The Islamic State terrorists who kidnapped American journalist James Foley never made serious attempts to negotiate a ransom before brutally executing him, family members testified Monday.
Foley’s brother and mother took the witness stand at U.S. District Court in Alexandria at the terror trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, a Briton accused of played a leading role in a hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the deaths of Foley and three other Americans — Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
James Foley, a freelance photographer who grew up in New Hampshire, left for Syria in October 2012. He was well aware of the potential dangers — indeed, he had spent more than a month in captivity in Libya while on assignment during that country’s civil war.
Diane Foley, his mother, testified that she became deeply concerned about her son when he failed to call them as he usually would on Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t until late November, after Thanksgiving, that they actually received an email from James’ captors seeking to establish a line of communication.
Michael Foley, James’ brother, said the emails exchanged in November 2012 and January 2013 sought either the release of Muslim prisoners or 100 million euros.
“We had no ability to secure either of those demands,” he said. “It’s not a reasonable demand. It’s not a negotiation, in my mind.”
The captors did provide evidence that they were in possession of Foley and that he was still alive by giving personal details about James’ life that would have been known only to him and his family.
But despite repeated efforts to engage the hostage-takers in talks, the Foleys received no replies to multiple emails for roughly 8 months. Finally, in August 2013, they received an email titled: “A message to the American government and their sheep-like citizens.”
The email criticized the U.S. for a recent bombing campaign that had been undertaken against the Islamic State.
“As for the scum of your society who are held prisoner by us, THEY DARED TO ENTER THE LION’S DEN AND WHERE [sic] eaten,” the message said. It promised retaliation, “the first of which being the blood of your American citizen, James Foley. He will be executed as a DIRECT result of your transgressions towards us!”
A few days later, Foley was beheaded in a gruesome video broadcast across the Internet.
Both Foleys testified that they first learned of James’ death from reporters calling for reaction.
Michael Foley said he found the video readily available on the Internet and watched it multiple times. Diane Foley said she kept hoping it was a cruel joke. She called the FBI and other government officials she’d been in contact with, but none would respond throughout the day.
The first official confirmation she received was on the evening news, when then-President Barack Obama confirmed the beheading.
The refusal to negotiate in serious terms stands in contrast to earlier testimony, where negotiators for European hostages engaged in lengthy discussions that resulted in the release of hostages. One hostage was released after raising 2 million euros, a negotiated figure that was just a fraction of what was demanded from the Foleys.
Elsheikh is better known as one of “the Beatles,” a nickname he and at least two other Brits were given by their captives because of their accents. Elsheikh and a longtime friend, Alexenda Kotey, were captured together and brought to Virginia to face trial.
Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence.
A third Beatle, Mohammed Emwazi, served as executioner in the video of Foley’s execution. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike.
There have been conflicting statements during the trial about the existence of a fourth Beatle. An individual previously identified in public discussion as a fourth Beatle, Aine Davis, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.
Defense lawyers have highlighted the discrepancies over the Beatles’ identities, and say there is insufficient evidence to prove Elsheikh was one of the Beatles who participated in the hostage-taking scheme.
Prosecutors, though, plan to present evidence later in the trial that Elsheikh confessed to his role under questioning from interrogators and in media interviews.