Diane Foley shares her story of grace and forgiveness in her book, “American Mother”

As we head into Spring, the three Abrahamic faiths are all preparing to celebrate their festivals of sacrifice and renewal. Muslims are marking the holy month of Ramadan, which began this week; Christians are in the season of lent before they observe Easter on Sunday, March 31; and Jews are preparing to celebrate Passover during the last week of April.

These days on the calendar, right on the edge of the spring solstice, are always an intense time to be in the Holy Land where all three of these faiths converge on shared sacred space. Having reported in the Middle East for more than a quarter century and having lived in Jerusalem for five years as the Boston Globe’s Middle East bureau chief and having had two of our children born there, one in Jerusalem and one in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, I have seen how intricately their history is woven together. And this year, It’s more important than ever to seek out the places where these three faiths converge, because the Middle East is once again roiling with violence. Common ground feels scarce. 

There is no sign of a ceasefire taking place between Israelis and Palestinians in the war in Gaza. Indeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today announced that a planned offensive will get underway in Rafah, where nearly half the Palestinian population is crammed into a thin sliver of land in the southernmost tip of Gaza, despite the observance of Ramadan. That is unfolding while approximately 130 Israeli hostages are still being held captive by Hamas amid a continuum of violence in which more than 30,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombing by Israel in response to Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7th rampage that killed 1,200 Israelis. Nearly 2 million Palestinians remain trapped in the Gaza Strip with no way out and little aid coming in.

There are few people on this Earth who have a more resonant story to share with the people of the Holy Land – Israelis and Palestinians – who are suffering so intensely and who represent all three of these faiths than my friend, Diane Foley. Diane is the mother of James Foley, an American journalist who was captured while working in Syria in 2012 and publicly executed by ISIS in 2014. Jim Foley worked as a freelancer at GlobalPost, an online international news organization I co-founded back in 2009, and also was working with us at GroundTruth in its earliest days, just before he was captured. 

I have remained close to Diane through all of the last 12 years from the ordeal of her son’s capture and then the horror of his beheading which ISIS chose to stream on the internet and through her more recent years of extraordinary work as an advocate for freelance journalists and the families of hostages. She is a true hero. I have never met anyone who could greet such a horrific moment with so much spiritual grace. Diane is the real deal when it comes to her Christian faith. She lives it. 

Diane’s faith journey through the trauma of her son’s murder is told in a new book she has co-written with the acclaimed Irish author Colum McCann. It is titled American Mother, and it chronicles her depths of despair in the long days of waiting between 2012 and 2014 while the U.S. government did little to help negotiate her son’s release. It also documents the courage she has shown in working to highlight the plight of hostages and to advocate for their families. 

In the aftermath of Jim’s murder, Diane is credited with pushing the administration of President Barack Obama to create the position of hostage coordinator which coordinates hostage response efforts at the National Security Council and the FBI. The narrative also follows her through a more recent and dramatic turn when she confronted an Islamic State, or ISIS, soldier who pleaded guilty to killing her son. That encounter is a riveting tale with a message of compassion and forgiveness that needs to be heard these days with so much violence and hatred consuming the Middle East. 

An excerpt from “American Mother” sharing Diane’s thoughts before meeting Alexanda Kotey.

It was October 2021 when Diane entered a heavily guarded courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia to meet with Alexanda Kotey, one of a group of four ISIS terrorists dubbed “The Beatles” due to their British accents. And, as Diane reveals in the book, they were also given that name by their captors because they “beat” them so hard and so often. Kotey was among the four ISIS soldiers who were charged in the murders of four American hostages, including Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. Kotey and his co-conspirator, El Shafee Elsheikh, the purported leader of the ISIS cell, were captured in 2018 and both were convicted of murder and conspiracy to hold ‌26 internationals hostage, including the four Americans they killed. One other member of the ISIS cell was killed in a U.S. military drone strike in 2015 and another was captured and is reportedly still being held in Turkey. 

An excerpt from “American Mother” where Diane thinks about how to address Alexanda Kotey.

Diane, a mother of five who worked as a nurse practitioner in the clinic led by her husband, Dr. John Foley. Jim was their oldest son, and they raised the family in New Hampshire as devout Roman Catholics. On that day in the courtroom in Virginia, Diane was the only member of her family to see the man convicted of murdering her son. She sat across from Kotey, a former British citizen, who was shackled and wearing a prison jumpsuit. He was a convicted drug dealer before he converted to Islam and was radicalized in the netherworld of extremist doctrines that was pouring out of the jihadist mosques in London like a toxic plume after September 11th. She had the courage to open a dialogue with Kotey in a series of meetings over three days. Through it all, Diane was calm and steadfast, according to McCann, who accompanied her and documented the encounters.

The dialogue from these meetings is moving and at times very difficult to read and hard to imagine that anyone could have as much grace and composure as Diane brings to the moment. She addresses him politely. She tells Kotey all about her son Jim and she accepts Kotey’s remorse and is now allowing herself to start down a path toward forgiveness.

An excerpt from “American Mother” where Diane speaks with Alexanda Kotey.

“Forgiveness is a process for sure. And there’s a lot to it,” Diane explained last week at the Harvard Book Store where she and Colum and I shared a public dialogue at an event marking the launch of the book.

“I didn’t go in to meet Alexanda with any agenda. I really didn’t. I guess more than anything, I wanted to see him as a human being,” said Diane, consistently referring to her son’s killer by “the name his mother gave him,” as she puts it.

“I wanted to see him as I would one of our sons. I have a son who is his age. and recognizing that there’s good and bad in all of us, and I wanted to be able to hear him, if you will. So that was what I wanted most, and to tell him about Jim. But as far as forgiveness? I guess I was quite surprised that he expressed quite a bit of remorse for what our family had gone through.”

Charles Sennott moderates a conversation between Diane Foley and Colum McCann at the Harvard Book Store (Photo by Rahim Jessani/GroundTruth)

Diane is careful and measured the way she talks about the process of forgiveness and concedes it is not a process that is complete yet and that she was surprised by Kotey’s expressions of remorse: “I didn’t necessarily expect that, but he did many times. express remorse, but he also justified his actions as a soldier amid war and that, which i think is very human, you know. He did write several letters after that, asking, again, not asking for forgiveness, but expressing remorse, if you will.”

Diane pauses and takes measure of her words and captures the genuine and heart-felt spirit of who she is and why the book is titled “American Mother,” and then she adds, sounding like the amazing and kind mother that she is, a message that connects with the spirit of the three faiths that celebrate their renewal this season and that their believers should embrace: “Everybody loses when we cannot get along, when we cannot find ways to listen to one another. I know that sounds simplistic and idealistic. But the reality is if we hate one another, everybody loses.”

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The GroundTruth Project, Charles M. Sennott is to be presented by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation with the World Press Freedom Award on May 1 at the National Press Club for his role in building GroundTruth whose mission is to support a new generation of journalists to serve in under-covered corners of the world.