For more than a year, Carl and Marsha Mueller went to extraordinary lengths to keep a terrifying secret.
In August 2013, their daughter Kayla was kidnapped in Syria by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State. Believing that publicity would only put their daughter in greater danger, they heeded the warning of the terrorists and begged journalists around the world to keep her name out of reports and refrain from even mentioning that an American woman was being held hostage by Islamic State.
According to media reports, the parents also pleaded with American officials not to launch a risky mission to rescue her, and instead asked that her release be negotiated. Her father sold his auto parts business in order to be able to focus solely on trying to obtain his daughter’s release.
On Friday, these efforts came to an abrupt end when the name Kayla Mueller reverberated across the world, disclosed by the ISIS terror group. Mueller, they said, was dead, killed in an air attack against them in Syria by Jordanian forces.
“Almost another kind of violence, to release the name they said they wanted kept out of the media,” is how a friend of the family described the announcement by the terrorists.
The government of Jordan dismissed the statement as propaganda. U.S. officials said they have not seen any evidence to corroborate the report. The worried parents released a terse statement saying that they “are still hopeful that Kayla is alive.”
We certainly hope so as well.
The tragic saga of Ms. Mueller offers a glimpse into what could happen when a well-intentioned but naïve volunteer sets out to try to help refugees in one of the most dangerous parts of a tense Middle East.
Her career of volunteering started out in her home state of Arizona; later she relocated and worked with aid groups in northern India, in Tel Aviv, and in Yehudah and Shomron. She went back briefly to Arizona before moving to southeastern France, where she worked as an au pair while learning French in preparation for a planned move to Africa.
But the plight of families fleeing the violence in war-torn Syria drew her to Turkey in December 2012. She worked with the aid groups Support to Life and the Danish Refugee Council, assisting women and children who crossed into Turkey as refugees. She also made some trips into Syria and successfully helped reconnect family members separated by the fighting.
On August 3, 2013, a technician sent by a company contracted by the aid group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) arrived at one of the organization’s structures in Aleppo, Syria, to perform repairs.
Unbeknownst to the MSF team, Kayla Mueller had decided to accompany the technician. Because additional time was required to carry out the repair work, the technician and Kayla were harbored overnight at the MSF hospital in Aleppo, due to safety concerns.
Upon completion of the repair work the following day, the MSF team organized transportation for Ms. Mueller and the technician to the Aleppo bus station, from where they were to depart for Turkey. During the drive to the bus station, Mueller was kidnapped and has not been seen since.
Like many motivated young Americans, this volunteer was hoping to make a real difference. The mission statement for Support to Life, one of the groups for which she was volunteering, calls for “promoting intercultural understanding and partnership to enable peace for all.”
It also stresses that “no sides are taken in conflict, and no statements are made regarding political, ethnic, religious or ideological beliefs.”
For generations, groups such as the Red Cross, shielded by their impartiality, were able to do important work in war zones. Even ruthless dictatorships recognized aid workers as neutral parties, and even when the aid workers refused to cooperate with them, the leaders generally refrained from persecuting them.
The ISIS terrorists were fully aware that this American woman had no intentions to fight them, or even be in their way. She hadn’t come to battle against evil; she merely sought to reunite family members. But for these mortal monsters it didn’t matter; in their relentless war against the rest of humanity, she was, in their eyes, a perfectly legitimate target.
Contrary to what some would like to believe, ISIS is not a small group of ragtag terrorists. These maniacs actually number in the tens of thousands, and could not possibly seize huge swaths of land in both Iraq and Syria without support from at least part of the local populace. Only when all residents of these countries dedicate themselves to the mission of eradicating the evil in their midst can the coalition airstrikes really start scoring victories against ISIS. Until then, while there may be a great need for basic humanitarian aid in the areas under ISIS control, as long as viciousness and evil reign supreme, there is no safe passage for those who want to improve the world.