Chapter 2

AUGUST 20, 2014


12:52 P.M.

“Good afternoon, everybody,” President Barack Obama greets the gathered members of the press. He stands before a blue backdrop in the Edgartown School cafeteria, the hastily organized press conference interrupting his summer vacation. An American flag is behind him to the right. The presidential seal is affixed to the podium. He spoke with the family of James Foley this morning, offering his condolences.

“Today, the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group ISIL,” the president begins.

Obama is referring to ISIS, using one of their many acronyms. The use of the “L” refers to “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” a nod to the terrorist organization’s growing power throughout not just Syria but the entire Middle East.*

The Islamic State—also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh—emerged from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a local offshoot of al-Qaeda founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. This terrorist organization faded into obscurity for several years after the surge of US troops to Iraq in 2007. But the end of the Iraq War and the subsequent withdrawal of most US troops from the region, instigated by President George W. Bush, saw the reemergence of AQI. The group quickly took advantage of growing instability in Iraq and Syria brought on by the US departure to carry out attacks and bolster its ranks, and soon changed its name to “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). But that is the English translation. Throughout the Middle East, the terrorists are known by the acronymic Arabic nickname “Daesh.” The acronym sounds similar to other Arabic words meaning both “to trample down or crush” and “bigot,” depending upon the conjugation. ISIS detests that label and cuts out the tongue of anyone speaking it aloud.

The United States made an early attempt to halt the terrorist advance. On April 18, 2010, a joint operation of United States and Iraqi forces fired rockets that shattered the ISIS headquarters in Tikrit, Iraq. The subsequent commando raid uncovered intelligence that linked the terrorists with Osama bin Laden, who was still alive at the time.

That American and Iraqi attack caused the Islamic State in Iraq to flee underground. A cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was named the group’s new leader on May 16, 2010. The Islamic State was once al-Qaeda’s representative in Iraq, but that connection was severed upon bin Laden’s death. In this way, al-Baghdadi became the most powerful terrorist on earth, simultaneously declaring that he would avenge bin Laden’s assassination with one hundred acts of terror. But even as the terrorist organization spread into Syria in 2013, formally becoming the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi was nowhere to be seen.

For four years, ISIS’s leadership vanished, disappearing so completely that many wondered if it existed at all. This public silence led Iraqi authorities to make claims of al-Baghdadi’s death, though all were later found to be false.

But as the brutal death of James Foley can attest, ISIS is back with full ferocity.

Despite the growing threat, President Obama’s administration recognizes that it is not politically expedient to send troops into the region to halt the terrorist advance. The majority of Americans are opposed to military involvement in the Middle East. So despite the blatant kidnapping of four Americans, it is still US policy to downplay the ISIS threat.

Making matters even more difficult is the fact that Americans are not allowed to pay ransom to terrorists. So while parents of kidnap victims like James Foley try to find the millions of dollars demanded by the kidnappers, they risk going to jail if they do so. Even more heartbreaking for these helpless family members is that not only do many foreign governments allow the payment of ransom to free their citizens, in many cases it is the government itself that pays for their release.

For Barack Obama, today’s speech is a minor embarrassment—just two years ago he thought so little of the militant organization that he referred to ISIS as “the JV team,” placing them second in importance behind a weakened al-Qaeda in the terrorist pecking order.* But now the president has no choice but to admit that the organization, led by the forty-three-year-old Iraqi-born thug Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a genuine threat to the lives of free people everywhere.

“Let’s be clear,” says Obama. “They have rampaged across cities and villages, killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children, and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims—both Sunni and Shia—by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can for no other reason than they practice a different religion.”

Obama continues. He is dressed in a blue blazer and light-blue shirt but no tie, having changed out of his more casual golf clothing for this public statement. Outside, the August afternoon is humid and hot, the air smelling of the Atlantic on this small coastal island off Massachusetts.

“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”

Almost seven thousand miles away, Kayla Mueller cannot hear the president’s words. The terrified twenty-six-year-old humanitarian worker is being held somewhere in a Syrian terrorist jail—like James Foley, she is a kidnap victim of ISIS. In fact, she knows Foley and was once held in the same compound as her fellow American. The US government is aware of her plight, but the media has only been told that an American aid worker has been kidnapped. Neither her name nor the fact that she is a woman has been made public. The taking of non–Middle Eastern female hostages is rare. Only one other American woman has been kidnapped: Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for the Christian Science Monitor, was released after three months, so there is hope for Kayla—even though she has now been held for one year.

