After 18 months of closely guarding the identity of a 26-year-old American aid worker believed to be the last American held hostage by the Islamic State, her family revealed her identity Friday, reacting to an unconfirmed assertion from the terrorist group that she had been killed in a Jordanian air strike.
The United States government said it had no evidence that Kayla Mueller, of Prescott, Ariz., had been killed. Jordanian government sources speaking with reporters in Amman insisted the claim was “illogical” and “propaganda” and questioned how the Islamic State could be certain it was a Jordanian strike that was responsible.
But the claim was enough to prompt her family to release news organizations from promises to withhold her name under a blackout that has enveloped her case since she was taken hostage as she left a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Aleppo, the besieged city in northern Syria, on Aug. 4, 2013.
In addition to photos of Kayla, including one with her mother, Marsha Mueller, the family provided details of her work on behalf of refugees in India, Israel and the Palestinian territories, with HIV patients in Arizona, and finally, in 2012, with refugees from the Syrian civil war on the Syrian-Turkish border.
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The time line of her life the family provided said she graduated from Northern Arizona State in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2009, and noted that her family had been contacted by her kidnappers with evidence that she was still alive in May 2014.
U.S. officials said they were trying to verify the report, which came in a brief statement from the Islamic State. “The failed Jordanian aircraft killed an American female hostage,” the message said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, a Washington organization that monitors jihadist communications. “No (Islamic State) fighters were killed in the bombardment.”
“We are obviously deeply concerned by these reports,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “We have not at this time seen any evidence that corroborates ISIL’s claim.” ISIL and ISIS are acronyms for the Islamic State.
“Obviously our prayers and thoughts and hopes are that she’s still okay,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told McClatchy in Munich, Germany, where he is leading a U.S. congressional delegation to an international security conference.
“She was a great person who spent a great part of her life in humanitarian endeavors, and it’s tragic for her and her family and obviously there has to be some kind of accountability for this kind of terrible action.”
McCain said he didn’t know if the U.S. government had tried to open negotiations with the Islamic State for her release. “I’ve had a lot of contact with the family and I know that efforts have been made through certain Middle Eastern contacts, but I don’t know of any negotiations,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Mueller’s name had been widely known in circles of activists who had been trying to free at least seven American and British hostages whose governments had, unlike many European nations, refused to negotiate or ransom their citizens held by the Islamic State.
Jordan has been conducting extensive air raids over Islamic State targets in response to a video posted Tuesday that showed the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, Moaz al Kasasbeh, who was captured after his plane crashed outside Raqqa, Syria, on Dec. 24. Jordan has also said it plans to expand a war against the Islamic State but has yet to elaborate beyond a high pace of air strikes.
Although the Islamic State has publicly displayed and executed three American hostages, two British citizens and the Jordanian pilot, the group previously had never admitted publicly to holding Mueller.
In its messages sent to her family and colleagues last May, the group had said that it was unlikely to kill her but were demanding about $6 million for her safe release. Her captivity had been kept so secret that her kidnapping was conclusively determined only when French and Spanish hostages held with her began to be released in early 2014.
Mueller never spoke publicly from captivity but officials and other hostages have confirmed that she had traveled to Aleppo with a friend and was kidnapped while leaving a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in that city. The family’s statement said she had arrived on the Turkish-Syrian border in December 2012 to work with the Danish Refugee Council and the humanitarian organization Support to Life to assist families who had been forced to flee their homes.
The Islamic State’s claim that she was killed in a strike was confirmed by sources with an anti-Islamic State advocacy group, Raqqa Silently Slaughtered, which maintains a number of sources throughout the city. The group stressed its belief only that she was dead and said it had no information to support, or refute, the claim that she’d been killed by an air strike.
The Islamic State has released at least a dozen European hostages, mostly aid workers and journalists, over the last two years, reportedly for tens of millions of dollars, but the United States and Great Britain have refused to negotiate, which led to a series of brutal executions that began in August with the beheading of journalist James Foley. Subsequent videos documented the murders of journalist Steve Sotloff and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig.
In the past two weeks, the group has also demanded the release of a long time al Qaida prisoner, Sajida al Rishwa and $200 million for the release of journalist Kenji Goto and mentally ill adventurer Haruna Yukawa. Both Japanese were eventually executed and the Islamic State released images of their bodies.
But the Islamic State provided no photographs to back its claim that Mueller had been killed, though the group has consistently delivered accurate information about the current well being of its hostages over the last two years.
Accurate reporting of civilian casualties in the U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes has proven extremely difficult, because neither side has been willing to acknowledge in a timely manner deaths from bombing missions. The Islamic State is widely alleged to have placed civilians in makeshift prisons located in buildings set up for an entirely different purpose, such as local government record-keeping. But it has yet to acknowledge this nor to announce regularly the deaths of civilians it’s been holding, raising suspicion about the accuracy of its report of Mueller’s death.
The accuracy of information from the anti-Islamic State coalition is also in question. Only the United States regularly provides public information about air strikes conducted by its aircraft. But in response to questions by reporters, the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq and Syria, has acknowledged on several occasions that it’s left out of its statements some important airstrikes in Syria or inaccurately reported their locations. It also has insisted that there are few credible reports of civilian casualties from its actions, though Syrian activists have identified dozens of deaths.
On Friday, Central Command said in an email that it was “obviously deeply concerned” by reports of Mueller’s death “but have not at this time seen any evidence that corroborates ISIL’s claim.”
Hannah Allam and Maria Recio in Washington, Roy Gutman in Amman, Jordan, and Jonathan S. Landay in Munich, Germany, contributed to this report