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The Race to Save James Foley: The Inside Story

Last November, real, true contact was made – but the conversation was over almost as soon as it began.
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The email came in like so many others: an anonymous sender, the address untraceable. The friends and family of James Foley had sifted through dozens over a year of drawn-out agony, hoping that one might yield a clue or contact to help bring home the missing journalist — their son, brother and confidante who went missing on Thanksgiving day in 2012.

Last November, finally, real, true contact was made – but the conversation was over almost as soon as it began.

Before contact

There had been no information or sign of James Foley since he was kidnapped at gunpoint near the town of Taftanaz in northern Syria. His family marked the passage of time privately for six weeks -- then went public in January 2013, appealing for information on Foley’s captors and whereabouts, pleading for his release. Messages posted on Twitter started to count the days the journalist had been missing – 120, 191, 200, 300.

It wasn’t until September 2013 that the Foleys knew their “Jim” was alive. It was a “lucky break,” according to Philip Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost – the news company Foley worked for. A young Belgian who had travelled to fight in Syria had befriended Foley and, once that jihadist went back to Belgium, offered “excellent information” on roughly where Jim was held and by whom.

“It was the first time we knew Jim was alive,” Balboni recalled. “It was a wonderful, wonderful moment.”

The Foley family – and GlobalPost – still held out hope for a direct line to the missing journalist. But in October 2013, Foley’s father John told the Today show “we’ve heard nothing. Nothing.”

The first communication

The next month, in November, that changed. The email came in. It was encrypted, and demanded a ransom of 100 million euros and the release of Muslim prisoners – without mentioning any names.

At that point, people familiar with the case already suspected that ISIS – the Islamist militants now rampaging through Iraq but then fighting mostly in Syria – might have its hands on Foley.

While the fact that the U.S. does not pay ransoms for American hostages immediately put the negotiation into jeopardy, the size of the demand signaled to some that there was no true interest in negotiating.

“We never took it seriously,” Balboni told NBC News, saying it was considered to be “some form of opening gambit that was so wildly excessive that no one could ever raise that kind of money.”

“That type of demand is not a serious demand,” echoed a person close to the case in an interview with NBC News. (Recent ransoms paid to free hostages in Syria have been in the range of 2-4 million euros.)

Even still, the email – sent from a website that creates anonymous/shielded accounts – needed to be vetted. Too many others had turned out to be bogus, filled with false hopes and promises.

The sender needed to show proof of life – a sign that Foley was really in his or her hands. That came in the form of questions for Foley, answers to which only Jim – as his family called him – would know.

The questions were answered in a “very detailed fashion,” according to a person familiar with the case. “It was pretty clear,” the person said, that whoever was communicating with the Foley family “had access to Jim – if not possession over him.”

After the first message, “just a few” emails were exchanged over a few weeks, the person told NBC News. All the while, forensics and linguistics experts were poring over their contents for clues on the sender or any information on Foley’s whereabouts.

The untraceable email was written in “perfectly good English,” Balboni told NBC News, but would not elaborate on the sender’s handle beyond saying that the account had a descriptive name – but not a person’s name – and “other identifying information.”

All of the information was turned over to the FBI, Balboni said.

“There was nothing demonstrably strange about the language of the emails,” Balboni said. “No one who examined them had an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Some of the communications from the anonymous sender spoke of the arrogance of the U.S. government, and the U.S.’s refusal to pay hostage ransoms or release foreign prisoners. But there were no more demands.

“There was no negotiation over numbers,” the person close to the case told NBC News. “They threw out that 100 million figure and that was it.”

“They never negotiated,” Balboni said.

After a short back-and-forth of emails – from November to December 2013 –the line on the other end went silent.

The last word

All attempts to re-engage failed. There were more emails sent to the mysterious account – but no reply. Efforts to establish communication with intermediaries – underway since Foley first disappeared – also proved fruitless.

After that brief series of exchanges, the only information coming in about Foley was from other hostages who had escaped, been freed or been ransomed. Some had spent time with Foley in captivity – describing him as in good health and a constant source of strength in dire times. Some of those hostages offered clues on where and how Foley was kept – information that might have played a role in an attempted rescue mission in July that saw Special Forces briefly drop into Syria in search of Foley and other American hostages. The mission was unsuccessful because the hostages were not where they were expected to be, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.

When communication picked up again last week, and a new email was sent last Wednesday night to those desperate for Foley’s release, it did little in the way of offering hope. The message, longer than some of the others, was filled with anti-American vitriol and said Foley would be executed in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

While the threat was taken “deadly seriously,” Balboni and others still held out hope that negotiations could take place.

“Given the fact that Jim had been held as a hostage for almost two years, moved, fed, sheltered during all this period of time – to take his life now seemed utterly pointless,” Balboni said. “We hoped that we could appeal to them.”

That appeal came soon after in the form of a carefully crafted email – “it had to be thought through and evaluated but it was sent quickly,” Balboni said - from the Foley family to the captors. But that last attempt, too, proved futile – turning nightmare into reality.

“I always believed that we were going to bring him home safely,” Balboni said. “Even after last Wednesday night. I still believed they would not kill him. I guess we misjudged the degree of their anger.”