Kayla Mueller spent her too-short life serving others, and lost it in captivity by the Islamic State group.
Mueller, 25 at the time, was doing aid work when she was abducted by the terrorist organization in Aleppo in August 2013. Shortly after, her family received a proof-of-life video from the Islamic State group that has never before been seen publicly.
“My name is Kayla Mueller,” she says in the video, which her family released this week to ABC News by the Mueller family. It shows their daughter with a black headscarf in front of a blank wall.
“I need your help,” Mueller says in the video, which ABC will air Friday. “I’ve been here too long and I’ve been very sick and it’s very terrifying here.
Mueller, well-known in her hometown of Prescott, Arizona, graduated from Northern Arizona University in two years and went to work with vulnerable people in India, Tibet, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Her abduction came two years after the Syrian civil war began, when many aid groups had more freedom of movement to assist civilians in a country that was rapidly disintegrating. Based in Turkey, she was working to help Syrian refugees badly in need of aid. At the time of her abduction, Mueller was traveling from a hospital in Aleppo with two others, including one staff member of Doctors Without Borders, in a vehicle with the organization’s logo on it. The car was stopped and they were seized by “unknown armed men.”
According to Doctors Without Borders, Mueller was not working for the organization and no one at the hospital she had visited knew she was coming from Turkey. “If they had, they would have stated in no uncertain terms that she should not come, or canceled the visit altogether,” because of the deteriorating security situation, particularly for Americans, the organization said in a statement.
Little was known about the Islamic State group at the time, still months before President Barack Obama referred to the growing Sunni extremist group as the “J.V. team,” compared to al-Qaida.
“I saw how thin she looked, but I saw that her eyes were very clear and steady,” Mueller’s mother, Marsha, told ABC of the video showing her daughter in captivity. “It broke my heart, but I also saw her strength.”
As a matter of policy, the U.S. government does not pay ransom for hostages. The Muellers united with other parents of hostages in Syria — including those of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — and Atlantic Media owner David Bradley, who led and bankrolled a secret effort to negotiate the release of the children. The parents worked to keep their children’s names out of the media for fear the Islamic State group would kill them. They requested a meeting with Obama, but it was denied, and they say the administration did not do enough to help them.
Mueller’s family heard from the Islamic State group more frequently than others whose children were captive, receiving nine emails from the hostage takers. They were also emailed an audio clip, the last time they would hear her voice.
“Mom and Dad, I still am remaining healthy. You should have already received the three answers to the proof life questions you provided. Those detaining me are demanding an exchange of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s release for my release,” she said in reference to a Pakistani woman in U.S. prison. “If this is not achievable, they are demanding 5 million euros to ensure my release.”
According to accounts from other hostages who knew Mueller while she was being held by the Islamic State group, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the terrorist organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
While the U.S. government wouldn’t pay the ransom for Mueller, it did attempt a hostage rescue operation in July 2014. But by just days, the military missed her and others, who had been moved elsewhere. A month later, the Islamic State group began releasing videos showing the gruesome beheadings of other hostages, including both Foley and Sotloff.
After reportedly being moved around several more times, Mueller was killed Feb. 6, 2015 by a Jordanian airstrike in Syria. The White House confirmed her death four days later.