Kayla is chained in a room with a rotating number of other female captives. The aid worker has learned to dread the sound of her prison door opening. The squeak of hinges might mean something as simple as a meal being delivered—or it might mean that torture is about to be inflicted.

Or it might mean another brutal rape for one of the women in this dungeon.

Kayla’s ISIS captors treat their female hostages as sex slaves, considering it their right under sharia law to force themselves upon the young women. ISIS soldiers regularly defile not only these captives but any female not of the Sunni Muslim faith, often violating girls not even yet in their teens. Thus far, Kayla has been spared because a white female American hostage is quite a prize. Not just any terrorist can claim her for his own.

Indeed, no less than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has designs on the young aid worker. The ISIS leader is a sadistic bully, an overweight man with a long salt-and-pepper beard, four wives, and a growing lust for his American hostage. He is forty-three and has no concerns about forcing sex upon a woman almost two decades younger. The terrorist believes that Kayla is an infidel and it is his right under sharia law to marry her and take her as his own.

Kayla Mueller was once a cheerful brown-haired humanitarian of Christian faith, which she formulated in Prescott. There, her father owns an auto repair business and her mother is a retired nurse. Throughout college at Northern Arizona University, Kayla was active in the campus ministry, then put that faith into action following graduation. Working for a number of relief agencies, Kayla traveled the world, enduring deprivation and hardship for no financial gain. For her, there was no better way to pursue her calling of helping those in need.

Since graduation, the brown-eyed, petite Kayla has served in India, Israel, and then Turkey. She flashed her broad smile often for refugees, offering them hope. There were no politics attached to her desire to help others—Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and fellow Christians all benefited from the food, education, and medical help Kayla’s assistance provided. “As long as I live,” the young woman once told an Arizona newspaper, “I will not let suffering be normal.”

It was December 2012 when Kayla Mueller arrived in the Middle East to work with Syrian refugees. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had begun a brutal crackdown on his own people that included bombings and mass murder, sparking a civil war. As soldiers from countries like Russia flowed in to join the fighting, thousands of Syrian noncombatants fled north into Turkey and claimed refugee status. A group of Muslim terrorists took advantage of the chaos to leave their sanctuary in Iraq and secretly invade Syria in large numbers. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has no wish to join the civil war, or to defend Syria from other nations. Its goal is nothing less than capturing these wastelands for itself and then forming a new “caliphate”—a duplication of what happened following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.

ISIS always enacts sharia law, a severe religious code dating back to the days of Muhammad, which requires women to cover themselves from head to toe and remain subservient to men at all times. For one and all, male or female, even small crimes like swearing can be punished by forty lashes with a switch that rakes the bare back and leaves lifelong scars. More severe crimes, like theft, can result in a hand being cut off with a sword. Adultery is punishable by death through stoning. But ISIS is not content solely to inflict ancient punishments. It also imposes its own brand of justice in modern ways on the conquered people of Syria and Iraq, using implements like power tools and electric cattle prods.

And, as in the days following the prophet’s demise, it is prophesied that the region will be ruled by a caliph granted the name “Abu Bakr”—“the Upright.” Thus, the current leader of ISIS is the barbaric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But that name is an affectation. He was born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. Fictional or not, his name will soon become synonymous with terror. And the fact that he is a murderer and serial rapist does not seem to bother his followers in the slightest.

A little more than a year ago, on August 3, 2013, Kayla Mueller decided to venture from the relative safety of Turkey into ISIS-controlled northern Syria. She is working for the Danish Refugee Council and a group called Support for Life. Based in the small town of Antakya, thirty miles north of the Syrian border, Kayla is restless. More than 2.5 million refugees have fled the war, and the camps are filled to capacity. Like the other aid workers, Kayla performs a multitude of tasks, but she most enjoys playing and painting with the children. Conditions are terrible. Heat, flies, a lack of plumbing and electricity, and the constant sight of human suffering are daily facts of life.

