ISIS Says Last American Hostage, a Female Aid Worker, Killed in Jordanian Airstrike

The claim by the militant group comes on the heels of the killing of a captive Jordanian pilot.

Mueller Photo 2crop

The Islamic State militant group said on Friday that its last known remaining American hostage, female aid worker Kayla Mueller, has been killed by a Jordanian airstrike against extremist targets in Syria.

According to SITE, a group that monitors online jihadi messages, the Islamic State reported on Twitter that Mueller, of Prescott, Arizona, “was killed when she was buried beneath the rubble of the building.” The report remains unconfirmed and a person close to the case who has spoken to the hostage’s family said her parents have not been notified by the White House or other official sources.

In a statement released Friday night, Mueller’s parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller said, they are “still hopeful that Kayla is alive” and asked that the people who have held her captive contact them. In doing so, they indicated they have been communicating with the militants, who last year demanded a ransom for Mueller’s release in the millions of dollars.

“We have sent you a private message and ask that you respond to us privately,” the parents said in their statement.

“You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest,” the parents said. “As your guest, her safety and wellbeing remains your responsibility.”

They said they “have been doing everything we can to get her released safely.”

The claim that a Jordanian airstrike was responsible for her death is being met with intense skepticism from analysts and government officials alike, who wondered how the Islamic State would be able to differentiate American strikes from Jordanian ones. They also note that blaming the death on Jordan just days after Amman promised to step up its military operations against the group seems a bit too tidy, particularly since the group has long been thought to be looking for a way to explain Mueller’s potential killing at their hands without being directly blamed for it.

“She may very well be dead, and probably is, but the alleged circumstances surrounding Mueller’s death don’t make sense,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on jihadi activity and U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

The claim comes on the heels of a video released by the Islamic State showing the immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot, which has been widely criticized in the Muslim world, including by key Sunni Muslim nations, religious figures, and scholars. Friday’s announcement could be part of the Islamic State’s push to deflect blame for its own actions and lay the death of the young woman squarely at the feet of a key Arab ally of the U.S.-led coalition battling the group.

On Twitter, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh rejected the attempt to blame Amman for Mueller’s death. He called it “an old and sick trick used by terrorists and despots for decades: claiming that hostages human shields held captive are killed by air raids.”

U.S. intelligence officials are looking at satellite pictures for proof that the building was indeed bombed, but Mueller’s death will likely not be confirmed without pictures of her or some of her recognizable clothing, identification, or other personal effects she may have had while in captivity. If the Islamic State has Mueller’s remains, “they will produce it eventually,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the case.

It is highly likely that U.S. and Jordan military officials would have discussed and coordinated strike targets. An official at U.S. Central Command confirmed that the U.S.-led coalition conducted multiple airstrikes Friday in the Raqqa area against Islamic State targets. Those strikes involved both U.S. and coalition planes.

In the aftermath of the killing of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, Amman has stepped up airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Jordanian fighter jets have repeatedly hit targets in and around Raqqa, the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria, and Jordanian officials have pointed to the strikes as evidence of their country’s determination to destroy the militant group.

“The criminal Crusader coalition aircraft bombarded a site outside the city of ar-Raqqah today at noon while the people were performing the Friday prayer,” the Islamic State wrote on Twitter in announcing Mueller’s alleged death. “The air assaults were continuous on the same location for more than an hour.”

The group also posted images of what it described as the building that was struck. It said no jihadis were killed in the attack.

“We’re obviously very concerned about reports that have come in,” said National Security Advisor Susan Rice at an appearance in Washington Friday, referring to the Islamic State’s claim about Mueller. “We do not have at present any evidence to corroborate this.”

Mueller, 26, had worked for the international humanitarian aid agency Support to Life, and another nongovernmental organization called Dignity, which assists women Syrian refugees, according to her hometown newspaper, the Prescott Daily Courier. In a May 2013 speech to the local Kiwanis Club in her hometown, Mueller described painting and playing with traumatized Syrian children who had fled their homes and settled in refugee camps in neighboring Turkey. During her remarks, Mueller recounted helping a 6-year-old boy find his Syrian family after being separated during an attack on the refugee camp. “This story is not rare in Syria,” she said, according to the newspaper report. “This is the reality for Syrians two and a half years on. When Syrians hear I’m an American, they ask, ‘Where is the world?’ All I can do is cry with them, because I don’t know.”

According to a person close to Mueller’s family, she was captured on Aug. 4, 2013, as she was leaving a Spanish Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Mueller arrived on the Turkey-Syria border in December 2012 and went to work for the Danish Refugee Council and Support to Life. It’s believed she followed her boyfriend into Syria, where she had little support or experienced guidance, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.

U.S. officials tried for months to keep Mueller’s identity secret for fear that she would become a higher-value hostage once the world knew a young American woman was among those captured by the Islamic State. She is the same hostage White House chief of staff Denis McDonough inadvertently referred to by her first name during a television appearance last month.

Friday’s announcement by the militant group may cap a painful debate within U.S. military and intelligence circles about whether Mueller, before her apparent death, could have been saved by anything short of a raid by elite American Special Operations forces. U.S. intelligence officials believe she had been alive as recently as two weeks ago, but worried that the Islamic State’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Jordanian government — even after Amman had acceded to one of the group’s key demands — meant the group would never voluntarily give her up.

A former officer with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command said that, even with fully accurate intelligence on the woman’s location, a rescue mission’s chance of success would be “less than 50 percent.”

In a tragic irony, it now appears that the type of military force that might have been necessary to try to save Mueller’s life may have instead taken it.

Foreign Policy’s Kate Brannen, Yochi Dreazen, and Gopal Ratnam contributed reporting to this story.

Photo courtesy of the Mueller family. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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