During the nearly two years that journalist James Foley was held hostage in Syria, before he was killed by the Islamic State this week, Phil Balboni worked hard to get him released.
Balboni is the co-founder and CEO of the online international news company GlobalPost, which Foley was freelancing for at the time of his capture, in November 2012. Foley also was freelancing for GlobalPost when he was captured in Libya by dictator Moammar Gadhafi's forces, in 2011, and held for 44 days.
The video of Foley's beheading, which was posted Tuesday on YouTube, shows another U.S. journalist being held hostage, Steven Sotloff, who was freelancing for Time magazine. The militant in the video who carries out the beheading threatens that Sotloff might be next, depending on what President Obama does.
Phil Balboni talks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about James Foley's captivity and what Balboni tried to do to secure his release.
On deciding whether to pay a ransom
It's very easy to have these theoretical policies about not paying a ransom until you're faced with the real life-and-death situation. Personally — and I know I speak for the Foleys as well — we would've paid a ransom. We were working very hard to raise the money. We had extensive conversations about this with branches of the United States government, with legal counsel. We were well schooled in the law and what was permissible for the family to do. So I had no problem with it. I can understand, giving money to these evil people is a very hard thing to do. I would judge no one who felt that it was entirely improper. But speaking for myself and for John and Diane Foley, we were prepared to do it if we could raise the money.
On communication with Foley's captors
The original demand from the captors was November of 2013. At that moment we'd never had a communication from Jim, and we'd never had an official "proof of life," as it's called. During that communication with the kidnappers, they offered us the opportunity to get proof of life, and the Foleys drafted a series of questions that only Jim could answer. They were extremely difficult — obscure family events that only Jim could know. When those proof-of-life questions came back answered correctly, perfectly, it was a hair-raising moment for all of us because we knew definitively, with certainty, that we were dealing with the people who were holding Jim.
On learning of Foley's kidnapping
I have such a clear mental picture of this. I was sitting in my home in Cambridge, Mass., it was Saturday morning following the Thanksgiving holiday, and I got an email on my Blackberry from a freelance journalist who was a friend of Jim's who was on the Turkish-Syria border saying that she feared that Jim had gone missing.
It was kind of déjà vu for me because I had the same experience when Jim was abducted by Col. [Moammar] Gadhafi's fighters in Libya during the civil war there in the spring of 2011. I immediately called one of the senior people at an international security firm that specializes in kidnap and ransom cases whom I'd worked with in Libya in 2011, and I hired him to work on the case, and from that day, literally, every single day for almost two years we have worked on Jim's case.
We've had, at one time, as many as three or four people in the field in Turkey, sometimes in Syria itself, in Lebanon and other places gathering information. We didn't know where Jim was. We didn't know who took him. We knew nothing. And it took an immensely long time to find out where he was. And, as so often is the case, it was luck that brought the first word that Jim was alive and where he was being held. And it came from a young Belgian, who had gone to pursue jihad in Syria and had been brought home by his very brave father. And he had befriended Jim and had been held in captivity with Jim in northern Syria. And that was the first we had detailed information and knew that Jim was alive and that he was being held by a jihadist group.
On how he will remember Foley
When I see Jim in my mind's eye, which I will for the rest of my life, at his final moment, showing such incredible courage, never flinching just before his executioner put the knife into his throat, that needs to be honored, and we are proud of what we do. Sure, we'd all like more resources to do it with — hopefully as we grow stronger we will — but the importance of the mission, I think, is what Jim's life is all about. He loved telling these stories, and he was drawn to conflict. It's where he really came alive.
