Review: Islamic State, the Murder of James Foley, and the Miasma of Horror that Continues Today

By James Graff

Hunting Season: James Foley, ISIS, and the Kidnapping Campaign Which Started a War

By James Harkin          Hachette Books                    $27

Islamic State’s release of the video of American journalist James Foley's beheading on August 19, 2014, was a perfectly realized act of terror. Any blind spot the United States might have had about the group’s ruthless depravity was eradicated once its own citizens became targets, alongside the Shiites, Yazidis, Kurds and secularists of Iraq and Syria.

As James Harkin writes in this deeply researched, gripping account of the capture, captivity, and execution-style murder of Foley – and of the dozens of Western journalists and aid workers who have shared his fate – the grisly video galvanized American public opinion.  Support for airstrikes over Syria, tepid until then, quickly soared.

But what a murky enemy Islamic State is. When Foley, a freelancer for the online news site GlobalPost, was taken prisoner with British photojournalist John Cantlie almost two years earlier, in November 2012, Islamic State hadn’t yet declared its own existence.

The region east of Aleppo where the two men were yanked from their car seethed not only with various rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also with shabiha, smuggling gangs with close ties to the regime and a tradition of hostage-taking. The opposition rebels backed fitfully by the West were ridden with factionalism and less forthright in their approach than the burgeoning Islamists, who were gaining strength and followers.

After the two journalists were kidnapped, their families, friends, and employers engaged what Harkin calls a ‘lucrative new sector of the private security industry: K&R”—for kidnapping and ransom. But those experts were cunningly strung along by a motley collection of wannabe insiders, shady middlemen, and freelance experts. “Taking hostages had become a weapon of war accepted on all sides,” Harkin writes, “and the business of trying to get people back was now worth many hundreds of millions of dollars.”

A year after his disappearance, Foley’s family in New Hampshire finally learned he was alive, after a failed Belgian jihadist got out of Syria and said he had shared a cell with Foley in the basement of an eye hospital. The details were chilling: Foley told the Belgian he and Cantlie had been held in five different places in the course of six months. Their captors were often a group of London-born jihadists with a pathologically cruel bent, who at one point had shackled Foley, hung him from his ankles and beaten him with cables.

The prisoners, in one of their many expressions of sardonic humor amid the unspeakable suffering Harkin reports, called them the Beatles. George wore a cheap aftershave that haunted his victims; John, aka Mohammed Emwazi and later dubbed Jihadi John, was the knife-wielder in the beheading video of Foley and at least six other foreign hostages. (The U.S. government has said it is “99 percent certain” Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in November 2015.) When the jailers found out about their nicknames, the punishments grew even more severe.

Harkin, whose articles for Vanity Fair and the British GQ formed the nucleus of his book, argues that such unbridled violence served Islamic State’s purposes in establishing a caliphate: “Any fledgling state needs to seize a monopoly on violence, and Islamic State made a point of using violence to put the fear of God into its enemies.”

The painful negotiations that ensued, however, showed that the group was also willing to talk dollars. By late 2013, when Islamic State was holding a half-dozen U.S. and British captives, the ransom demand that emerged for all of them was €100 million. Since none of the families could marshal such a sum, the demand was obviously directed at the governments, and they weren’t buying. Neither the U.S. nor Britain will pay ransom, arguing reasonably enough that doing so funds the terrorists and encourages future kidnappings.

Along with many family members he interviewed, Harkin finds this stance too simplistic, serving as a dodge for government institutions to wash their hands of the matter entirely. While government security experts interceded to help captives’ families in other countries, the Foleys were sending emails to the captors themselves.  At one point they were threatened with prosecution if they paid any ransom at all.

Harkin figures some €40 million flowed to Islamic State for the release of European hostages and aid workers from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.  He suggests that much of it probably doesn’t bear government fingerprints, but was provided by “cut-outs” such as Qatari businessmen.

Continuing to talk to the captives, Harkin says, is at the very least a means of gathering scarce information.  Acting on information from released captives, the U.S. conducted a raid in July 2014 of a suspected Islamic State prison site.  Foley and the others were not there, but it appeared that they had been, until they were moved to another site.

Foley’s family had hoped for more.  The U.S. authorities didn’t “engage the enemy through negotiation to see if there was some way” of freeing Foley, his mother, Diane, told Harkin. “We just don’t think that happened, and it saddens us hugely.”

In the end, it might not have made any difference, Harkin suggests. At least one family representative he interviewed said the captors had long intended to kill Foley and other American and British hostages, having decided they could extract the greatest value from them by feeding them “into the Islamic State’s gory propaganda machine.”

The Americans Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig; the Britons Alan Henning and David Haines; and the Japanese Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, were all killed with bloodthirsty commentary from Jihadi John. But Cantlie, Foley’s friend and fellow captive, apparently lives on by serving the propaganda purposes of Islamic State differently, with a series of scripted faux news videos touting the group’s military successes.

A photo of Cantlie and an article he allegedly wrote appeared in November in Dabiq, ISIS’s glossy magazine, referring to events as recent as August. Harkin writes that Cantlie’s strategy is “courageous and clearly the right thing to do.” Few who have read what he and his fellow hostages endured would be disposed to judge him for figuring out a way to survive. But his actions show what a moral no-man’s land Islamic State has wrought.

In Syria today, journalists have “become pawns in a much larger game,” Harkin writes, “considered more valuable as hostages and candidates for ransom than for any of the reporting they would bring back.” That perversion of purpose leaves us knowing far less than we should about Islamic State’s realm, and underscores the courage of Foley and his largely uninsured, hand-to-mouth fellow freelancers in having tried to find out.

Hunting Season is a passionately researched and dispassionately written tribute to these journalists'  efforts. In showing what a miasma of horror they endured under Islamic State—one still endured by an order of magnitude more Syrian and Iraqi hostages--it offers us a glimpse of the vast challenge any government faces in trying to loosen its grip of terror.

James Graff, a news editor at The Wall Street Journal, covered the wars in Yugoslavia for Time magazine.  Follow him on Twitter at @lathram