The mother of an American journalist beheaded by an ISIS cell dubbed the “Beatles” has met three times with one of the imprisoned terrorists in an effort to carry on her son’s legacy.
“I feel like we can’t break the cycle of violence if we are not willing to listen to one another,” Diane Foley told NBC News. “I’ve made myself do this because I feel Jim would have wanted it to happen.”
James Foley was killed by the cell's most notorious member, Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed "Jihadi John," in August 2014 — an execution that the Islamic State terrorist group filmed and broadcast to the world. Emwazi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2015.
Fellow Beatles member Alexanda Kotey, 38, was sentenced to life in prison by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, in April after he admitted to his role in Foley’s murder and the killing of three other American hostages.
As part of his plea deal, the British national agreed to meet with any of his victims’ families who wished to do so.
Diane Foley said Kotey has apologized to her for the pain brought by the loss of her son, but he made clear in their most recent meeting Wednesday that he doesn’t regret waging jihad.
“That, to me, is very sad,” she said. “After all the things he’s undergone, and we’ve undergone, and the people of Syria — for him to have no regrets about being part of that campaign was upsetting to hear.”
But in two letters and over the course of their in-person visits, Diane Foley said, Kotey has expressed remorse for what her family has gone through. And though he has not apologized directly for the killing of the 40-year-old journalist, his broader apology and openness have brought a measure of comfort to her.
“It was really good to see,” she said. “He showed humanity, some goodness, some potential there. That’s why I went back. There’s an openness.”
The Beatles were a group of ISIS fighters who were given the musical nickname by their Western captives because of their British accents. In 2014 and 2015, they participated in the murders of multiple American, British and Japanese hostages, filming a number of beheadings.
Foley, a globe-trotting freelance correspondent with extensive experience in the Middle East, was kidnapped by the terrorists in 2012 while reporting on the civil war in Syria.
Three of the four members of the group — Kotey, Aine Davis and El Shafee Elsheikh — are still alive.
Elsheikh, 33, was found guilty following a federal trial in Virginia and will be sentenced later this year. Davis, 38, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted on terrorism charges.
Diane Foley first met with Kotey on consecutive days in October after he pleaded guilty to eight charges related to the kidnapping, torturing and killing of ISIS hostages. The meetings have all taken place in a conference room inside the federal courthouse in Virginia, where his case was heard. Several people were in attendance during the visits, including prosecutors, FBI agents and defense lawyers.
Diane Foley described the first meeting as “incredibly awkward.” But the second one had a different feel.
“He showed me pictures of his family,” she said. “He has three beautiful girls, all under the age of nine.”
“The tragedy of it all is really everyone lost in this,” she added. “We lost our son, his future, his life. Alexanda has lost his family, his country, his freedom.”
Diane Foley said she’s been impressed by the breadth of his interests — from politics to the judicial system. He has spoken about the oppression of Muslims around the world.
“His mind is engaged. He’s not a dumb person at all,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that he was led in that direction.”
“I asked him if he thought he was brainwashed,” Diane Foley added. “He didn’t like that idea. But he did say that he allowed himself to succumb to torture and other things when in fact his faith should have told him to do otherwise.”
She hoped that Kotey might provide answers to questions that have long haunted her. Where was her son executed? Where do his remains lie?
But Kotey hasn’t shed any light. And he has denied participating directly in Foley’s torture or execution.
“He may be telling the truth — I don’t know,” Diane Foley said. “He blames it on Emwazi. It’s easy to blame it on somebody who’s dead.”
Diane Foley first spoke about meeting with Kotey at a conference last week organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
Their third meeting left her feeling depleted, physically and emotionally. She said she’s not sure if she’ll visit him again, and not just because of the trek from her home in New Hampshire to Virginia.
“I don’t think there’s anything else he’s willing to tell me,” she said.
Diane Foley also has other things to focus on. In the months after her son’s execution, she founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for the freedom of Americans held unlawfully abroad and promotes the safety of journalists around the world.
She’s paying close attention to the situation in northern Syria, where thousands of men, women and children linked to ISIS are living in what aid groups describe as squalid detention facilities and camps.
“I know it’s a huge undertaking,” Diane Foley said. “But the more we look away, I fear it’s going to come back to haunt us.”