By Hannah Allam and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Kayla Mueller’s captivity was different.
Islamic State jihadists are known for the bloody, fiery spectacles they make of their prisoners. They show no mercy, even toward women, as seen in the videos of fighters stoning to death an accused adulterer or joking about trading enslaved girls. They’ve beheaded journalists and aid workers, tossed suspected gays from tall buildings and tortured captive children with electric cables.
And yet, for whatever private horror the 26-year-old Mueller endured for 18 months, her life as a hostage and her death last week, possibly in a coalition airstrike, were kept largely out of the public eye, an odd departure for the Islamic State’s notorious propagandists.
That’s no comfort for the family in Arizona mourning a young humanitarian worker who spent her short life helping civilians in conflicts, but it adds one more wrinkle to Western understanding of a complex and unpredictable extremist group that typically shows zero lenience toward its American captives.
“We don’t know why Kayla was treated differently,” said a source close to the Mueller family, which on Tuesday fielded media queries through spokespeople.
Family members also declined to assign responsibility for the other looming mystery of Mueller’s ordeal: how she died.
The Islamic State group announced Friday that she had died in a Jordanian airstrike on the building in Syria where she was being held. On Tuesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that Jordanian aircraft and American air crews had struck the target on Friday. But they refused to connect Mueller’s death to the strike on what they said was a weapons depot that had been hit at least twice before. Defense officials said there was no evidence of civilian casualties and no investigation ongoing into the matter.
Still, U.S. officials didn’t dispute Mueller’s fate, confirming that she was dead after the Islamic State sent the family unspecified “additional information” over the weekend that was passed on to government intelligence analysts.
The family declined to discuss what kind of evidence was received, though some news reports quoted unnamed U.S. officials saying that confirmation came in part from a photograph of Mueller’s body.
U.S. officials, in a variety of statements, directed responsibility to the Islamic State group, which is also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
“We know that she’s dead,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “ISIL is responsible for that death. But we’re not in a position to confirm the circumstances specifically, either to timing or to cause of death.”
No matter how Mueller died, U.S. officials said, the Islamic State ultimately bore the guilt because she had been a hostage of the group since she was seized August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
“This, after all, is the organization that was holding her against her will,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “That means they are responsible for her safety and her well being. And they are, therefore, responsible for her death.”
Nevertheless, Mueller’s death renewed questions about whether the United States and other air forces bombing targets in Syria really know what they are hitting and destroying. If Mueller turns out to have died essentially from friendly fire, it would not be first time non-combatants are believed to have died in a coalition airstrike.
Moderate Syrian rebels have said since the first raids in Syria Sept. 23 that civilians have been casualties. In an incident Dec. 28 in al Bab, a U.S. strike is alleged to have killed as many as 50 people who were being held as prisoners in a building that was also used as an Islamic State military headquarters. Townspeople have told McClatchy that most of those prisoners had been detained for minor offenses such as violating the Islamic State’s ban on smoking.
Pentagon officials have said they have no evidence of civilian casualties in that incident, but officials of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the airstrikes, have acknowledged that their near daily summary of airstrikes has been inaccurate. It failed even to announce the al Bab bombing, acknowledging it to McClatchy only six weeks later.
It was not the only error; the military described a Dec. 28 airstrike in Jarablus as taking place “near Kobani,” which lies 100 miles away.
The Pentagon’s Kirby disputed the idea that “without boots on the ground, you have no visibility.” But he wouldn’t elaborate on intelligence-gathering abilities in Syria.
The confirmation of Mueller’s death also raised once again the question of whether the United States ought to reconsider its policy of refusing to negotiate ransom payments for citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups. Mueller was the fourth American to die in Islamic State custody in the past seven months — three of those were beheaded — even as a dozen or so Europeans were released after money exchanged hands.
A person with knowledge of Mueller’s case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of hostage negotiations, said the captors had demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom and floated the idea of a prisoner swap for Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-trained scientist and accused al-Qaida operative who was convicted in a Manhattan court of trying to kill Americans when she was detained in Afghanistan.
Mueller’s family declined to discuss the issue.
At the White House, Earnest was asked about a video the Muellers had made soliciting donations for a ransom. He said U.S. policy remains opposed to paying ransoms, but he added that “it was not surprising that they were willing to do whatever they thought they could to try to secure the safe release of their daughter.”
President Barack Obama was adamant that the United States would not change its no-ransom policy. “The reason is that once we start doing that, not only are we financing their slaughter of innocent people and strengthening their organization, but we’re actually making Americans even greater targets for future kidnappings,” Obama said in an interview with the website BuzzFeed.
In a handwritten letter that was carried out by a fellow hostage who was freed, Mueller alluded to deal-making, stressing that she didn’t want negotiations for her release to fall on her family.
“If there is any other option, take it, even if it takes more time. This should never have become your burden,” she wrote.
It was impossible to know whether Mueller had written the letter on her own or under the watch of her captors. The same goes for whether she knew of negotiations or was writing in general about her predicament.
The letter contains all the loneliness and yearning of the imprisoned, but it does not contain a single reference to Islamic State cruelty. Mueller wrote that she was in “a safe location completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/the utmost respect + kindness.”
“If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through,” she wrote.
The Muellers, through a representative, said they didn’t have “details about the circumstances of Kayla’s captivity” or an explanation for why her captors seemed to hold her in a different regard from the scores of other prisoners whose lives ended in grisly, videotaped murders.
At a news conference in Arizona, Mueller’s relatives and close friends focused not on the manner of her death but on the short arc of her life, describing how a kind and bright girl grew into a fearless young woman whose dreams of helping others took her to the Palestinian territories, Israel, India and, finally, Syria.
“Kayla had such great empathy, and it’s hard to find that in this world,” Mueller’s childhood friend, Eryn Street, said through tears. “It’s really rare. And it was her greatest strength.”
(Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.)