Senator John McCain says he's “deeply concerned” about the United States' decision not to prosecute an Islamic State militant who held Arizona aid worker Kayla Mueller hostage in Syria for 18 months before her death earlier this year.
McCain sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Thursday after officials announced that the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies had come to a unanimous decision to hand over Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim, also known as Umm Sayyaf, to the Iraqi Kurdish courts. American military interrogators had been holding Sayyaf since May, when she was captured during a raid.
“Umm Sayyaf was clearly involved at the top levels of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is in a state of hostilities,” he wrote. “Indeed, the White House has said that she was 'complicit' in the illegal captivity of Kayla Mueller.”
McCain demanded a “detailed explanation in writing” of officials’ decision not to bring Sayyaf, wife of the Islamic States’ now-deceased chief financial officer, to the United States to stand trial.
“I would also like to know what commitments, if any, the Kurdistan Regional Government or the Government of Iraq have provided to ensure that Umm Sayyaf is held responsible for her actions,” he wrote.
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said the decision was driven by diplomatic and legal factors.
In July, U.S. officials told the press that prosecutors were preparing criminal charges against Sayyaf, which could include “providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization” and “conspiracy to commit hostage-taking,” but that the Iraqi government might object to her extradition. The first charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. For the second, Sayyaf could have faced the death penalty.
Mueller, 26, was kidnapped outside of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo in August 2013. At the time, she was working with the international aid agency Support to Life in southern Turkey and had driven to the hospital with her boyfriend for the day. ISIS leaders reported her dead in February after a Jordanian airstrike on one of their compounds.
McCain, along with U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, was heavily involved in U.S. efforts to rescue Mueller. McCain flew to the Middle East to meet with the president of Iraq and the emir of Qatar, and mined sources within the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army for information about her capture. Gosar, meanwhile, sent an aid to a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey to search for leads.
After her death, McCain said the U.S. had “failed” Mueller’s family.
“We racked our brains trying to figure out what else we could do,” Gosar said. “We’re half a world away with very limited resources … Finding a way to solve a problem is limited even for a member of Congress.”
Several of Mueller’s friends told New Times they didn’t believe the peace activist from Prescott, who volunteered with groups such as Food Not Bombs, Flagstaff's New Day Peace Center, and Just Peace, a social justice project of United Campus Ministries at Northern Arizona University, would have been overly concerned with punishing her captors.
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“Kayla was a highly committed, experienced peace maker, working for understanding, not for revenge,” said Carol Thompson, Mueller’s close friend and former professor at Northern Arizona University.
Cindy Craig, program director of the Youth Volunteer Corps of Yavapai County, who forged a friendship with Mueller when she started volunteering in the community at 13, said she wanted Sayyaf brought to justice to prevent her from “hurting other people.”
She said, however, that she felt Mueller would want her to forgive Sayyaf.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going to forget,” she said, “but I have to forgive her [too] .”