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Born in Boston, Foley became a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1965 serving two years in India upon graduating from the University of Massachusetts. After earning a master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling at San Francisco State University in 1969, he served as a probation officer in Contra Costa County, California. He later worked for the Peace Corps, serving as Associate Director of the Peace Corps program in the Philippines from 1980 to 1985. He served as Director of Administration at the Rehabilitation Services of Northern California until joining the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1988. After working in Bolivia, Peru, and Zimbabwe, Foley became Supervisory Executive Officer of USAID/Jordan in 2000.
On the morning of October 28, 2002, Foley was killed by gunshots from a 9 mm silenced pistol as he walked to his car outside his Amman home. On December 14, Jordan arrested two men, Libyan Salem bin Suweid and Jordanian Yasser Freihat, and charged them with killing Foley. According to Jordan, the men were paid to kill Foley by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Islamist militant leader, later the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Though the men later confessed, they claimed they were forced to by Jordanian authorities.
In April 2004, the two men were sentenced to death for killing Foley. Zarqawi was sentenced to death in absentia for his role in the assassination, but was killed in a U.S. airstrike on June 7, 2006. Foley's assassins were executed on March 11, 2006.
On July 14, 2009, a Jordanian court sentenced Mohammed Ahmed Youssef Al Jaghbeer to death for his involvement in Foley's murder. Al Jaghbeer was first convicted in absentia in 2005. He was retried after his capture in Iraq and subsequent transfer to Jordan, but an appeals court overturned the second guilty verdict on procedural grounds and ordered a new trial. This court found that Al Jaghbeer facilitated contacts between Al Qaeda and an Amman cell that killed Foley.