Friends of Slain Arizona Aid Worker Fight to Forgive as U.S. Brings Alleged Captor to Justice

Cindy Craig is overwhelmed when she hears the news.

Six months after Kayla Mueller, a close friend and protégée, was killed in the custody of the Islamic State terrorist group, federal prosecutors may be preparing criminal charges against an Iraqi woman suspected of aiding in holding her hostage.

“Oh, my gosh!” says Craig, when New Times informed her of the impending charges Friday. “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!”

It was a full minute before Craig could translate her feelings into a meaningful sentence. When she did, she tearfully drew inspiration from Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker who dedicated her life to promoting peace and helping others.

“I want her to understand what she did; she took away the most precious person,” says Craig, program director of the Youth Volunteer Corps of Yavapai County, who forged a friendship with Mueller when she started volunteering in Prescott at 13. Then, voice cracking, she adds, “But I know I have to forgive her. I have to forgive her because that’s what God wants us to do.”

It’s also what Kayla would want, says Carol Thompson, a friend and former professor of Mueller’s at Northern Arizona University.

“Kayla was a highly committed, experienced peacemaker, working for understanding, not for revenge,” she said.

The woman, Umm Sayyaf, is currently detained on a U.S. military base near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, where she has been interrogated by the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon.

Sayyaf, along with her husband, Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisis, a Tunisian man known as Abu Sayyaf, allegedly held Mueller for months and repeatedly abused her. Delta Force operators captured her during a rare ground operation in Islamic State-held territory in May. Sayyaf's husband, who was believed to be the power behind the terrorist group’s illicit oil and gas operations, was killed.

Marc Raimondi, national security spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on the specific stage of Sayyaf’s case, saying only that the government is “working to determine an ultimate disposition for the detainee that best supports the national security of the United States and of our allies” that is “consistent with domestic and international law.”

Citing anonymous sources, however, The Washington Post reported that Umm Sayyaf could be charged with “providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking.”

The first charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. If convicted of the second, Umm Sayyef could face the death penalty.

That information isn’t “comforting,” Thompson says. She finds it disturbing.

Mueller believed in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind."

Thompson says Mueller was morally opposed to the types of harsh interrogation practices U.S. government officials have been known to employ when dealing with suspected terrorists like Umm Sayyef, including, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released in December, rectal rehydration and sleep deprivation.

“Should it be named torture?” Thompson suggests.

“Kayla was a highly committed, experienced peace maker, working for understanding, not for revenge." — Carol Thompson, close friend and former professor to Kayla Mueller

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Mueller was snatched outside a Doctor’s Without Borders hospital al Aleppo, Syria, in August 2013. At the time, the 26-year-old was working as a consultant for the Turkish nonprofit Support to Life, providing relief to women and children fleeing the Syrian civil war.

Previously, Mueller worked with vulnerable populations in India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. In her hometown, she served as an AmeriCorps member, helped to establish a center to help veterans transition to college life at NAU, and led demonstrations denouncing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“She brought compassion for suffering, compassion for those who are the bottom of a highly inequitable world, to everything that she did,” Thompson says.

Mueller was in captivity 18 months before the Islamic State released a report in February claiming that Jordanian troops had bombed the building she was detained in, burying her in the rubble.

U.S. officials confirmed her death, but not the circumstances surrounding it.

Hungry for information, struggling to find sense in the senseless, Craig has spent hours compiling memories of Mueller — photos, letters, and news reports.

She thinks about her — misses her — every day.

“I can forgive,” she said, “but I will never forget.”

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart