ISIS can’t have the last word on our daughter’s death
By CARL AND MARSHA MUELLER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 19, 2019
Nearly five years ago, Islamic State tweeted that our daughter, Kayla Mueller, was dead. In the preceding two years, while the world had watched with shock and outrage at ISIS’ increasingly brutal and public actions, our family was being silently taunted by the era’s most notorious terrorist group.
Kayla was a 24-year-old humanitarian aid worker in Aleppo, Syria, when she was kidnapped by ISIS in August 2013. During her captivity, ISIS members wrote to us with impossible demands for Kayla’s release, eventually threatening her with violence and death. All the while, our family put its trust in the U.S. government to bring her home.
Then, in February 2015, ISIS sent us photos of Kayla’s lifeless body, saying she had been killed in an airstrike by the U.S.-led military coalition. ISIS members apparently assumed this information would prompt us to give up on Kayla. They could not have been more wrong.
We didn’t want to allow the terrorist organization that brutalized our daughter to have the last word on Kayla’s life. We had many unanswered questions about what exactly happened to her, how and why she was killed, by whom, and where they may have buried her. Unfortunately, the U.S. government couldn’t provide us with clear answers or conclusive proof that Kayla had been killed the way the group claimed. We were haunted by rumors that ISIS’ version of events was false. Some of the rumors even claimed that Kayla wasn’t dead. If there was the remotest chance she was still alive, we weren’t going to let her down again.
A dear friend of our family, a former FBI special agent, Ali Soufan, saw the pain we were living with every day and offered to help. Ali and a team from his security organization took on the case, working to find out what happened to Kayla during her time in captivity. They have uncovered more information in the past few months than the U.S. government provided us in six years.
Our search for Kayla has taken us around the world, where we met with some of the people directly involved in her captivity. From the accounts of Yazidi girls held with Kayla, we know that our daughter was kept captive by Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS leader (now dead), in his household, where she was repeatedly raped by then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Thanks to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, we were brought face to face with Umm Sayyaf, the wife of Abu Sayyaf, who told us that Kayla was not killed by a coalition airstrike but rather murdered at the order of al-Baghdadi because she had become a security liability. Umm Sayyaf also detailed the abuses Kayla suffered at the hands of al-Baghdadi’s first wife, who Turkey says is now in its custody.
Our search for Kayla has also yielded information about other U.S. hostages held by ISIS, such as many of the locations where they were held and the identities of ISIS members who we have been told played primary roles in their detentions. These include the infamous hostage-and-execution cell made up of British citizens called “the Beatles” by hostages, as well as the Belgian national Najim Laachraoui, who blew himself up in the attack on Brussels Airport in 2016, and French-born Mehdi Nemmouche, convicted in Belgium last spring of murdering four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in 2014.
Recent weeks have brought new developments. On Oct. 26, al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. military operation. We are immensely grateful to President Donald Trump, U.S. soldiers, intelligence officers and all the others who provided support for the operation. We were greatly touched to learn that the operation was dedicated to Kayla. Recent administration statements have renewed our hope that the U.S. government is dedicated to finding and bringing home the bodies of American hostages killed by ISIS — Kayla, James Foley, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff.
We urge the administration to review all existing evidence — especially new evidence collected in the al-Baghdadi raid — to help determine exactly what happened to Kayla and the other hostages. We also ask that all ISIS members who were involved in kidnapping and abusing our daughter and the other hostages be identified, apprehended and prosecuted. Two of the so-called Beatles, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were recently turned over to U.S. forces by Kurdish allies in Syria. The British government is considering prosecuting them, but we strongly urge the U.S. government to bring them to justice in this country.
At the heart of all our efforts is a search for the truth of what happened to Kayla and to other American hostages killed by ISIS. Their bodies belong in their native land. Pursuing that goal for Kayla is our duty as parents, but we also hope it is the nation’s duty to its citizens. In a way, ensuring that truth and justice find their way out of this tragic story would mean that ISIS will never have the last word.
Carl and Marsha Mueller live in Prescott, Ariz.