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Saving Kayla

Mueller’s death was senseless unless we take more sensible moves against ISIS


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Timing in foreign policy can be everything. And it’s admittedly difficult business. But it’s apparent the United States sat on verified intelligence—for weeks or even months—allowing Western hostages in Syria to be killed, even beheaded on camera.

Historically, faces focus attention on sometimes abstract global events. The capture of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down by the Soviet Union in 1960, became a turning point in the Cold War. In this century the 2002 abduction and beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl gave singular meaning to the gross atrocity of 9/11 and menacing fighters like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed behind it.

And now we have Kayla Mueller, confirmed dead in Syria. At 26 the Arizona native’s ready smile spoke volumes about her bright outlook, her devotion to humanitarian activism evident to all: By the time she was 19 she had volunteered for three years with the Save Darfur Coalition and won a service award in her hometown. For mothers like me, she’s our new face for the senseless brutality in this brutal war.

Like the beheaded Steven Sotloff, Mueller was captured in Aleppo in 2013. She was held in a building with him and other hostages—including James Foley, the first American beheaded in Syria last August; and possibly Peter Kassig, also 26 and shown beheaded by ISIS last November.

For mothers like me, she’s our new face for the senseless brutality in this brutal war.

British intelligence tracked and confirmed the locations of these hostages between November 2013 and May 2014—in Aleppo, then Shayk Najjar, then Raqqa, Syria. By early June the Brits were so sure of their intel, down to a layout of the inside of the building, they handed it off to Washington. And waited.

By several accounts, the White House sat on it. On July 4, 2014, a U.S. special operations team attempted to rescue the hostages—about seven weeks after U.S. officials first learned their location. The mission failed, as the hostages had been moved and were dispersed to separate locations to be killed one by one.

Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, spoke to the Daily Beast of her frustration with U.S. efforts, saying officials also received solid intelligence from the French: “Very specific information was available as early as mid-March. And that’s what’s been so tough for us as families, because apparently they were held in the same place all those months.”

Those months coincide with summer months when ISIS forced hundreds of thousands in Iraq from Mosul and Nineveh Province, and only Kurdish peshmerga forces stood against terrorist atrocities and takeover of some of the largest oil fields in the world.

To be sure, any hostage rescue mission is difficult. One terrorism expert told me it stands or falls on the accuracy of mission-critical intelligence. The successful operation to find Osama bin Laden took months of preparation. But seemingly overnight, Navy SEAL snipers in 2009 pulled off a daring rescue of an American cargo ship captain held by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

Ken Bennett, the former Arizona Secretary of State who worked closely with the Mueller family, told me they didn’t voice criticism of the failed rescue attempt. “All I heard from the family was about Sen. [John] McCain and Rep. [Paul] Gosar, who were very responsive. The family was pleased by their efforts and the time they took to help to get her back,” he said.

American hostages remain in Syria. Their stories should galvanize our efforts and resolve, while their faces likely will remain unknown. That’s as it should be, according to Jonathan Alpeyrie, a French photojournalist whose work has appeared in WORLD. In 2013 Alpeyrie was held by militants in Syria for 81 days. His captivity remained secret until he was released, and he told me, “I believe it is always best to keep it as secret as possible.”

Competing interests bid for Alpeyrie, and a friend of the Assad regime paid for his release after outbidding a more radical group that offered to buy Alpeyrie and hold him for ransom.

But secret shouldn’t also mean hesitating. When President Obama on Feb. 11 asked Congress to give formal approval to use military force against the “grave threat” posed by ISIS, he cited the deaths of Mueller and others. But the draft language of the authorization is more about limiting U.S. action, saying that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations” and pledging to terminate any force within three years. As one commentary put it, that sounds like an attempt to “codify the President’s war-fighting ambivalence.”

The legacy of Mueller and so many others demands a serious response to the grave threat that killed them, not more wait and see, more hesitancy and ambivalence.

Email [email protected]


Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.

@MindyBelz

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