Kayla knows that crossing into Syria is an extreme gamble, but she is curious to see the countryside for herself. Refugees have told her of lush green valleys and verdant hills. They speak of the ancient city of Aleppo, where the once-lovely Queiq River still flows gently—though now the water is filled with the decomposing bodies of those massacred by ISIS. The unfortunates are often executed with their hands behind their backs, tape across the mouth, and a shotgun blast to the head before being shoved into the water to rot.

And yet, on a hot August morning where the temperature reaches ninety-eight degrees, Kayla Mueller believes a journey to this dangerous place is a worthy way to spend a Saturday. She pleads with her boyfriend to let her make the trip. She has been in the slums of India and Palestine, and now she wishes to see with her own eyes the suffering of Syrian refugees displaced by ISIS.

In Syria, kidnapping of foreigners is a daily fact of life. There is no such thing as guaranteed safety. Kayla Mueller knows this. She is also aware that the growing ISIS threat in Aleppo is just a thirty-minute drive on the other side of the Turkish border.

So, nine months into her mission in Turkey, Kayla Mueller gambles with her life. She crosses into Syria, traveling by bus with her Syrian boyfriend, Omar Alkhani, a photographer whose job is providing telecommunications expertise to a group of physicians known as Doctors Without Borders. Kayla’s plan is a simple dash over the border to help Omar fix a broken satellite dish at a hospital outside Aleppo. The couple agrees that she will not speak during the journey, for fear of letting those around her know she is American. Then they will sprint back home to Antakya before night falls.

But difficulty installing the equipment means that the long day grows dark before the work is done. Crowds at the border signal a long wait before getting back across. Rather than chance lonely desert roads at night, Mueller and Alkhani elect to wait until morning for their return. Kayla spends the evening speaking to refugee women about their plight.

On August 4, the pair is driven from the improvised surgical center in a vehicle bearing the Doctors Without Borders logo. Their destination is a bus stop. The taxi driver is Syrian and knows the way. Another aid worker from Spain joins them on the short trip.

The four never make it.

On the outskirts of Aleppo, a car full of ISIS fighters, clad all in black, begins following the taxi. They soon force it off the road. The terrorists step out of their vehicle and approach. Their faces are covered, their AK-47 assault rifles at the ready. Mueller and her three companions are taken prisoner. Hoods are placed over their heads. They are driven to a terrorist compound and put in chains. Kayla and her boyfriend are held in separate cells. The two are not allowed to speak with each other, but signal that they are still alive by coughing loudly enough for the other to hear.

At first, ISIS does not announce the kidnappings, or demand a ransom. No outsider knows where they have gone, least of all Kayla’s worried parents back home in Arizona.

Temperatures rise into the high nineties, and the victims are granted small amounts of food and water. “Just a little bit,” one of the many other prisoners will later recall. “We were starving.”

Another kidnap victim will add, “There was so little room [in the cell]. And it was dark, with no power. It was summer and it was so hot.”

ISIS maintains several detention facilities to house those they kidnap. To prevent US satellites and drones from discovering their location, Kayla and the others are moved from one confinement to another. Meanwhile, in Arizona, her parents try to maintain calm, despite growing panic.

As the days pass, ISIS comes to a decision: the captives will be released, one by one. Among them is Kayla’s boyfriend.

But not Kayla Mueller.

She is an “American spy,” in the words of ISIS, and is tortured for evidence of her crimes. Her fingernails are ripped out and her head shaved. One cruel ISIS technique specific to the torture of women is known as “the biter,” using large tongs with metal jaws to clamp down on female breasts—always administered by a woman, in accordance with Islamic law. Another favored technique is to produce emotional terror by placing severed human heads inside a cage housing a female prisoner.*

This is the life Kayla lives for three long weeks.

Then the email is sent.

Clicking on a link at their home in Arizona, Kayla’s parents open a short video. Their daughter, noticeably thinner and sunburned, looks into the camera. Her head is covered by a green hijab. Her lips are pursed and chapped. Her voice is raspy. Terror fills her bloodshot eyes as she speaks.

“My name is Kayla Mueller,” she begins. “I need your help.

“I’ve been here too long and I’ve been very sick.

“And it’s very terrifying here.”

