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A story of moral courage: Flick Drummond reviews 'American Mother'

Washington 2023: Diane Foley lobbies the Biden administration | Image by: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

The moving story of a mother’s fight to honour her son’s memory after his brutal murder at the hands of ISIS, Colum McCann and Diane Foley have also written an important exploration of the dynamics of hostage-taking

“To lose a child is among the worst things that can happen to a parent,” Diane Foley says. Indeed, it is every parent’s worst nightmare. 

But to have your eldest child, James Foley, publicly murdered with the video of the beheading posted on the world-wide web is a nightmare of indescribable horror. 

I heard Diane Foley on BBC radio’s Women’s Hour the day after I received her book, American Mother, and listened to her calmness when describing how she found out about her son’s murder, and then the subsequent seven years during which she met Alexanda Kotey – one of her son’s jailers and part of the British born gang of so-called “Jihadi Beatles” – who is now serving time in an American jail. 

As part of his plea bargaining, Kotey’s defence team suggested that if he pleaded guilty he would need to talk to the survivors and victims’ families. Diane Foley agreed and had two days to question Alexanda to find out about her son’s last two years in captivity and his death. It is a very moving encounter, at the end of which Diane says, “I hope one day we can forgive one another,” and Alexanda responds, “There is no reason for you to offer forgiveness.”

Any politician who may be responsible for citizens who are hostages should read this book

The book also describes the trial of another Beatle, El Shafee Elsheikh, who was James’ killer. He insisted on a trial costing millions of dollars, giving him a chance of justice, unlike his victim. Michael Foley, James’ brother, was asked to testify and to describe a photo, not shown to the courtroom but to the jury. “That’s Jim,” he said. “He’s dead. The severed head is on his body.” 

American MotherTrying to make sense and create something good out of atrocities like this takes moral courage but it is a way of keeping the spirit of the deceased alive. Diane writes about the immediate aftermath of James’ death and of the foundation set up in his name that seeks to educate, and advocate for freedom for American hostages abroad and support their families. It also provides safety training for journalists on how to avoid being taken hostage.

Any politician or official who may be responsible for citizens who are hostages, or at risk of being taken, should read this book to learn how to deal with the families and hostage-takers. Some come back alive, others are murdered but all families need to be supported. James Foley wanted to help people by telling their stories; Diane Foley and Colum McCann have done just that with this important story of the impact on one family – and of the impact of hostage-taking which still goes on.

The barbarity of ISIS continues – we see its kind in the latest war in Gaza – and I hope that this book will be widely read by anyone involved in assisting those affected by hostage-taking as they will learn much. 

Flick Drummond is Conservative MP for Meon Valley

American Mother
By: Colum McCann & Diane Foley
Publisher: Bloomsbury

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