Mother of journalist murdered by ISIS discusses how the U.S. handles hostage situations

President Biden this week signed an executive order to improve efforts to free more than 60 U.S. nationals held hostage or who are wrongfully detained abroad. Diane Foley's son was an American journalist kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and killed by ISIS in 2014. She now advocates for the freedom of Americans held abroad with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, and she joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, President Biden signed an executive order to improve the administration's efforts to free the more than 60 U.S. nationals held hostage or who are wrongfully detained abroad. The new order aims to increase information to their relatives and to impose sanctions on the governments and terrorist organizations that hold them captive.

    But some families say the administration needs to do more to bring their loved ones home.

    To discuss this, I'm joined again here by Diane Foley, whose son James was an American journalist kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and killed by ISIS in 2014. Since then, she's been advocating for the freedom of Americans held abroad through a foundation that bears her son's name.

    Diane Foley, thank you very much for being with us again.

    And we always want to say to you, our heart goes out to you on the loss of your son, Jim, even though it's been eight years.

    Diane Foley, Mother of James Foley: Thank you, Judy.

    And that's partly what was heartbreaking for me today, to see so many families going through this again, Judy. It's heartbreaking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were here bring together this organization, Bring Our Families Home, unveiling a mural.

    But it's a reminder of how much still needs to be done, you are saying.

  • Diane Foley:

    Exactly, Judy.

    These families have come together out of desperation. They are so afraid their loved one will be yet another American who's abandoned abroad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this executive order that we mentioned the president has signed, among other things, holding governments and these so-called nonstate actors like ISIS accountable, how much difference do you think this is going to make?

  • Diane Foley:

    Deterrence is essential.

    I think our government is trying to solve this increasing problem, Judy. So I'm very grateful for all that has happened. But the families want their people home. And for that to happen, we need our president to prioritize that action, which is difficult, because there are so many things that captors want.

    And it requires shrewd negotiation, diplomacy, consideration of so many of our policies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, I mean, I hear you saying that the government isn't doing enough, that it's one thing to have this executive action, which will hold — it is an attempt to deter these governments, to hold them accountable.

  • Diane Foley:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying more. Exactly what more?

  • Diane Foley:

    Bringing our people home, Judy.

    We need to prioritize the return of innocent Americans. The only reason these people have been taken is because they're American. They're political prisoners. They're prisoners because they have an American passport.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're talking about dealing with governments, in some cases, and with terrorist organizations.

    Is either kind of captor easier or more difficult to work with?

  • Diane Foley:

    Well, to be honest, some of these state actors are even more complicated, because they love to interfere with our foreign policy and use our citizens as political pawns.

    So they can even be more complex, more troubling, annoying, frustrating for our government. It has to be hard. So I know it's complicated. But I also believe in the United States of America. And these families, frankly, are counting on the president to bring some of their loved ones home, before they die.

    It'll be eight years since Jim was executed in August. And their fear is that their family member won't be able to last long enough until they can come home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when the Biden administration representative — I was just reading, the special envoy for hostage affairs was saying today that President Biden knows every single case, he's personally committed.

    Do you feel that? Do you sense that?

  • Diane Foley:

    Our Roger Carstens feels that. And he is so committed to this issue.

    Our president obviously has a lot on his plate. The Bring Our Families Home campaign are just this coalition of desperate families just wanting to talk to the president. And that hasn't happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We heard one of the points the administration makes is that there's a — they — in order to act on some of these cases, they need to be able to say this is a lawfully — a lawful detainee — or, I should say, illegal detainee.

    Making that determination, they suggest, is a process.

  • Diane Foley:

    Well, it is.

    And all of these 64-plus have already been wrongfully detained. There's hundreds of others. But it is a process. We need prioritization to actually bring our people home, Judy. We need to care as a nation. We need to have the back not just of our brave soldiers, but also our brave journalists, our aid workers, our businessman who go out in the world.

    These citizens are counting on our precedent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have said every single one of these cases is different. They are each very unique.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Each one is unique with a different set of circumstances.

    What would come across to you as a sign that this administration is doing what you're saying, is taking what you're saying seriously?

  • Diane Foley:

    This campaign has requested just a virtual meeting with the president.

    I just — and doesn't have time for them. And that, to me, is sad, because these are our people. And I really think our president would care if he put — heard the stories. These are breathing, living sons, daughters, husbands, wives.

    To me, it's an obviously a very personal issue. And I just — I know America can do this. And I implore the president to hear the voices of his people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing I want to ask you about, Diane Foley.

    You, over the past year, have met three times with the man — one of the men responsible for the death of your son Jim. Did he express an explanation, an apology? What…

  • Diane Foley:

    He did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you hear?

  • Diane Foley:

    He did, Alexanda Kotey.

    That was part of his plea deal, that he was willing to talk to families. And Jim would have wanted me to do that. He wouldn't have wanted me to be afraid of him. And I think it was very good for Alexanda and for me to be able to see each other as people.

    And he did express remorse. And, of course, he had his reasons. And the sad part is, everyone lost. He lost. He lost his citizenship. He won't see his family again. And we lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you feel in any way that, in talking to him, that you came away with a better understanding of why something like this would happen and how we might — how it might be prevented in the future?

  • Diane Foley:

    Well, yes.

    I think it's very easy to misunderstand when you never interact with someone else and to engender — like, he was brought up with all this hatred of the West. And it was just fed in the jihadist ideology. So, to me, that was important, too, to reach out to him.

    I mean, otherwise, it's — the cycle of violence just continues, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Diane Foley, a remarkable act to be able to sit down with him.

    Thank you so much for talking with us.

  • Diane Foley:

    So grateful for you, Judy. Thank you.

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