On what other hostages, who have been released, have said about Foley
It was universal among all of the released hostages that we talked to that Jim was their favorite, the person whose spirits — no matter what punishment was inflicted on him, and he was regularly singled out for very harsh treatment; I won't go into the details, but he was regularly subject to abuse — but he always kept their spirits up. He always kept them believing that they would get out, and he tried to be a spokesperson with the captors for the other hostages and to keep their morale up. It was so wonderful to hear that and to know that Jim was strong and that he could bring that strength to others.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. During the nearly two years that journalist James Foley was held hostage in Syria before he was beheaded, my guest Phil Balboni worked hard to get him released. Balboni is the co-founder and CEO of the online international news company Global Post, which Foley was freelancing for at the time of his capture in November 2012. Foley had also been reporting for Global Post when he was captured in Libya in 2011 and held for 44 days. The video of Foley's beheading, which was posted Tuesday on YouTube, shows another U.S. journalist being held hostage - Steven Sotloff - who was freelancing for Time magazine. The militant in the video who carries out the beheading threatens that Sotloff might be next depending on what President Obama does. This morning, I spoke by phone with Phil Balboni about the dark period while James Foley was held captive and what Balboni did to try to secure his release. Phil Balboni, thank you for your time this morning. I'm really so sorry for your loss.
PHIL BALBONI: Thank so much, Terry. I appreciate that.
GROSS: You know, it's been reported that earlier in August the Obama Administration authorized a secret military mission to rescue captive Americans in Syria. I'm assuming that includes James Foley. But the hostages weren't there. They were probably moved before the raid. Did you know about the raid?
BALBONI: We did not. It came as a complete surprise to me, to the Foley family. You know, we - over these almost two years that we've been, you know, working on Jim's case and we have talked a number of times about the possibility of a Special Operations mission. We knew that it was unlikely and incredibly dangerous - not just to the Seals or the other Special Ops troops, but also to the hostages. We know that from our many interviews with the released hostages - the ones that came out starting in the spring - that they repeatedly said that any effort to rescue them would be met with the immediate death of all the remaining hostages. I was surprised the government was willing to do it. I commend them for it. We don't know enough about the facts yet to understand why the location wasn't correct. We knew - again, from the extensive research that we'd done -where Jim and the others were being held. At times we knew the very specific building as described. But Roqqa - which is a city in eastern Syria which has become the headquarters of the Islamic State - is in the desert on the way to Iraq. And it's a fairly large city - much larger - if you look at it on a map, it's kind of isolated. So I don't know exactly whether they repeatedly moved the hostages around the city of Raqqa in order to avoid the very thing that actually took place. I suspect we'll learn more in the coming weeks. But in any event, it was a surprise to us.
GROSS: It's also been reported that Isis had demanded a multimillion dollar ransom - $100 million according to the New York Times - from the United States. But the United States has a policy of not paying ransoms for hostages held by terrorists. The reason - if you pay ransoms it can just encourage more hostage-taking and end up putting more Americans at risk. Did you argue, at any point, on behalf of a ransom? Would you have been willing to pay one?
BALBONI: First of all, the figure of $100 million is apparently been somewhat widely circulated. The correct information is 100 million euros. That is the demand in the e-mail from the captors that we received in November of 2013. So, obviously by current currency standards, that's more than 130 million U.S. dollars. We - I mean, we never expected that the United States government would pay a ransom or assist us in paying ransom. And I can tell you, Terry, that we never took the 100 million euro demand seriously. It was a sum that no one could meet. I mean, the government obviously could meet it. We have, you know, extensive knowledge of the ransoms that were actually paid for the European hostages who were released. And those sums were dramatically less. So when we strategized about what it would take to raise the money to have a ransom to free Jim, we had much different figures in mind.
GROSS: Like what?
BALBONI: We assumed it would be in the range of $5 million.
GROSS: How did you weigh in your mind ransom and saving a person - an individual you felt very responsible for versus, like, the larger long view which is when you pay ransoms it can encourage more hostage-taking and put more people at risk?
BALBONI: Yes. You know, that's an awfully good question. And, you know, it's very easy to have, you know, kind of these theoretical policies about not paying a ransom until you are faced with the real life-and-death situation. And personally - and I know I speak for the Foley's as well - we would have paid a ransom. We were working very hard to raise the money. We had extensive conversations about this with branches of the United States government, with legal counsel. We were well-schooled in the law and what was permissible for the family to do. So I had no problem with this. I can understand - I mean, giving money to these evil people is a very hard thing to do. I would judge no one who felt that it was entirely improper. But speaking for myself, and for John and Diane Foley, we were prepared to do it if we could raise the money.
