The mother of James W. Foley, the first American hostage beheaded by the Islamic State, expressed concern Thursday that Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurds, who have been guarding thousands of ISIS detainees in Syria, would lead to prisoner escapes, resurrection of the extremist group and dashed hopes for punishment of the killers of her son and others.
“This is an international security threat,” the mother, Diane Foley, said in a telephone interview, giving her assessment of the consequences of President Trump’s decision to pull back American forces in northern Syria. That decision allowed Turkey to attack the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — America’s principal ally in battling the Islamic State.
The Turkish invasion, which began Wednesday, called into question the Kurdish militia’s ability to continue securely holding 11,000 captured ISIS fighters in Syria. They include many who had slipped into the country via the porous border with Turkey when the Islamic State commanded a large swath of Syria and Iraq more than five years ago as part of its now-defunct caliphate.
“I can understand President Trump saying, ‘We can’t take care of everything,’” Mrs. Foley said. Nonetheless, she said, “at least the Kurds were making sure the prisoners were secure.”
Mrs. Foley expressed gratitude that Mr. Trump said Wednesday that the United States was taking custody of “a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad” and placing them elsewhere to ensure they did not escape. “I’m grateful — that’s great news,” she said.
Previously Mr. Trump had suggested that ISIS detainees in Syria would become the responsibility of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a prospect Mrs. Foley ridiculed. Mr. Erdogan, she said, was “the one who let a lot of them go in.”
The ISIS detainees in American custody include two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, who were members of a cell that the group’s foreign hostages had nicknamed the Beatles because of their British-accented English. Syrian Kurdish militia fighters seized them in January 2018 as the ISIS caliphate was collapsing.
In 2014 and 2015, the group beheaded seven American, British and Japanese hostages, among others, uploading videos of the executions on the internet and bragging about them. The first hostage to be beheaded, on Aug. 19, 2014, was Mr. Foley, a journalist and videographer who disappeared in Syria on Thanksgiving Day in 2012.
It remains unclear precisely where Mr. Elsheikh and Mr. Kotey are in American custody now. Mrs. Foley said they should be brought to the United States for trial. But equally important, she said, was that other ISIS fighters who committed crimes are prosecuted, and that in her view the United States must take the lead to ensure this happens.
“If we do not take this on, we’re going to be very sorry,” she said.
Mrs. Foley has become a leader among families of slain hostages who have demanded accountability from the United States and other governments to ensure that ISIS prisoners are brought to justice. She is president and founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a journalist advocacy and educational group.
Speaking at a panel Monday night at the University of Michigan, one day after Mr. Trump announced the American pullback in Syria, Mrs. Foley was blunt in her criticism.
“This decision sends a message that those who take our citizens hostage will not face American justice,” she said. “We implore President Trump to hold these ISIS fighters accountable for their barbaric human rights crimes against our citizens and protect our country against the spread of terror, should they escape.”