While the United States government has a policy against paying ransom to terrorists, the privately held GlobalPost and James Foley’s family were prepared to pay a ransom for the kidnapped freelance journalist’s release, according to GlobalPost co-founder and CEO Phil Balboni.
“Jim was a special member of our family,” Balboni said of the longtime GlobalPost correspondent. Balboni co-founded the Boston-based for-profit digital foreign news outlet in 2009 with Charles Sennott.
Foley disappeared on Thanksgiving Day 2012, kidnapped from a taxi after leaving an Internet café in the northwestern Syrian town of Binnish. Earlier this week, he was beheaded by Islamic State militants, who made good on an email threat sent to Foley’s family the week before. According to Balboni, Foley’s family was in the process of raising funds to pay a ransom at the time of his death. In an interview with CNN, Balboni said they were trying to raise around $5 million, a figure they believed could win Foley’s freedom based on the ransoms paid for the release of European hostages in the time that Foley remained captive.
In a phone interview with International Business Times, Balboni said the first email communication the family received from Foley’s captors -- sent on Nov. 26 of last year -- demanded money but did not specify an amount. A subsequent email demanded €100 million ($132 million) or the release of Muslim prisoners, Balboni said. But he was confident that a smaller sum could have been successful. “We believed we were moving closer to the time that we could secure Jim’s freedom through ransom,” Balboni told CNN.
GlobalPost had lost track of Foley before, when he was kidnapped in Libya in 2011 and held captive for 44 days. At that time, “I personally supervised that effort to win his freedom,” Balboni said, and when Foley was eventually released -- largely due to the GlobalPost’s efforts, according to its CEO -- the GlobalPost gave him a staff job.
“But he was chomping at the bit to be back in the field and wanted to be back in Libya. I really didn’t want him to, but there was no way to stop him,” Balboni said.
As IBTimes previously reported, freelancers in conflict zones are frequently expected to absorb much of the risks -- and associated costs -- of the dangerous work themselves, with minimal support from the news organizations that publish their reporting. It is still not clear what the terms of Foley’s agreement with the GlobalPost were at the time of his disappearance in Syria. He had produced a number of stories for GlobalPost in the months leading up to his disappearance, but he was also working as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse.
When GlobalPost learned of Foley’s disappearance two days after Thanksgiving, “I didn’t hesitate to take it on,” Balboni said. GlobalPost hired the consulting and investigation firm Kroll, which Balboni said had been involved -- but was not the primary firm -- in the investigation into Foley’s disappearance the year before. In earlier interviews, Balboni said that the privately held GlobalPost output “millions” for the investigation into Foley’s whereabouts, but he declined to provide financial specifics to IBTimes when asked where the money came from. “That’s not something we discuss,” Balboni said.
The investigation took at least one wrong turn. In May 2013, Balboni gave an interview to Boston NPR affiliate station WBUR in which he offered what appeared to be definitive news about Foley’s whereabouts.
“Jim is now being held by the Syrian government in a detention facility in the Damascus area,” Balboni told WBUR. “We further believe that the facility is under the control of the Syrian air force intelligence service. Based on what we have learned, it is likely that Jim is being held with one or more Western journalists, including most likely at least one other American journalist.”
Though it is common for hostages -- who are sometimes used as currency -- to change hands multiple times during their captivity, Balboni said he knows now that Foley was not in a state-run Damascus prison then.
“As it turned out, the sources we had were wrong,” Balboni said.
“[The group which] abducted Jim on November 22, 2012, is perhaps lost forever,” he continued. “But it could have been a jihadist group, it could have been a band of criminals, it could have been a Shabiha [paramilitary militia] that works with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad.”
An article published in the May 2014 issue of Vanity Fair argued that Foley, possibly along with still-missing journalist Austin Tice, might have been in the hands of Islamic militants. The article challenged GlobalPost’s assurances that Foley had been in a Damascus prison. But by that time, according to Balboni’s account, those involved in GlobalPost’s investigation knew their earlier information was wrong.
“In September of 2013 we found out definitively where Jim was and we knew that he was OK,” Balboni said, but it was not until last week that they knew for certain Foley was being held by Islamic militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“At no time from then [until] Tuesday did anyone ever identify the group as the Islamic State. The kidnappers never in their communication to us ever self-identified as that, ever,” Balboni said. “But a welter of circumstantial evidence which we were able to acquire … particularly during the spring and early summer of this year, made it clear that it was the Islamic State.”
Kroll did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, perhaps due to the fact that the company, which has offices on four continents, is no longer in the kidnap and ransom business. According to Balboni, Kroll stopped performing those types of investigations in June of this year, the same time the “chief person” leading the search for Foley retired. But Balboni said the investigation continued seamlessly, when another investigator who had been working on the case took the lead -- after he moved to another firm Balboni did not name.
“There was no interruption,” he said.
Balboni said he did not know anything about the U.S. military’s attempted rescue mission earlier this summer until the Obama administration revealed it on Wednesday. When asked if he believed the U.S. government and GlobalPost’s hired investigators had been getting information from the same sources, the affable Balboni momentarily bristled.
“Your question is off-base,” he said. “The fact that the United States government decided to launch a special ops mission is super-highly-classified information. There would have been no way in the world that the GlobalPost, our investigators, the Foley family or anyone else who was not in that very tight circle would have ever known.”
Still, they did consider the possibility that a rescue mission might be attempted, while believing the chances to be very slim. “It was not unheard-of that it could be a possibility,” he said, “but we knew that it would be incredibly dangerous.” Balboni said Foley’s captors made it clear that a detected rescue attempt would be met with the immediate death of the hostages.
Very little is known about the rescue mission, though a New York Times report suggests the rescuers raided a location other than the one where American hostages were being held, found Islamic militants there and engaged in a firefight with them.
The United States’ policy against paying ransom to terrorists has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of Foley’s tragic death.
“I think it’s time for a healthy review of our policies,” Balboni said. “But I have resisted being in any way critical of our government … there are very good reasons for not paying a ransom.
“The most important focus is that there are three Americans who are right now facing the threat of death,” he said. “They know that Jim was taken out and tortured, and I pray to God they have not suffered that fate already.”