GROSS: Was an inability to raise the money the reason why you didn't proceed?
BALBONI: No. We were in the process of raising it. I mean, the original demand from the captors was November of 2013. At that moment, we'd never had a communication from Jim, and we'd never had an official proof of life as it's called. During that communication with the kidnappers, they offered us the opportunity to get proof of life. And the Foleys drafted a series of questions that only Jim could answer. They were extremely difficult, obscure family events that only Jim could know. When those proof of life questions came back answered correctly - perfectly - it was a hair-raising moment for all of us because we knew definitively, and with certainty, that we are dealing with the people who were holding Jim.
GROSS: I'm not sure if you've had a chance to read this. I'm sure you're so occupied right now. But, you know, David Rohde, formerly of the New York Times...
BALBONI: I know David very well. And he's been a great friend to us. And I'm familiar with David's mission that we need to rethink what government should do and that the U.S. and European governments should be coordinating more carefully. Is that more or less what...
GROSS: Yeah, exactly. He has an op-ed in Reuters. And for listeners who don't know about five years ago, he was taken hostage by the Taliban when he was working for the New York Times.
GROSS: And he managed to escape. Who knows what would've happened had he not escaped? Yes. But his point in the op-ed is that the Europeans - with the exception of Britain - the Europeans are willing to pay ransoms, but England and the U.S. are not.
GROSS: And so the countries have to get together and come up with a common policy because this one isn't working.
GROSS: And in the instance of James Foley, he was beheaded. Another American reporter is being threatened with beheading. Unless - unless - who knows - unless what right now? But French and Spanish journalists who were taken hostage and held in the same place as James Foley were released after ransom.
GROSS: Do you agree that there has to be better coordination? That it would be more effective for everyone involved if the European countries and England and the United States had a kind of common policy and were united on it?
BALBONI: I think it would be helpful. I mean, there were French, Spanish, Italian, German and Danish hostages released - all of whom spent time with Jim. All of whom gave us exceptional testimony about their captivity, about Jim's incredible strength during that captivity and how much he was a leader for them. And they're home with their loved ones and obviously we deeply wish that that was true for Jim and the others as well. I think we moved into a whole different place. I don't know that the American people appreciate the change in status that's taken place here. You know, when the Syrian Civil War began three years ago IS, or ISIS, or ISO, whatever you want to call them, were hardly a factor - it was more of a citizens rebellion. And the jihadist groups, you know, began to grow in strength and ISIS became more powerful. And now they control much of Syria, a huge swath of Iraq. They are feeling triumphant and powerful. And they're on the move and I think we have to deal with them in a very different way. I don't know that a ransom is on the table any longer once the bombing by the United States commenced.
GROSS: Right, because their last demand was that the United States stop bombing ISIS.
BALBONI: They never made such a demand. I mean, they...
GROSS: Oh, I thought they told that to the family. Is that not true?
BALBONI: No. The email we received last Wednesday night was simply filled with rage against the United States for bombing. And ended with a statement that they would execute Jim. It wasn't a conditional statement. It didn't say, if you do this. It simply said that they would execute him. And obviously we messaged back as soon as that could be thought through and process through the appropriate channels - appealing, you know, for mercy. And explaining that Jim was an innocent journalist. He loved the Syrian people. He'd never hurt them. And, but clearly they had made up their mind.
GROSS: Did you have direct contact with the hostage takers, with the members of ISIS who were holding him?
BALBONI: No. No one, I mean, other than the email chain - there was never any other form of contact. And the number of communications was very few. And was long interrupted.
GROSS: Did they come directly to you or just to the family?
BALBONI: The initial email came to me and to a member of the Foley family. And then very appropriately the family took over the responses to the kidnappers. Either from Diane Foley, Jim's Mother, or John Foley, his father.
