American journalist James Foley is missing in Syria after being kidnapped six weeks ago, his family announced today. According to witnesses, the 39-year-old freelancer was taken by unidentified gunmen on Thanksgiving Day in Idlib, the same turbulent northwest Syrian province where NBC foreign chief foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel was kidnapped last month. Engel and his team were freed on December 18th, but Foley's condition is unknown.
"We want Jim to come safely home, or at least we need to speak with him to know he's OK," Foley's father, John Foley, said in a press release. The family has set up a website, freejamesfoley.org, and Facebook page to publicize his situation. This isn't the first time Foley, who has contributed to the AFP, news website GlobalPost and U.S. TV stations, has encountered trouble while reporting abroad. In 2011 he spent 44 days in captivity after being captured by pro-Qaddafi fighters in Libya.
Foley had set off toward the border in a car about an hour before his capture. A witness, a Syrian, later recounted over the phone to a journalist in Turkey that an unmarked car intercepted Foley. The witness said men holding kalashnikovs shot into the air and forced Jim out of the car.
The witness said he noticed nothing that would indicate whether the aggressors were rebel fighters, individuals looking for a ransom, members of a pro-government militia, or a religious-based group with other motivations.
I had learned about Foley's disappearance in mid-December, while reporting on Richard Engel's disappearance. A source I spoke to within the community of foreign journalists at the border of Turkey and Syria mentioned that Foley had been kidnapped weeks earlier. He was upset that the news of Foley's kidnapping had been blacked out, reasoning that if it was public knowledge perhaps Engel and his team wouldn't have risked venturing into the same area to be kidnapped themselves.
But I withheld reporting Foley's disappearance, along with other news agencies, at the request of Foley's family and the GlobalPost.
"This is a difficult and dangerous situation," GlobalPost spokesman Rick Byrne told me at the time. "We request that you don't make public any information you believe you have regarding James Foley because it could put lives in jeopardy."
I agreed to the blackout because the case differed substantially from Richard Engel's disappearance, which we reported on despite NBC's effort to maintain a blackout. Engel's disappearance had already been widely reported in Turkish media and on Twitter when we reported it, rendering any "blackout" pointless. But in Foley's case the blackout was in full effect and I personally didn't feel comfortable breaking it, especially after speaking with Foley's mother.
Interestingly, when I contacted the State Department about Foley back in mid-December a spokesperson readily confirmed Foley's disappearance without any mention of a blackout. "We are concerned about the journalist's safety and well-being," the spokesperson said. "We are in contact with the individual's family, and we are working through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get information on the individual's welfare and whereabouts."