22 April 2019
Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker, was seized by Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Aleppo in August 2013. Photo: Reuters
Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker, was seized by Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Aleppo in August 2013. Photo: Reuters

US aid worker confirmed dead; Obama vows to hunt down culprits

US aid worker Kayla Mueller, held hostage by Islamic State fighters for 18 months, is dead, according to her family, and President Barack Obama has vowed to hunt down the culprits.

Mueller’s family received an email and photograph over the weekend from her captors that enabled American intelligence to determine that she had been killed, Reuters reported, citing US officials.

The details surrounding her death remained unclear, however.

Islamic State said on Friday that Mueller, 26, was killed when Jordanian fighter jets bombed a building where she was being held outside Raqqa, a stronghold of the Islamist militant group. Jordan and US officials have expressed doubt about the Islamic State’s account of her death.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there were other American hostages being held in the region, although he did not identify them or provide details.

Among hostages thought to be held by Islamic State is British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was captured in northern Syria in November 2012.

American journalist Austin Tice disappeared in Damascus in August 2012. It is unclear who is holding Tice or if he is still alive.

Mueller’s family said in a statement on Tuesday that they were “heartbroken” to learn of her death, and they released a copy of a letter she wrote in 2014 while in captivity.

She was captured in August 2013 while leaving a hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Mueller had previously worked in Turkey providing humanitarian assistance to refugees from Syria’s civil war.

In recent months, Islamic State has beheaded three Americans, two Britons, and two Japanese hostages, most of whom were aid workers or journalists.

“No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla’s captivity and death,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.

“ISIL is a hateful and abhorrent terrorist group whose actions stand in stark contrast to the spirit of people like Kayla,” Obama said, using an acronym for the group.

The White House said Obama called Mueller’s parents to offer his condolences.

Two US national security officials who have closely followed Mueller’s situation said it appeared most likely that she had been killed in some kind of combat situation in which her captors were unable to keep her safe.

Even after Islamic State announced Mueller’s death on Friday, her family expressed hope that she was still alive.

The family released a handwritten letter they said Mueller had written to them in the spring of 2014 while in captivity.

In it, she stated that she was “in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy” and had been treated with “the utmost respect + kindness”. She wrote that “just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears”.

“I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness,” she wrote.

“I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free.”

Mueller went to Turkey in December 2012 to work for a Turkish organization providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees along the border with Syria. She had previously volunteered for schools and aid groups abroad including in the West Bank, Israel and India.

In its statement, Mueller’s family quoted from a letter she sent to her father on his birthday in 2011: “I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

Meanwhile, the US is closing its embassy in Yemen because of the unpredictable security situation in the country where a rebel group has seized control of the capital, Sanaa, the news agency reported, citing embassy employees and US officials.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined comment. But she noted that the embassy staff had been gradually reduced and said the safety of the personnel was a top priority.

Last month, Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters, who had captured the capital in September, seized the presidential palace, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to resign.

Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the most active branches of the global Sunni Islamist group.

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