GROSS: My guest is Phil Balboni the cofounder and CEO of Global Post which James Foley was reporting for as a freelancer when his kidnapped in Syria. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Phil Balboni, the cofounder and CEO of Global Post - the online international news company for which James Foley was reporting as a freelancer when he was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. Tuesday his captors posted the video of his beheading. When we off we were talking about how Balboni was working with Foley's family to try to secure his release.
What are you able to tell us about what your approach was once you found out that Jim was being held hostage? What do you think was in your power to try to help get him freed?
BALBONI: Well, you know, I have such a clear mental picture of this. I was sitting in my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was Saturday morning following Thanksgiving holiday and I got an email on my blackberry from a freelance journalist who was a friend of Jim's who was on the border, the Turkish-Syria border, saying that she feared that Jim had gone missing. I mean, it was kind of deja vu for me because I had the same experience when Jim was abducted by Colonel Gadhafi's fighters in Libya during the Civil War there in the spring of 201. So I immediately called one of the senior people at an international security firm that specializes in kidnap and ransom cases whom I worked with in Libya in 2011. And I hired him to work on the case. From that day, literally every single day, for almost two years we have worked on Jim's case. We've had, you know, at one time as many as three or four people in the field in Turkey. Sometimes in Syria itself, in Lebanon and other places - gathering information. We didn't know where Jim was. We didn't know who took him. We knew nothing. And it took an immensely long time to find out where he was. And as so often is the case it was luck that brought the first word that Jim was alive and where he was being held. It came from a young Belgian who had gone to pursue Jihad in Syria. And had been brought home by his very brave father. And he had befriended Jim and was held in captivity with Jim in Northern Syria. And that was the first we had detailed information and knew that Jim was alive and knew that he was being held by a jihadist group - not identified as the Islamic State. At no time throughout this entire period was the group ever self-identified as the Islamic State. But a weight of evidence over time made it clear that it could only be them. So that was the very early fall of 2013. So it was almost a year from Jim's abduction until that time despite massive effort. We thought we knew that he was being held by the Assad regime. We even said that publicly at one point. We only had two public releases of information and we were wrong. And then from that point forward things began to accelerate in terms of our knowledge and that the kidnappers email arrived in November. And of course events on the ground in Syria were evolving rapidly as well. And as your listeners may remember that in December of last year there was internecine conflict between the jihadist groups and ISIS was basically driven out of Aleppo, the city in northern Syria where there's been horrendous fighting. And Jim and many others - two dozen - were moved to other locations. So it's been a long process and, you know, such a tragic ending.
GROSS: There's a controversy when it comes to hostage-taking about whether you call attention to it or whether the best thing to do for the safety of the person taking hostage is to keep as much a secret as possible.
GROSS: How did you figure out which you thought you would be the safest approach?
BALBONI: I did what the family wanted. That was the litmus test. And we always decided things together. We never did anything that did not meet with the family's approval. And that persisted until the very end. I mean, last weekend we had a lengthy call among our security consultants - the Foley's, myself and David Roeder, a friend and colleague who of course has his own personal experience with this - and we discussed again whether or not it was still appropriate to withhold all that we knew from the public. And the conclusion we came to was that it was still the right thing. It was best for Jim's safety and the safety of the other hostages. And of course that, you know, that goes against - I mean, I've been a journalist for 46 years now. It goes against anything that you by instinct and training want to do is to reveal what you know and write stories. But, you know, I'm convinced that if there's any possibility of harming a kidnapped person it's better to withhold the information. I don't see that there would've been any different outcome.
GROSS: So having kept certain information secret for the safety of your journalist being held hostage, has it caused you to recalibrate your equation of deciding when to publish a story pertaining to national security and when not to? If the government says, this might jeopardize national security, you know, are you going to be any more or less willing to publish having been through this experience?
