Kayla Jean Mueller (August 14, 1988 – c. February 6, 2015) was an American human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker from Prescott, Arizona, US. She was taken captive in August 2013 in Aleppo, Syria, after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital. Media had long reported that a 26-year-old American aid worker was being held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without naming her, at her family's request. In 2015, she was killed in uncertain circumstances, after being raped several times by her captors.
Kayla Jean Mueller
August 14, 1988
|Died||c. February 6, 2015 (aged 26)|
|Education||Bachelor's Degree in Political science, Northern Arizona University (2009)|
|Occupation||Human rights activist, humanitarian aid worker|
Early life, activism and humanitarian aid
Mueller supported a variety of humanitarian aid and human rights initiatives. Her involvement in human rights activism and humanitarian aid included working in India with Tibetan refugees. Her work in the Middle East included volunteering for the pro-Palestinian activist group the International Solidarity Movement and helping African refugees in Israel with the African Refugees Development Center. Other humanitarian and activist causes Mueller was involved in at home and abroad were Vrindavan Food For Life, which provides free food, education, and medical care for those in need; and during college, Food Not Bombs.
Abduction by ISIS
Mueller started working in southern Turkey in December 2012, where she was assisting Syrian refugees. On August 3, 2013, she travelled to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo together with a Syrian resident, a contractor hired to install some communications equipment at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo.
Although Mueller had been working with the international aid agency Support to Life in Turkey, this was not a work-related trip for Mueller. Doctors Without Borders staff were "flabbergasted" at Mueller's arrival, fearing for her safety, as Syria was dangerous for international aid workers and in the midst of a civil war. The following day, Doctors Without Borders staff tried to drive Mueller to a bus station so that she could travel back to Turkey.
Captivity and unsuccessful rescue attempt
The U.S. military and Mueller's family attempted several times to rescue Mueller, devoting large resources to the search. In July 2014, U.S. special operations forces (from Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team Six) raided an abandoned oil refinery near Raqqa in an unsuccessful attempt to find reporter James Foley (whom ISIL later murdered) and other hostages. The commandos found evidence that the hostages had recently been held there, finding writing on the cell walls and hair believed to be Mueller's, but the refinery was empty.
A Mueller family spokesman said that Mueller's parents "often communicated with the White House in trying to free their daughter." In the summer 2014, as other options were exhausted, Mueller's parents asked President Obama in a letter to consider trading Mueller for Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist serving 86 years in federal prison; Siddiqui's release has been a long-sought demand of ISIS and al-Qaeda. The proposed exchange did not take place; the Obama administration had also rejected demands from other militant groups to exchange Siddiqui.
Catherine Herridge of Fox News reported via anonymous sources that the location of Mueller and other American hostages was known by the White House in May 2014. However, a decision regarding a rescue mission was not made for seven weeks, because the White House had asked for further intelligence to be obtained. By that time, the hostages had been dispersed.
It had also been reported in May 2015 that Mueller was a "personal captive" of Abu Sayyaf. In August 2015, ABC News reported that Abu Sayyaf's widow, Umm Sayyaf, had confirmed that al-Baghdadi had been Mueller's primary abuser.
Fellow captives who were released or escaped reported Mueller's strength and compassion. She was concerned for the safety of others, even intentionally passing up an escape attempt to give other women a better chance at freedom. After months of prolonged torture and abuse, ISIS members, who are known for their persecution of Christians, attempted to use her as propaganda by claiming she had abandoned the Christian faith in front of other male prisoners, but she denied it. Daniel Rye Ottosen, a Danish freelance photographer and fellow captive, said that the men in the room "...were impressed by the strength that she showed in front of us. That was very clear."
On February 6, 2015, a media account affiliated with ISIS released a statement claiming that a female American hostage held by the group was killed by one of around a dozen Jordanian airstrikes in Raqqa. The statement came just days after the release of a video showing the burning alive of a Jordanian fighter pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, by ISIS and the subsequent execution of Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi and other prisoners of Jordan. The statement was later translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, identifying the hostage as Mueller. Other reports claimed Mueller was killed in an American airstrike. Mueller had been a hostage of ISIS for 18 months.
As part of the statement, ISIS published a photo of a damaged building, alleging that Mueller had been killed in a Jordanian airstrike in the building, where she had been left alone with no guards, but no proof of death was provided. The Pentagon agreed the building was one hit in the bombings, but disputed that Mueller or any other civilian had been inside at the time. The site had been bombed by the coalition twice before, and was targeted again because ISIS soldiers sometimes return to bombed sites, thinking the coalition would not bomb those sites again, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. After this, Mueller's name was released by American and other media with the family's consent.