That is all. The video image of Kayla remains on the screen, but she speaks no more. Her father, Carl, will remember feeling “catatonic” as he watches his daughter in such unspeakable torment.

But this is just the beginning of the agony that Kayla Mueller will endure.

Three months later, on December 2, 2013, Kayla’s recently freed boyfriend, Omar Alkhani, pretending to be her husband, takes the extraordinary step of locating his former ISIS captors in an attempt to free Kayla, who has now been held for four months. He begs for mercy and the release of his “bride.” Alkhani is placed in a detention cell with Kayla so that he can see her with his own eyes as he makes this claim. A high judge of the Islamic State stands with them, closely watching the interchange. Kayla is dressed head to toe in a black abaya. Her face is covered at first, but her guards pull back the veil for just a few seconds so Alkhani can confirm her identity. The captors tell Kayla she will not be harmed if she tells the truth.

But she knows this is a lie. Alkhani’s brave action actually puts the terrified young American aid worker in a desperate bind. If Kayla acknowledges Omar as her husband after many months of claiming herself single, she will be executed for deceit.

“No, he is not my husband. He is my fiancé,” Kayla states.

For the charge of lying, Omar is detained and tortured by ISIS for seven weeks and one day. Among his cellmates during this time are American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

After fifty days, Omar Alkhani is released without a ransom, while Kayla Mueller remains a prisoner.

The reason is simple: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has decided that the time has arrived for his American captive to become his fifth wife. As this sham matrimony is described throughout the ISIS caliphate, Kayla Mueller will be “married by force.”

The spring of 2014 marks seven months since Kayla Mueller’s kidnapping. She is being held along with James Foley and twenty-two other Westerners—Italians, Germans, Danes, French, Spanish, and British. Kayla is the only woman. As a reminder of the fate awaiting them if their ransom is not paid, ISIS decapitates kidnapped Russian engineer Sergey Gorbunov in March and shows the horrified hostages a video of his body.

In April and May, fifteen of the Europeans are released after their ransoms are paid. Like America, the United Kingdom does not negotiate with terrorists. This leaves four Americans and three Britons in ISIS custody. The terrorists also keep hundreds of women from the Yazidi tribe of northern Iraq to use as sex slaves. Kayla is sometimes held with her fellow Westerners but at other times imprisoned with the Yazidi women.

On May 11, emboldened by the many kidnap victims being set free, the Mueller family and relatives of other Americans being held hostage ask for a meeting with President Obama. The request is denied. After two decades of US involvement in ongoing wars in the Middle East, the president has taken a firm stand against any American military involvement in Syria. This precludes a rescue operation.

Kayla Mueller in Turkey on June 9, 2013.

So while Obama is sympathetic, he believes a meeting with the families will accomplish little. There is also the specter of possible bad press—that could lead to increased pressure for military action.

“This was a clear reluctance to accept facts,” one critic of the Obama administration told the authors of this book. “Facts were being adapted to fit the political narrative.”

Yet later that month, there are signs of hope. Shortly after the White House rejection, the Mueller family receives a letter from Kayla, smuggled out of Syria by released hostages.

“If you could say I have suffered at all through this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through,” Kayla writes. “I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness.

“By God’s will, we will be together again soon,” she concludes. “All my everything, Kayla.”

More hope: just days after receiving Kayla’s letter, another contact reaches the Muellers from Syria. This time, it is ISIS sending an email to the Mueller family. The terrorists wish to set Kayla free, exchanging her for a Pakistani woman being held by the Americans for her role in killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. If this demand is impossible, ISIS states, it would instead accept 5 million euros—roughly $7.3 million dollars—for Kayla’s release.

To show “proof of life,” just as in the video clip sent so many months ago, the terrorists ask the parents to respond with questions to which only Kayla would know the answer.

Carl and Marsha Mueller are weary—and wary. There is no telling whether or not ISIS has any intention of releasing their daughter. “They tortured us with their emails,” Carl will recall. “And they reveled in it.”

But there is no choice. If the Muellers want to see their daughter again, the game must be played.

The Muellers respond on May 25.

“Music is ________?” they ask.