BALBONI: I feel that depending on how convincing the argument was that it should be respected. Think that, you know, governments need to have the opportunity to work without public scrutiny on things they have to be held accountable for what they have done, obviously. But I think this experience hasn't changed my feeling that, you know, we should be - we should always act responsibly and try to make, you know, careful, considered decision and not let our natural instincts of publish as quickly as we can take over.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Phil Balboni in the second half of the show. He's the cofounder and CEO of Global Post, the international news organization that James Foley was reporting for when he was kidnapped in Syria. Foley's captors, ISIS, posted the video of his beheading this week. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
Let's get back to the interview I recorded this morning with Phil Balboni, the cofounder and CEO of Global Post, the online international news company for which James Foley was reporting as a freelancer when he was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012. Balboni had worked with Foley's family, trying to secure Foley's release. Tuesday, Foley's captors, ISIS, posted the video of his beheading.
Your journalistic organization, Global Post, was founded in part to fill the gap left by newspapers that had closed their foreign bureaus...
GROSS: ...or folded all together, in the face of financial problems.
GROSS: But Global Post, it's still a new organization. You don't have the money and infrastructure of an old, established news organization like, say, The New York Times or, you know, a network news outfit.
GROSS: So what are some of the things you wished you had...
BALBONI: Oh, my goodness.
GROSS: ...to help support your reporters in war zones and to help protect them?
BALBONI: Well, it's a wonderful set of questions there.
You know, we're so proud of what we've been able to accomplish over these five years, albeit, you know, with fairly modest resources. You know, and if there's one thing that I take away from this horrific tragedy with Jim, it's to rededicate myself to the importance of what we set out to do. And my belief in founding Global Post was that there's so much happening around the world of great importance and there are too few people telling those stories. We needed more voices and we're so proud to be part of that. And when I see Jim in my mind's eye, which I will for the rest of my life and his final moment, showing such incredible courage, never flinching, just before his executioner put the knife into his throat - I mean, that needs to be honored and we're proud of what we do. And sure, we'd all like to have more resources to do it with. Hopefully, as we grow stronger we will.
But the importance of the mission, I think, is what Jim's life is all about. He loved telling these stories and he was drawn to conflict. It's where he really came alive. I remember when he came back from his Libyan captivity, he came into the office and we all, you know, gave him a big hug and we talked about what he would do next. And so I said, well, please, you know, while you're thinking it over, come and work here full time as an editor. And he did and sat out in the newsroom. But, he wasn't happy. And he needed and wanted to go back to Libya as soon as possible. And eventually we acquiesced on that.
So that's where he wanted to be, and I think that there's a lot of brave young men and women who love to do this work and we're honored to be able to support them. I wish we could support more.
GROSS: Do you feel conflicted though, about knowing that you're sending somebody into a war zone where they might be held hostage, but the same time, you really want people to cover these stories - they're so important - and the government and the militias; they don't want the coverage, they don't want the journalists there.
GROSS: Which makes it all the more important to tell the story. I mean, you don't want the story untold.
BALBONI: Right. You know, we're very careful about sending somebody into harm's way. Obviously, it's only their choice; never our choice. Secondly, they have to have had the appropriate conflict training, which is something that Jim had gone through. They need to have the appropriate equipment and they need to be, you know, experienced. And there is always a communications plan with everyone, the number of times a day that we ask them to check in with us. So you worry - of course you worry. But ultimately, it's what we have to do and you know, I've been asked this question before. I mean, would this make us, you know, more cautious? We've always been cautious but it will never make us pull back or stop. And you know, more than ever - with Jim's shining example of courage and bravery, you know - we're rededicating our self to what we do.
GROSS: You talked to some of the hostages who were held with James Foley but released on ransom. Can you share with us a story that you were told by one of the released hostages, about how Jim held up and how brave he was during his period of captivity?
BALBONI: I can. And this came from quite - in fact, it was universal among all of the released hostages that we talked to, that Jim was their favorite. The person whose spirits - no matter what punishment was inflicted on him - and he was regularly singled out for very harsh treatment; I won't go into the details. But he was regularly subject to abuse - but he always kept their spirits up. He always kept them believing that they would get out. And he tried to be a spokesperson with the captors for the other hostages and to keep their morale up. It was so wonderful to hear that and to know that Jim was strong and that he could bring that strength to others. I know they're grieving, you know, with us this morning.
