Captured in Libya
Marquette friends are key in campaign to free James Foley
By David McKay Wilson
Apprehended on a Libyan battlefield in early April, freelance journalist James Foley, Arts ’96, found himself in a Tripoli jail, pondering his uncertain future as the civil war raged on across the countryside. Then came a knock on the wall of his jail cell. Foley put his ear near a wall socket and heard the muffled voice of a detained American contractor reading from the Bible and asking him to join in prayer.
“In a very calm voice, he’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” recalls Foley. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray for God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle.
And I’d pray that our moms would know we were OK.”
Foley was set free 45 days later, following an international campaign spearheaded by his friends from Marquette, former colleagues at Teach For America, and family and childhood friends in New Hampshire. The campaign included an online petition that garnered almost 35,000 signatures and a deftly orchestrated media plan that brought his captivity and eventual release to the world’s attention.
Friends Foley made almost 20 years ago at Marquette played a major role in the campaign: Milwaukee attorney Daniel Hanrahan, Eng ’97, Law ’00, Grad ’10, played rugby with Foley at Marquette; corporate communication executive Peter Pedraza, Arts ’97, lived with Foley in Schroeder Hall; and educator Thomas Durkin, Arts ’96, Grad ’07, was a former classmate.
“When your friend is in trouble, you do what you can do,” says Durkin, a teacher at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp in Chicago where Foley once worked. “We needed to put together an organization to make sure we were working for the same goal. It was a very delicate situation.”
During Foley's one phone call home in mid-April, his mother told him about the Marquette effort that included a campus prayer vigil on April 26. “I was just amazed that my Marquette friends were reaching out,” says Foley. “What my mom told me was just the tip of the iceberg. They were calling everyone they knew and pulling every string they had.”
Foley, who majored in history at Marquette, has a heart for social justice. He volunteered in Milwaukee inner-city schools and then with TFA in Phoenix. He later taught in Chicago, where he worked at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp teaching inmates the rudiments of reading and writing.
As he listened to inmates’ stories and taught them to write, Foley realized he wanted to tell stories more than teach them. He earned a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University in 2008, gaining the multimedia tools of the 21st-century journalist.
Greeted by chaos
Foley had his video camera and note pads on hand on March 15 when he arrived in Libya on assignment for GlobalPost, the online international news service headquartered in Boston that had run his dispatches from the front lines in Afghanistan in 2009.
In early dispatches, he documented how the disorganized band of Libyan rebels raced to the front lines in pickup trucks and occasionally killed their own by firing their weapons into the air in celebration.
Foley was well aware of the risks associated with the life of a war correspondent. In Afghanistan, he was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Brigade and 101st Airborne Division. He traveled under the protection of the military unit and slept with troops in tents in dug-out shelters. The Army provided food and logistics. The unit was often under attack, so Foley traveled in full-body armor, which included a vest with steel plates that he got from a contractor in Iraq.
“There were casualties and some guys seriously wounded,” he says. “One day we were out on foot and, by the time we got back, a huge bomb killed two guys in the unit driving back from the base.”
But in Libya, Foley was on his own, with his only support coming from other journalists on the scene and the band of rebels whose battles they yearned to chronicle. Like so many Western journalists in Libya to document the growing hostilities between rebels and the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Foley entered the country on its eastern border with Egypt, which was controlled by the rebels.
In the war’s chaotic early days, Foley made his way to the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi and linked up with other journalists covering the action. Foley spent several days with rebel forces. On April 5, he and three other journalists teamed up to hitch a ride to the front. Foley wore his steel military helmet, fearing they might come under direct gun fire that day.
“I sensed the danger,” he says.
His premonition proved true. About a mile outside the city of Brega, rebels warned the journalists that Gadhafi forces were near. Suddenly, the troops appeared over the hill and opened fire. Foley and his colleagues dove to the ground, seeking shelter in a sand dune. South African journalist Anton Hammerl took a bullet to his abdomen.
“I jumped up and tried to tell them that we were journalists,” recalls Foley. “I told them our friend and colleague was shot and gravely wounded. The soldiers hit us with the butts of their AK-47s, punched us and tied our hands behind our backs.”
