Islamic State Claims American Hostage Killed in Airstrike – Wall Street Journal

Posted: Saturday, February 07, 2015

Islamic State said that an American female hostage was killed when a Jordanian airstrike hit the building in Syria where she was being held captive, a monitoring group said.

Islamic State wrote on


Twitter

that the hostage Kayla Jean Mueller was buried under the rubble of a building near Raqqa, Syria, Islamic State’s de facto capital, the SITE Intelligence Group reported. The claim couldn’t be immediately confirmed.

Ms. Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker from Prescott, Ariz., was kidnapped in Aleppo in August 2013, according to her family.

Her parents said in a statement late Friday that they “are still hopeful that Kayla is alive” and appealed to her captors to communicate privately with them.

In the statement, Carl and Marsha Mueller said they were concerned about the release of their daughter’s name Friday after the family had worked for months to avoid publicity to comply with the militants’ demands.

Addressing their daughter’s captors as “those in positions of responsibility for holding Kayla,” they said they had already sent a “private message” and requested a private response. “We know that you have read our previous communications,” they said, referring to comments by British journalist John Cantlie, a hostage of Islamic State who has appeared in propaganda videos.

Mr. and Mrs. Mueller alluded to previous communications with the militant group. “You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest, as your guest her safety and well-being remains your responsibility,” they said, adding that they had been doing everything they could to secure her safe release.

State Department spokeswoman

Marie Harf

said the U.S. was investigating reports that an American female hostage was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but said, “I cannot confirm those reports in any way.”

Jordanian spokesman

Mohammed al-Momani

said the alleged death of the hostage was under investigation, but he said the claim was doubtful. “We think it’s illogical and we are highly skeptical about it,” he said. “How could they identify Jordanian warplanes from a huge distance in the sky, and what was the American lady doing in a weapons warehouse? It’s part of their criminal propaganda.”

An activist from Raqqa said the building hit in the airstrike was a warehouse connected to a poultry-processing plant and used by Islamic State to store weapons.

Jordan’s military said it carried out “several airstrikes” targeting Islamic State on Friday, but provided no other details. The airstrike that purportedly killed Ms. Mueller hit at noon as people performed their Friday prayers, the Islamic State statement said. Strikes continued in the area for more than an hour, it said, according to a SITE translation.

Officials in Washington also expressed skepticism about the group’s claims and noted that Islamic State previously has released photos or videos showing the deaths of other high-profile hostages.

“They haven’t been shy about releasing videos when they killed people in the past,” said a senior defense official. “You never know what they’re trying to do, to try and gain some sort of leverage. To think that this would somehow leverage the U.S. to slow down Jordan and their bombing would be such an idiotic thought. But who knows?”

It was unclear Friday if Ms. Mueller was still alive or what the circumstances of her death might be.

“Unless proof is given, I’m skeptical,” said

Aaron Zelin,

an expert on extremist groups at the Washington Institute. “It’s perfect propaganda for them to say so, especially as a way to fire up their base.”

Ms. Mueller traveled to the Turkey-Syria border region in December 2012 to work with aid organizations Support to Life and the Danish Refugee Council. Her family said she was drawn to the region to help refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war. She dedicated much of her postgraduate life to service work, including stints volunteering in India, Israel and the Palestinian territories, before she traveled to the border region.

According to a person involved in negotiations for her release, Islamic State asked for a ransom of $6.6 million. Another demand at one point was the release of

Afia Siddiqui,

a Pakistani imprisoned in the U.S.

The talks stalled as the militants stopped responding to attempts to secure her release in the months after they claimed the killings of journalists

James Foley

and

Steven Sotloff

last year, two people involved in the case said. It wasn’t clear whether communication has since resumed and where talks stood more recently.

It wasn’t clear whether or when Ms. Mueller was moved to the site near Raqqa, where Syrian rebels say Islamic State holds most of its hostages, particularly high-value Westerners, in a vast detention center.

U.S. defense officials said Jordan did hit targets in Raqqa on Friday, but couldn’t confirm whether they had inadvertently killed the aid worker.

A senior military official said the U.S. carefully selects the targets in Syria to try to avoid killing any hostages held by Islamic State or Syrian civilians.

“Clearly we would not hit targets if we knew that she was there,” the official said. “We would always seek to avoid known or suspected locations of hostages.”

Defense officials said the coalition collects as much intelligence as it can on the potential targets, but he was unable to say what intelligence the U.S. coalition had on the American hostage’s location before Friday’s airstrikes. “It’s a very deliberate process,” he said. “We make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, certainly to include hostages held by ISIL.”

Last July the U.S. carried out a failed rescue operation to try and free Mr. Foley and other hostages held in Syria by Islamic State forces. Mr. Foley was killed last August a few weeks after the rescue attempt.

If Ms. Mueller’s death is confirmed, she would be the fourth American hostage to have died in Islamic State captivity, following the beheadings of aid worker

Peter Kassig

and Messrs. Foley and Sotloff last year. Islamic State has killed five other high-profile hostages, according to videos, two from Britain, two from Japan and one from Jordan. The woman is believed to be the last American being held by Islamic State fighters.

A handout picture from Jordan shows a Jordanian fighter jet taking off from one of Jordan's airbases this week.
ENLARGE

Jordan has stepped up airstrikes in the past two days in Syria after a video emerged purporting to show a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive. Jordan is part of a U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory since the summer.

Islamic State released the video purporting to show the death of First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh on Tuesday, prompting global condemnation and a vow of revenge from Jordan. The following morning, Jordan executed two convicted terrorists, including one woman Islamic State had earlier sought to free in a prisoner swap.

Jordan’s

King Abdullah II

cut short a visit to the U.S., and the country launched a new round of airstrikes on Thursday in response to Lt. Kasasbeh’s killing.

Almost two dozen U.S. warplanes, including F-16 and F-22 fighter jets, played a supporting role in those strikes, according to the Pentagon. Jordan dropped 72 munitions as part of Thursday’s strikes in al Hasakah in northeastern Syria, according to the Pentagon, but updated figures for Friday weren’t available.

—Nour Malas and Suha Ma’ayeh contributed to this article.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com, Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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