GROSS: Do you think he expected to be released through a ransom? I read that at the end of the gruesome beheading tape - which I certainly have no intention of ever watching...
BALBONI: Please don't.
GROSS: ...no, I won't. I understand that he says - I think referring to the fact that the U.S. won't pay ransom to terrorists - that he says, I suppose I wish I wasn't American. Or, something to that effect.
BALBONI: Yeah. I don't know what to make of what Jim said in that tape. Obviously, he was under extreme duress. He may have been told to say things in order to produce other results than the one that was forthcoming. I can't explain it. I think Jim - based on what I know from the other hostages - I think Jim believed that they would be rescued, somehow.
Of course they knew about the ransom and they knew about the fact that people were searching, and the proof of life questions that were posed - not only to Jim, but to the other hostages - gave them hope that things were being done.
And you know, Jim lived through that Libyan captivity - it wasn't very long, it was 45 days, but it seemed like an eternity at the time -and Jim knew the tremendous effort that was made to free him. And I have no doubt that Jim knew that we were doing everything in the world to find him and free him.
GROSS: Have you ever met Steven Sotloff, the freelancer who's worked for Time magazine and is still being held by ISIS?
BALBONI: No, I've met his parents but I've not met him.
GROSS: You must be thinking of him.
BALBONI: Of course. I mean, I think that - I'm glad you returned to that subject. I think that's the - in a way, it's the only thing we should be focused on right now, is those other three Americans. Steven and the other two - who must remain unnamed - and what can be done for them. And I hope and pray that the government has a strategy for that.
GROSS: You've asked people to consider refraining from watching or sharing the video of Jim Foley's beheading. And you say that, you know, the video's a graphic work of propaganda intended to terrorize the public at the expense of journalism.
GROSS: But you had to watch it. Did you have to watch it to authenticate it?
BALBONI: I had to watch it because I had to see what happened to my friend. I wanted to turn away but I couldn't. And I mean, you never forget seeing something like that. You can't block that out of your memory, no matter what.
But it's not necessary for others to see it, to know the horrific end and to know how evil these people are. And I hope people have a full appreciation of what an implacable foe we face here. This is a danger that has escalated tremendously. And I think we have to have a new policy for confronting this group. This has come on like a freight train. If you'd go back over the history you know, from the beginning of the Syrian civil war - of course, you know, the Islamic State in Iraq was born during the Iraq conflict and then kind of subsided and reemerged in Syria. They're powerful now and they threaten the whole Middle East region and they're a magnet.
There are people who, for whatever perverse reason, want to fight at their side. And if you try to step back - which is always a good thing to do - and try to understand the other side, America has done many things that not everyone throughout the world and particularly in the Middle East, particularly among the Islamic world, feels is moral or right. And people have a right to object to what we do. But they don't have the right to cut people's heads off and to persecute Christians and blow up their shrines, execute hundreds of people for no reason other than they belong to another sect of Islam. These people need to be stopped.
GROSS: Do you worry that you'll never be able to get the image of the beheading out of your mind and that it will just - it will remain in your mind in a toxic way?
BALBONI: I can't let it do that. I mean, you know, I thought I was prepared for the possibility of Jim's death, but I found that I wasn't. But, I'm going to use it for constructive ends. And I think the best way is, you know, to turn my energy back towards what we do, what Jim did, you know? And work as hard as we can to continue that mission.
GROSS: Well, I just want to thank you for speaking with us today and thank you for your work and for all you do to report the news, and also for all you tried to do to save the life of James Foley.
GROSS: Thank you so much.
BALBONI: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: And good luck through this very, very difficult period.
BALBONI: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Phil Balboni is the cofounder and CEO of the online international news company Global Post, for which James Foley was working as a freelance reporter when he was kidnapped in Syria. Our interview was recorded this morning.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of a 1967 album by Jean-Luc Ponty.
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