While Hammerl was left dead in the desert, Foley and his two colleagues — journalist Claire Gillis and photographer Manuel Varela — were whisked away to jail. Foley was incarcerated with 10 political prisoners, sharing a 12-foot by 15-foot cell, with a sink, shower and six bunks.
Foley, Gillis and Varela were accused of spying and interrogated about their entrance into the county with neither a visa nor official permission.
“We knew we had to be absolutely truthful, letting them know who we were reporting for, how many reports we had filed,” says Foley.
Free Foley campaign launches
As Foley languished in jail, his family and friends sprang to action. First they had to decide if they would make his capture public and create an international campaign to free him or keep his captivity private and negotiate behind the scenes to set him free. Many news organizations have chosen the private route. But Foley was freelancing for a small online start-up without the clout of The New York Times.
“It was a polarizing decision,” says Michael Foley, James’ brother. “But the reality was that he didn’t have a huge organization behind him with an army of attorneys to make daily calls to the U.S. State Department. My parents decided to go public and stay public.”
Pedraza, Hanrahan and Durkin became part of the Free Foley inner circle, along with Foley’s family, New Hampshire friends and educators from TFA.
The group divided up to work on media outreach, government operations and general operations, which included the Free Foley Facebook page, the online petition and the campaign’s website.
Pedraza, who’d previously worked as a staffer for U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, says the campaign developed an operational rhythm, with daily conference calls and the dedication of Foley’s friends and family.
“No one had all the answers or even knew exactly how to tackle such a problem,” says Pedraza. “But we formed the framework and got people working together.”
The Marquette network played an important role in the campaign. Elizabeth Nielsen, a friend of Durkin, saw his Facebook posts about Foley’s plight. She told Durkin she knew the folks at Care2, the online petition service. She convinced them to highlight the petition that called on the Libyan government to free the journalists. Petitions that garner 10,000 signatures are considered successful; their goal was 25,000 signatures. Close to 35,000 signed it, and another 8,000 “liked” the Free Foley page on Facebook.
To get the attention of WTMJ4, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, Hanrahan reached out to news anchor Steve Chamraz, Comm ’98.
“Everybody had lots of small roles,” says Hanrahan.
The drumbeat on the local level finally spilled onto the national scene. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Foley’s release, as did U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
One of Gadhafi’s sons became involved, and the journalists were eventually transferred to a villa. They were brought to a Libyan court, found guilty of entering the country without a visa, given a suspended sentence and fined the equivalent of $150. Officials from the Hungarian embassy then took them into custody and brought them to the Tunisian border, where they were set free. Waiting for Foley was his brother, Michael.
“It was surreal,” says Foley. “I was looking at him, and I couldn’t believe he was there. It was like a holographic image of him. It was so amazing to see him, to hear about the grassroots efforts with Marquette and TFA. It was crazy.”
Back home, Foley made the media rounds to talk about his captivity and the dangers correspondents face in wartime. He set up an online fundraising appeal at freefoley.org to support Anton Hammerl’s wife and three children.
Foley is writing an account of his ordeal, using notes he smuggled out in his shoe.
In June, he traveled to the Lakota tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to teach a workshop on video production for fledgling journalists. He’s contemplating a return to the front lines, but his trip to the reservation reminded him that injustice remains in the United States and courageous journalists are needed to keep it in the public eye.
In mid-July, Foley joined GlobalPost as deputy breaking news editor. Until the desire to hit the road grips him again, he will edit dispatches from correspondents around the world. He’s also contemplating the Book of Matthew, which rang so true in his Tripoli prison cell. His fellow prisoner recited Matthew 11:30, in which Jesus calls on his followers to take on his yoke and learn from him.
No one can say exactly what part of the Free Foley campaign resulted in his release, but the multifaceted effort reminds Foley of Matthew’s parable of the farmer who sows seeds in many places.
“The farmer was putting out his efforts in all directions,” Foley says. “Some of them hit fallow ground. Other seeds fell on good soil. We don’t know exactly what seeds grew roots for us, but something worked on our behalf. My friends and family were unstoppable.”
This article appeared in the fall 2011 issue of Marquette Magazine following his first capture earlier that year. Foley was killed in August 2014 following a second capture in 2012. Additional resources on Foley, including the university’s response and information about a James Foley Scholarship, is available online.