The Mueller family know their daughter died tragically in Syria, but it's still not clear whether the young aid worker was killed by the Islamic State or in an errant U.S. or Jordanian airstrike.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
This story has been corrected.
The military believed that the parents of an American woman being held hostage by the Islamic State did not want the U.S. to launch a risky mission to rescue her and instead preferred that Washington do everything in its power to negotiate her release, according to a military official familiar with the internal deliberations.
As a result, the official said gatekeepers within the U.S. government rejected some military plans that may have helped locate Kayla Mueller before they were proposed to President Barack Obama. At least one option involved ordering a special operations task force to target individuals believed to be part of the terrorist network that kidnapped her, the official said.
The Islamic State claimed that Mueller, 26, was killed Friday in an airstrike conducted by Jordan’s government. She was kidnapped in August 2013 and is the last known American hostage being held by the extremist group. The Mueller family confirmed her death Tuesday, citing private communications from the Islamic State that persuaded them that their daughter had died in Syria. U.S. officials also confirmed her death, though they said they did not yet have evidence that would definitively establish whether she had been killed in an airstrike, as the Islamic State claims, or by the militants themselves.
But earlier plans to strike at extremists linked to those holding her were refused on the grounds that “these things would be too risky to Kayla,” said the military official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Joint Special Operations Command will again push to step up its attacks against the Islamic State network in Syria now that Mueller’s death is confirmed, as they will no longer pose any danger to her, the military official said.
The White House never outright ordered JSOC to “step off the accelerator” in trying to find Mueller and plan for her rescue, the official said. But, he said, JSOC never got enough solid information to send a rescue plan to Obama for his approval. The official declined to say whether the U.S. government ever definitively knew where Mueller was after she was kidnapped, but it’s believed she was moved at least once.
JSOC is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and oversees task forces across the globe that conduct the United States’ most sensitive special ops missions, including hostage rescues.
On Friday, a National Security Council spokesperson did not respond to a question on whether the Muellers had conveyed opposition to a raid to the White House. A Mueller family representative likewise declined to comment. On Monday, after the story was published, sources with knowledge of the family’s views disputed the military officer’s account and said the family had wanted to be notified beforehand of a raid but were not completely opposed to one taking place.
But other families of Americans recently taken hostage in Syria have heavily criticized the Obama administration for perceived insensitivity to their concerns. In response, and after the Islamic State had beheaded three American hostages in quick succession last summer, Obama ordered all U.S. government departments and agencies with a potential role in hostage crises to undertake a review of how the government deals with such situations.
NSC spokesman Alistair Baskey said the review — which included the State and Defense departments, the FBI and intelligence agencies — will be completed this spring.
Meanwhile, the families’ frustration continues.
No single U.S. government agency is charged with ensuring the safe return of American hostages, a situation that “is appalling to us,” said Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, an American reporter missing in Syria who is not being held by the Islamic State.
A long-standing U.S. government policy that forbids paying ransoms for hostages has also caused friction between the Obama administration and some families. The family of James Foley, a journalist the Islamic State beheaded in August, told ABC News that senior State Department and NSC officials tried to intimidate them against paying a ransom and, in at least one case, threatened prosecution if the family tried.
A JSOC task force tried to rescue Foley, Mueller, and other Western hostages in a July 3 raid on a compound near the Syrian town of Raqqa — only to find that the Islamic State had moved the hostages a few days earlier.
The Obama administration is divided on whether the families of the hostages should have a say, or even the ability to veto, before military rescue missions are launched.
Chastened by a failed December raid in Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie, U.S. officials have been hesitant to try again in Mueller’s case.
Baskey called family participation “an integral part of our review.”
“We understand this is incredibly difficult and painful for the families and we appreciate their feedback,” he said. “Their participation is key to helping us better understand ways we can improve this process.”
Correction, Feb. 10, 2015: The original headline and opening paragraph of this article failed to specify that the military believed that the Mueller family was opposed to a raid to free their daughter, not that the family had directly conveyed those views to the administration themselves. It should also have attributed that information to a military official familiar with the internal deliberations. Additionally, after the story was published, sources with knowledge of the family’s views said the Muellers had not been completely opposed to a potential raid, but had wanted to be notified about it beforehand.
Photo courtesy of the Mueller family.