Exclusive: American Hostage Passed on Chance to Escape

Kayla Mueller chose to stay behind because she didn't want to abandon a fellow foreign aid worker, a decision that may have cost her life.


Kayla Mueller, the American hostage who died in Syria earlier this year under mysterious circumstances, rejected a chance to try to escape out of loyalty to another Western female hostage who wasn’t physically capable of trying to flee and would have had to remain behind, according to two individuals familiar with the case.

Mueller was the personal captive of a senior Islamic State figure named Abu Sayyaf, who was killed by members of Delta Force last weekend during a raid on his compound in al-Amr, in eastern Syria, that ended with the capture of his wife, Umm Sayyaf, according to a former official from President Barack Obama’s administration. The details of Mueller’s opportunity to try to escape — and her decision, born of compassion, to opt against taking it — have not been previously reported.

A native of Prescott, Arizona, Mueller was a humanitarian aid worker who was helping Syrian refugees in southern Turkey. The Islamic State took her hostage on Aug. 4, 2013, during what was supposed to have been a brief trip to Aleppo, in northwest Syria. The second hostage was an older aid worker who had also been captured in 2013. At the request of her government, Foreign Policy is withholding her name and nationality.

Mueller was among several Western hostages the Islamic State held during the first half of 2014 in a prison camp at Uqayrishah, near Raqqa in north central Syria. A Delta Force raid in early July narrowly missed rescuing the hostages, whom the Islamic State had moved to a different location just a short time earlier. In the raid’s aftermath, the Islamic State split the hostages up and soon brutally executed several British and American male prisoners.

However, according to the former Obama administration official, Mueller was either given or sold as a slave to Abu Sayyaf, described by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as a senior Islamic State leader involved in the group’s military activities who also “helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas, and financial operations as well.” (A current government official familiar with the case confirmed that Mueller became the personal prisoner of a senior Islamic State leader, but said he had not known that the leader was Abu Sayyaf.)

Reached through a spokesperson, the Mueller family declined to comment for this article, as did the CIA and U.S. Central Command. Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert “Buck” Elton II, deputy commander of Joint Special Operations Command, Delta Force’s higher headquarters, also declined to talk when approached by Foreign Policy on May 20 at a special operations conference in Tampa, Florida. National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said Umm Sayyaf is being questioned about the workings of the Islamic State as well as “to determine any information she may have regarding hostages — including American citizens who were held by [the Islamic State].” He declined to comment on any other aspect of this article.

The Islamic State announced Mueller’s death on Feb. 6, saying she had died in a Jordanian airstrike. A few days later, the group provided Mueller’s family with photographs of her corpse; one photo showed her in a traditional Muslim white burial shroud that was open to reveal a bruised face. But the explanation of the cause of her death struck many as too convenient. Jordan had just sharply increased its contribution to the air campaign against the Islamic State after the militants released a horrific video showing them burning a captured Jordanian pilot alive.

However Mueller died, the two individuals interviewed for this article said that the American, who was 26 when she died, turned down a rare opportunity to escape not long after Abu Sayyaf took her into his custody. During this period, the militant leader held at least two other female prisoners. One was a girl in her mid-teens from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. The Islamic State has waged a particularly brutal campaign against the Yazidis and has taken as many as 3,500 of their women and girls as sex slaves. The third hostage was the other Western humanitarian worker, who was in poor health. The latter hostage was held with Mueller “for a significant amount of time,” said the government official familiar with the case.

Neither of the individuals interviewed specified the exact circumstances of the escape opportunity, which one estimated to have taken place by the end of August 2014. But each confirmed that the Yazidi girl took advantage of it and later reported that Mueller had remained behind because she did not want to abandon the other hostage, who wasn’t up to the rigors of attempting to flee.

How the Yazidi girl reached safety is also unclear, but both individuals interviewed said that in October she either found her way or was taken to a U.S. special operations headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan. That headquarters belonged to Task Force 27, which is organized around Delta Force and is targeting the Islamic State. At first concerned that the Yazidi girl might be an Islamic State “plant,” U.S. intelligence officers at the base interviewed the Yazidi girl repeatedly, according to the former Obama administration official.

The girl’s story about Abu Sayyaf’s holding her prisoner with Mueller and the other female hostage came out in bits and pieces over the course of several interviews. It was only after “the fourth or fifth debrief” that Task Force 27 realized the Yazidi girl’s value as an intelligence source and how credible her story was, said the former Obama administration official. One reason was that she possessed information about Mueller, such as the location of at least one tattoo Mueller had, something that could only have been gained by being in close proximity to her.

After hearing the Yazidi girl’s story, U.S. officials asked Qatar to use its contacts inside Islamist rebel groups in Syria to investigate the circumstances of Mueller’s imprisonment, the former Obama administration official said. The Qataris reported back that Mueller had converted to Islam and was “happy,” a contention that the former official dismissed out of hand. The Qatari Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The fate of the hostage for whom Mueller stayed behind remains unclear. The official familiar with her case said that the October 2014 debriefing of the Yazidi girl was the most recent solid evidence that her government had received. That government found the Yazidi’s testimony “thoroughly convincing,” the official said. The only report that has reached her government since then came about two months ago, after Mueller’s death, via a European intelligence agency source, according to the official. The intelligence source gave a “pretty vague” account that the woman was still alive but had been treated for “minor” shrapnel wounds, the official said.

Delta Force’s May 16 raid on Abu Sayyaf’s compound was not conducted to find Mueller’s remains, because Abu Sayyaf had changed locations since her death, the former Obama administration official said. The intent of the raid was instead to capture Abu Sayyaf and his wife, Umm Sayyaf, who the United States suspects also “played an important role” in the Islamic State, according to a statement issued on May 16 by Bernadette Meehan, another National Security Council spokesperson.

Abu Sayyaf and numerous other Islamic State fighters were killed in a firefight with the Delta Force operators, who completed the mission without suffering any casualties of their own. The elite U.S. troops were able to capture Umm Sayyaf and take her to a base in Iraq where she was placed in “U.S. military detention,” Meehan said. They also removed from the site what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Tampa special operations conference on May 20 “appears to me to be a treasure trove of valuable intelligence.” In addition, the Delta Force operators found and rescued another Yazidi teenager at the compound. According to Meehan, she “appears to have been held as a slave by the couple.”

Photo credit: Mueller family

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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