Mother of Murdered Journalist Calls Life Sentence for ISIS Captors ‘A Huge Victory,’ Better than the Death Penalty

On the eighth anniversary of the August 19, 2014 murder of kidnapped journalist James Foley, a U.S. federal district court in Virginia sentenced his killer, Islamic State militant El Shafee Elsheikh, to eight life sentences in prison. His mother, Diane Foley (pictured), a leading advocate for Americans held hostage abroad, hailed the life sentence as “a huge victory” and “a very important deterrent.”

Elsheikh was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Foley and three other Americans — journalist Steven Sotloff and humanitarian workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — who had been held hostage by ISIS in Iraq. Foley’s graphic murder by beheading was filmed by ISIS and posted online as propaganda. Alexanda Kotey, another militant who was captured along with Elsheikh, pleaded guilty to the same charges in 2021 and was also sentenced to life in prison. The third man involved in the killings, Mohammed Emwazi, was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike in 2015.

In several interviews after the sentencing, Diane Foley expressed her belief that justice had been done. She told Fox News that the life sentence imposed by the court was “a much more just sentence” than the death penalty. “These young men will have to spend the rest of their lives thinking about what they did and why they’ve lost their freedom, country, and family.” In a news conference outside the courthouse, she said “this sentencing make[s] clear to all who dare to kidnap, torture, or kill any American citizen abroad that U.S. justice will find you wherever you are, and that our government will hold you accountable for your crimes against our citizens.”

Elsheikh and Kotey, both of whom grew up in England, were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria in 2018 and turned over to U.S. forces in Iraq. U.S. authorities sought British cooperation in the criminal investigation of the men without providing assurances that federal prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against them. Elsheikh’s mother sued to block the British government from sharing evidence in a potential capital case, and the families pressed the Department of Justice to forego the death penalty.

The Department of Justice refused. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom then unanimously ruled in March 2020 that the British government had unlawfully provided information to the United States without first obtaining assurances that the information would not be used to impose or carry out the death penalty. In August 2020, then-Attorney General Bill Barr informed the families that federal prosecutors would agree to drop the pursuit of the death penalty to secure Britain’s cooperation in the investigation.

After meeting with Kotey last year, Foley told the BBC, “If I hate them, they have won. They will continue to hold me captive because I am not willing to be different to the way they were to my loved one. We have to pray for the courage to be the opposite.” She continued, “It’s a hard journey to forgiveness, and it’s not a done deal but it’s what I aspire to.”

In the aftermath of her son’s murder, Diane Foley founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for Americans held hostage and provides curricula and other resources for journalist safety. After Elsheikh’s sentencing, she brought attention to 67 Americans currently held hostage or being wrongfully detailed in 20 countries around the world. “I urgently call on our President Biden to employ our shrewdest negotiation to quickly bring these innocent Americans home, lest they die in captivity as our sons and daughter did,” she said.