real life

What happened when Diane Foley sat down with the man who murdered her son.

James Foley’s death was unimaginable. He was a US journalist held hostage by ISIS for two years in Syria and killed in 2014 as a threat to America. Footage of him wearing an orange jumpsuit, forcibly reading a message before being beheaded was posted to Twitter. The media coverage of the event had the second most recognition in recent American history after 9/11.

At the end of 2021, over seven years after millions of people watched her son being executed, James' mother Diane Foley got the opportunity to go and meet with one of his killers. And she said yes. So in the meeting room at the courthouse in Virginia, Diane met Alexanda Kotey who had just been sentenced to eight concurrent terms of life imprisonment. Over 10 hours the pair talked. Here is a snippet of that conversation that is extracted from Diane’s book American Mother (available here).

American Mother is a story about a mother's love for her son, known fondly as Jim, and how it continues to sustain her. How she found a way to heal herself after she lost her boy. And how sitting down with his killer helped her to do that.

Listen to the full episode of Mia Freedman's interview with Diane Foley on No Filter below. Story continues after the podcast.

"You are doing beautifully," says Jenn Donnarumma, a victim advocate from the prosecution team, but Diane is not sure at all, and she wonders if all of this is an extended mistake. And yet, then again, there is Jim. Always Jim, the spirit of Jim. He would have wanted to know. And there are other things to contemplate too.

Perhaps Kotey will reveal the names of some of the higher-ups who have not yet been prosecuted? Perhaps he will give her a clue into the psychology of hostage-takers? Perhaps he will reveal the burial place of the bodies of Jim and the other dead hostages?


When she returns to the room, she is once again ready.

"What do you regret, Alexanda?"

"I haven't concluded yet what I regret," he says.

"What did you think of Jim?"

"I thought he was a typical white American."

"What else do you know of him?"

"I saw the documentary."


"I thought he was an optimist, and I thought he was naïve, I don’t mean this in a negative way, you understand?"

"He was a lot like you, Alexanda, don't you think?"

"I don't know."

"He was a truth seeker."


"He was dark-skinned like you."

No answer.

He glances up and says: "I have had a lot of time in isolation, a lot of time to think."

"I'm here to listen," she says.

He is at pains to tell her that he wants to escape from the cliché of being called a Beatle in the media, to move away from the sensationalism of the tabloids. It rankles him. "It's cheap and easy for the papers. I want people to view me in my reality." He thinks about his own mother, he says, and how she receives this sort of news. He has been labelled a thug, a football hooligan, but he's only ever been to two football matches, one when England played Yugoslavia when he was a child, and another when he went to a Leighton Orient game. The English Sunday newspapers said he supported a team named Queens Park Rangers, but he never did, it was just another way for the media to simplify him, stuff him in a preordained box: there had been a blue-and-white QPR gnome outside his house belonging to his stepfather. This may sound to some like a small detail, but, he says, it is important to him. "The press wants to distort me, anything they can do to make a monster out of me." They are only interested in another easy cliché. Believe it or not, he says, he actually played baseball. American baseball, of all things. "First base in fact." Yes, he had been a drug dealer in his later teenage years, that is true. Cocaine. But there was more to it than that. He had been beaten by other London schoolboys at the age of thirteen. His radicalisation had its roots in that thuggery. He converted from the Greek Orthodox faith. He found sanctuary in the mosque in Westbourne Park.


He found, in Islam, the idea of a better, freer society. There were many layers of complication. His father was from Ghana but died when he was two years old. His mother, from Greece, is a therapist. He has an older brother in London who has long since disowned him. They can make him into a monster all they want, but he knows that there is a deeper truth.

Towards noon, Kotey opens the manila file in front of him. "Can I show you something?" he asks. He passes some printouts across the table. She understands what he is doing: he is fully invested in humanising himself. What else did she expect? Even the worst of humans demand a portion of love.


She fingers through the photos. Her heart vaults. His three young daughters. They are extraordinarily beautiful. They wear bright dresses: baby blue and pink. Their hair is neatly combed and plaited. The photo is a close-up, and she wonders aloud where it might have been taken. "In the camp," he says, almost impatiently: meaning the refugee camp, meaning Syria, meaning barbed wire, meaning armed guards.

He tells her that he has never seen his three-year-old in real life. He was captured before she was born. He does not show the face of his wife: it goes against his religion, he says.

"They're beautiful," says Diane. She cannot help herself.

She does not want to appear soft or open to easy manipulation, but it is true: the sight of them stalls her breath. And yet what sort of childhood might that be, amid the tents, the hanging clothes lines, the hunger, the whip of wind?

Another photo is slid across the table. His eighteen-year-old daughter from England, a child he left behind years ago.

She is aware of the pulsing strangeness of the moment: the man accused of conspiring to kill her son is showing her pictures of his own living children, even the one he has abandoned. He receives the copies back from across the table, holds them a moment longer. "Thank you," he says.

He is, he says, interested in honesty, compassion, charity, patience, abstinence, mindful knowing. The list surprises her.

Mindful knowing. It is not a language that seems to belong to him. But he has, she knows, had access to a counsellor in recent weeks and perhaps he is learning to echo what others might want to hear. He says he is not sure what he is going to do with all these things, but he will one day face his Lord. Face his Lord. The thought of it brings a shiver along her forearms. She beseeches her own.


In the room, the clocks tick, unseen.

It has been a day of shadows and redirection, revelation and lies. She gets the vague sense that Kotey – with his confidence and his silence – might think himself to be the smartest person in the room. He is intelligent, yes, but it's an intelligence that needs to wear a disguise. And besides, the smartest person in the room is the one who knows she, or he, is never the smartest at all: herein lies the contradiction. She wonders now if he has just said exactly the things she wanted to hear. She knows herself to be naïve at times: she admits this to herself. Yes, it is true, she has often been far too open to people in the past. She has been stung. Government officials who have deceived her. Pretenders from the FBI. Misdirection from the State Department and White House. Politicians. Negotiators.

Informers. Con men. And, perhaps now, Kotey. 

But she also knows that naïvety is necessary to cultivate something deeper.

She wants to remain open to the world. Compassion, Lord. And mercy. And patience.

There will be one more session tomorrow. Perhaps they will achieve something more than this intimate stand-off. But then again, perhaps nothing.


She pulls back her chair and thanks him. It is dangerous, she knows, to thank him. But she must do it anyway. Perhaps it's only politeness. Perhaps it’s something more.

"In another life," she says, "you and Jim might have been friends."

American Mother by Diane Foley. Image: Booktopia.

American Mother by Colum McCann with Diane Foley is published by Bloomsbury ($34.99) and available now.

Feature image: Supplied.

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