The family passed the message on to the U.S. government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which handles cases involving kidnapped American citizens, helped craft a response, pleading for mercy, said Phil Balboni, chief executive of GlobalPost, the Boston-based online news publication that employed Foley.
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Foley's family and friends hoped the militants were bluffing and wanted a ransom, he said.
Six days later, on Tuesday, Islamic State militants stunned America with a gruesome video posted on YouTube showing the beheading of Foley, 40, by a masked, black-clad man who also threatened to kill a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff.
Foley's death, highlighting how Syria has become perhaps the most dangerous country on earth for journalists, followed intense efforts by GlobalPost and others to identify his captors, and despite brief e-mail exchanges between the militants and his family in late 2013 about a possible ransom.
The White House declined to comment on the warning about Foley but it said special operations troops were sent to Syria earlier this summer on a secret mission to rescue American hostages, including Foley, but did not find them.
"Since his capture, we have been using every tool at our disposal to try to bring him home to his family and to gather any and all information we could get about his whereabouts, his condition and the threats he faced," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
Obama vowed on Wednesday the United States would keep supporting Iraqis in the fight against Islamic State.
"An extraordinary person"
Foley, who had previously been detained in Libya, was abducted on November 22, 2012 -- on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday -- near the city of Binnish in Syria's Idlib province, as he and his colleagues made their way toward the Turkish border.
Who initially seized Foley has been a subject of dispute. Some signs pointed to the Shabiha, militias loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Balboni said that early on, there were strong indications Foley had been transferred to the Syrian capital Damascus. That information later proved incorrect.
The first solid information about Foley's condition, he said, came nearly a year after his abduction, from a returning European jihadist, or Islamic fighter, who had been with the American journalist in the city of Aleppo. This person provided confirmation that Foley was alive, as well as first-hand details of his captivity and his captors.
Foley was moved a number of times, and passed through the hands of various captors, Balboni said.
Didier Francois, a veteran French war correspondent who was held with Foley and released with three other French hostages in April, said he had little doubt Foley was under the control of Islamic State or its affiliates the entire time.
"The guy who killed him is the guy who took him from the start," Francois told Reuters.
Francois said he had been held with Foley from last August until April and that he was also held almost nine months with Sotloff.
"He was an extraordinary person with a strong character. He was a pleasant companion in detention because he was solid and collective. He never gave in to the pressure and violence of the kidnappers," Francois said of Foley.