An Arizona aid worker who spent the past 18 months as a hostage of the Islamic State in Syria is dead, the 26-year-old's family said today.
"We are heartbroken to share that we've received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life," Mueller's parents, Carl and Marsha, and her brother, Eric, said in a statement. "Kayla was a compassionate and devoted humanitarian. She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace."
The family, who lives in Prescott, made the announcement four days after ISIS released a report claiming that Jordanian troops had bombed the building Mueller was detained in, burying her in rubble. Jordan launched the airstrikes after the terrorist group burned a Jordanian pilot alive and posted footage of it on the Internet.
U.S. officials were able to confirm Kayla Mueller's death based on details ISIS gave to the Mueller family privately. They have not confirmed the circumstances surrounding Kayla Mueller's death, but, in a news release Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "ISIL, and ISIL alone, is the reason Kayla is gone."
"Like our friends in Jordan, our resolve is unshaken to defeat this vile and unspeakably ugly insult to the civilized world," he said.
Kerry described Kayla Mueller, who was working with Syrian refugees on the Turkish border when she was abducted on August 4, 2013, as someone who "embraced children who had lost their parents," "comforted the sick and the wounded," and "gave people hope even as their world fell apart around them."
Kerry continued, "Kayla's sense of values, her humanity and generosity, her idealism -- this is what will endure, and it will endure long, long after the barbarity of ISIL is defeated."
President Barack Obama expressed his "deepest condolences" to the Mueller family, calling Kayla Mueller an "irrepressible force of human goodness" and a representation of "what is best about America."
Obama said in a news release, "She has been taken from us, but her legacy endures, inspiring all those who fight, each in their own way, for what is just and what is decent . . . No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla's captivity and death."
The Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Kayla Mueller's death was "very telling of ISIS' anti-Islamic ideology." They "target those who are aiding the helpless and bringing light to the plight of those who are suffering," the group said in a statement, signed by the Muslim Students' Association of Arizona State University and the Muslim American Society of Arizona, among others.
The aid worker was thought to be the last remaining American hostage in ISIS custody. The terror group beheaded three others, aid worker Peter Kassig and journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Before ISIS' statement Friday, her family had asked journalists to keep her name out of the media out of fear for her safety.
The Mueller family released a letter Tuesday that Kayla wrote from captivity in the spring of 2014. Several of her fellow hostages were being released. She asked them to deliver the message to her family.
In the letter, Kayla Mueller wrote that she was in a "safe location" and "completely unharmed and healthy." She had been writing songs while she was detained, she told her family. She mused about reuniting with them, seeing them at the airport, going on a family camping trip.
"I have a lot of fight left inside of me," she said. "I am not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes."
"In darkness," the Arizonan wrote, "I have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it."
Before she was kidnapped, Kayla Mueller was working as a consultant for the Turkish nonprofit Support to Life, providing relief to women and children fleeing the Syrian civil war. Previously, she worked with vulnerable populations in her hometown, India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. As a result of her advocacy work in collaboration with community health and religious leaders, Northern Arizona University established a center to help soldiers returning from war make the transition to college.
"I think Americans have difficultly understanding that an activist who is passionate, who wants us to engage in changing policies that right injustice and inequality, can also be gentle, caring and loving," said Carol Thompson, a professor at Northern Arizona University who taught Kayla Mueller. "But that's Kayla. She wasn't just brilliant and analytical. She brought compassion for suffering, compassion for those who are at the bottom of a highly inequitable world, to everything that she did."
Thompson met Mueller when she signed up to take her class "Political Economy of Southern Africa" in 2008, but, she said, the young activist quickly become "more than a student" as the two worked closely on a number of peace initiatives in northern Arizona. As Kayla Mueller learned more about the Middle East, Thompson said, she soon became the teacher.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"The world has lost one of its most beautiful souls," Thompson said.
Got a tip? Send it to: Elizabeth Stuart.