Three days later, in a graduation speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama sends a new message to ISIS, toughening his stance. It is just four months since his “JV” comments, and the spread of ISIS power throughout Iraq and Syria now seems unstoppable. The terrorist army is closing in on the Iraqi city of Mosul, yet another instance where a hard-won American victory in the Iraq War is reversed by ISIS advances.

“The most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” the president tells the cadets.

However, Obama stops short of promising any confrontation—and is actually hiding a major development. A short time ago, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same special warfare group that coordinated the bin Laden mission three years ago, approached the White House about another daring raid. This time, instead of ending the life of a madman, JSOC plans a mission to rescue Kayla Mueller and all the Western hostages from ISIS captivity. New information from an unnamed nation acting as one of America’s intelligence partners suggests that the kidnap victims are being held outside the city of Raqqa, one hundred miles south of the Turkish border. There, in an abandoned compound near an oil field, they are under heavy guard.

But this intelligence is thin and dated. By not having a military presence in Syria, the United States lacks the ability to produce the “exquisite intelligence,” a term common in the national security community, that could green-light military action. In the absence of hard data, any rescue force is in extreme peril should the situation on the ground have shifted. The chances for failure are high. On the other hand, it is not always possible to know the precise details of every mission. Risks are a part of any raid.

This places President Obama in an uncomfortable situation. He has repeatedly insisted that America will not send its troops into Syria. To do so now would be a complete reversal of his foreign policy. The American public is weary of war. Conflict in Syria, a nation that does not represent a clear threat to the United States, would undermine the gravitas of his administration. Until now, in the words of one senior US official, the White House “did not want to recognize this as a problem they needed to solve.”

So the president is conflicted. He can no longer ignore the fact that American lives are at stake. Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Peter Kassig, and Steven Sotloff could be murdered at any time.

Thus, Obama is prepared to green-light a rescue mission. But, as with the bin Laden raid, the odds must be in America’s favor. There cannot be another Black Hawk down.

Yet there is major risk in waiting.

Indeed, the measured caution and the White House bureaucracy will eventually doom Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig.

There are three conditions necessary to launching a successful hostage rescue: proof of life, a grid showing the likely imprisonment location (such as a street or house number), and final approval from the president. The Special Forces operators tasked with any rescue are always on alert, having trained extensively for such scenarios. Yet it is very often the last step—final approval—that holds up the actual mission. The time it takes to move up the chain of command to the president, who must approve all operations into an active hostile war zone, can be hours—or months. And as commandos await orders to launch, restless kidnappers very often move their victims to new locations.

This is on Barack Obama’s mind as he wraps up his remarks to the newly commissioned West Point lieutenants. For the first time in public, the president does not rule out commando operations to fight terror. He says quite clearly: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake, or when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, and our way of life.”

Left unsaid is that an audacious rescue plan is now in the works, designed to penetrate US forces deep into the heart of ISIS-controlled Syria. The level of risk is far beyond that of any hostage rescue attempt in recent memory.* As always, intelligence must be verified. This necessary but laborious process precedes the lightning-quick execution of the mission itself, described by one top administration official as “Slow, slow, slow, slow—BANG!”

The question is, when will the president of the United States ride to the rescue?

On May 29, ISIS sends an email reply to Arizona: “Music is EVERYWHERE.”

This is the correct response to the question posed by Kayla’s parents—something that only Kayla might say.

Even better, another short video clip accompanies the email. The young woman tells her parents that she feels healthy and then repeats the terrorists’ demands before the video ends. Unknown to the Muellers, Kayla has recently been moved from a cell so small she could not stretch out, into a bigger room with three other women. Anticipating her release, Kayla has been doing push-ups and other exercises to get strong for the journey home.

But in reality, the Muellers are losing faith in the American government. They desperately want to pay the ransom. Their choices are to go to jail for defying the “no concessions” law or passively to wait for a US rescue operation.

They choose to wait—but grow frustrated by the lack of communication.

“ISIS was being more truthful to us,” Marsha Mueller will one day recall.

As the summer of 2014 begins to unfold, James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig are simply helpless. ISIS is becoming more violent and arrogant. America and the world are watching.

But doing little else.*

American journalist Steven Sotloff (center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Dafniya front line, fifteen miles west of Misrata, Libya, on June 2, 2011.

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