On February 10, 2015, Mueller's family announced ISIS had confirmed her death to them in an e-mail, with three photographs of her dead body, bruised on the face and wearing a black hijab. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said this message was authenticated by the intelligence community. President Barack Obama offered his condolences to Mueller's family.
On August 24, 2016, ABC News reported that Doctors Without Borders had declined to help negotiate her release. Doctors without Borders then issued their version of the story in a statement (since deleted but archived) to the effect that they felt constrained in their available actions by the complexities of the larger situation and their general lack of expertise in hostage negotiation.
On February 8, 2016, Umm Sayyaf was charged by American prosecutors in Virginia with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization that resulted in a person's death. The federal charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. She remains in Iraqi custody on terrorism-related charges.
Mueller's parents reportedly implored ISIS to contact them as they hoped their daughter might still be alive. "We have sent you a private message and ask that you respond to us privately", Carl and Marsha Mueller said in a statement. They said they had not talked to the media as ISIS warned them not to. Later, in an interview on The Today Show, Carl Mueller expressed his frustration with the Obama administration over the way it conducted negotiations with their daughter's captors and their policy of not paying ransom money for hostages, even though U.S. citizens living abroad are required to pay taxes to the U.S. "We understand the policy about not paying ransom, but on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home," Carl Mueller said. "And we tried, and we asked. But they put policy in front of American citizens' lives. And it didn’t get it changed."
As Kayla Mueller was a member of ecumenical Christian campus ministry, United Christian Ministries, which held ties to the Presbyterian Church, the denomination stated that “Each of us is called in our own way to make the world a better place and manifest the love of Christ to those around us. Kayla did that in a very profound and tangible way, and my hope is that she inspires others to alleviate suffering in the world and in their own communities.”
An American official cautioned that without proof of Mueller's death, the statement by ISIS could be a ploy to cause the Jordanians and the rest of the American-led coalition to refrain from any heavier airstrikes.
Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh called ISIS's claim "an old and sick trick" on Twitter. "So they behead innocent #US #UK & Japan hostages & BURN a brave #Jordan pilot ALIVE & now a hostage is killed by an airstrike? Sure! Sick!", he said. He further tweeted: "An old and sick trick used by terrorists and despots for decades: claiming that hostages human shields held captive are killed by air raids." Later upon confirmation of Mueller's death he tweeted: "Saddened & angered to hear news confirming killing of #US hostage #kaylaMueller. Yet another ugly example of these terrorists' brutality."
After many Western news outlets cast doubt on the claim of the hostage death and the extremists' ability to identify Jordanian and U.S.-made F-16s flying at high altitudes, Jordan dismissed the claim of a killed hostage as an ISIS publicity stunt and a lie, as the group is known for its propaganda techniques.
After Mueller's family confirmed her death, President Obama said "[Mueller] represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world." United States Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying "ISIS, and ISIS alone, is the reason Kayla is gone."
The Pentagon declined to investigate whether Mueller was killed by the coalition airstrike. Policy dictates that the U.S. only investigates reports of civilian casualties when they come from a "credible source", which ISIS is not.
In February 2015, Charlotte Alter of TIME described Kayla Mueller as an ideal role model for Millennials, citing her selfless desire to end suffering, her activism, and her humanitarian aid work, and praising her desire not to be seen, but to genuinely help people. According to Alter, "Mueller represented the best qualities of the millennial generation – our idealism, our optimism, and our love of our families – without the troublesome ones."
In October 2015, Mueller became the first person to be posthumously inducted into Northern Arizona University's college of Social and Behavioral Sciences Hall of Fame. She was recognized as an outstanding alumna for her humanitarian aid work.
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Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi repeatedly raped devout Christian Kayla Mueller, according to accounts provided to US intelligence officials.
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The information about al-Baghdadi's extraordinary direct role in the captivity and physical abuse of Kayla Mueller was drawn from, among many sources, the U.S. debriefings of at least least [sic] two Yezedi teenage girls, ages 16 and 18, held as sex slaves in the Sayyaf compound as well as from the interrogation of Abu Sayyaf's wife Umm Sayyaf, who was captured in the U.S. raid, the officials told ABC News.
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