investigation so far has involved "many parties in the United States and in the Middle East."

Jan. 23, 2013: GlobalPost publishes an update on Foley's case, details of which continue to be extremely difficult to verify. "Today, there is still no definitive news about his exact whereabouts or what group is responsible," Middle East editor Peter Gelling writes. "The lack of information is deeply frustrating for the Foley family, which has taken to the media in recent weeks in the hopes the captors may come forward."

May 3, 2013: GlobalPost publicizes new information that suggests Foley is being held by the Syrian regime. Gelling writes: "After a five-month investigation inside Syria and the wider Middle East, GlobalPost and the family of missing American journalist James Foley now believe the Syrian government is holding him in a detention center near Damascus." This information later turns out to be wrong. 

Sept. 2013: For the first time, Foley’s family and the rest of the team investigating his disappearance receive reliable information that he is alive. Key details, including indications that Foley is being held by Islamist militants, come from a young Belgian who had contact with Foley inside Syria. (More on this in later comments by Balboni to NBC News.)

Oct. 16, 2013: The Foleys issue a public appeal for Jim’s release two days before his 40th birthday. 

Nov. 22, 2013: On the one-year anniversary of Jim’s kidnapping, GlobalPost publishes an update on the investigation. At this time there has been "no direct contact with Jim and no communication with his kidnappers, nor has any ransom demand been received," CEO Balboni writes.

Nov. 26, 2013: For the first time, Foley’s family hears from his captors, who do not identify themselves. They send an email to a member of the Foley family and to GlobalPost’s Balboni. The message states that the captors have Jim and want money, soon, though they do not specify an amount.

Early to mid-Dec., 2013: In subsequent exchanges the Foley family obtains proof of Jim’s life, based on correct answers from his captors to highly obscure, personal questions the Foleys had crafted with the help of federal officials and private consultants. In later contact, the kidnappers demand a ransom of 100 million euros (about $132.5 million) or the release of unspecified prisoners held by the United States in exchange for Jim’s freedom. The Foley family thoroughly discusses the issue of paying a ransom with the authorities, private investigators, and GlobalPost. There is no negotiation over the amount of the ransom. (More from Balboni on this in later comments quoted by CNN and NBC News.)

Investigations around this time indicate that Foley, who has been moved around Syria throughout his detention, is being held by Islamist militants in an Aleppo hospital. Information from former fellow hostages suggests he has been singled out for especially abusive treatment.

Late Dec., 2013: Foley’s captors stop communicating with his family or any other members of the investigating team close to Christmas Day. GlobalPost believes this was likely due to internecine conflict among militants in Syria. It was around this time that the group now known as the Islamic State was kicked out of Aleppo by rival groups.

April, 2014: Captors in Syria begin to release for ransom a stream of Western journalists and aide workers who were held with Foley. GlobalPost investigators and members of the Foley family interview many of them and learn details about their captivity and Foley's condition — including the details that ransoms were paid for their release, generally with the support of their governments, and the approximate amount of the ransoms.

Aug. 12, 2014: The Foley family receives an email from the captors stating that Jim will be executed in retaliation for US bombings in Iraq against the Islamic State. The Foleys share the information with US authorities, private investigators, and GlobalPost. The family soon responds by email and pleads for mercy. The captors do not respond.

Aug. 19, 2014: A video depicting James Foley’s decapitation is uploaded to YouTube. The Islamic State claims responsibility for the killing and threatens to kill another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, who is one of three Americans still in their custody.

Aug. 20, 2014: US intelligence officials confirm that the video of Foley’s murder is authentic. President Barack Obama makes a public statement soon after, asserting: “The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others.”