On Saturday, ABC’s 20/20 aired an hour-long documentary on the harrowing and inspiring story of Kayla Mueller, the American aide worker who was held hostage by ISIS for 18 months and killed in a US airstrike against the terror group last year. The documentary, called “The Girl Left Behind,” features interviews with Mueller’s parents, friends, and other hostages who were later released from captivity. Mueller’s story is a reminder of the horrors of ISIS and the strength of a young women with unbending convictions. But, it’s also an appalling display of the hypocrisy of the Obama administration.
Mueller was working in Turkey in late 2012, helping Syrian refugees attempting to flee the civil war. In 2013, she went to Aleppo with her boyfriend, who was working for Doctors Without Borders, where they both were kidnapped by ISIS. In the ensuing 18 months, Mueller was tortured and regularly raped. She was also reportedly “wed” to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But despite all this, Mueller remained strong, defending her faith and helping others, even to her own detriment. In a letter that was smuggled out of Syria, she writes about her faith and the strength that her religious convictions had given her. Her fellow captors recalled how the notorious British executioner Jihadi John would bring Mueller in front of other hostages and tell them she had converted to Islam. But she would always bravely contradict him and state that she’d done no such thing.
Mueller, like many other female hostages, was repeatedly raped. Another girl who was held with her, a Yazidi, recounts that Mueller turned down an opportunity to escape with her because she knew that as an American it would be more likely that ISIS would attempt to recapture them. Mueller didn’t want to hurt the girl’s chances of successful escape.
Mueller was eventually killed, allegedly in a Jordanian airstrike in 2015.
Obama Is All Talk, No Action
In addition to depicting the heartbreaking trials that Mueller endured with such strength and steadiness, the documentary also shows how, according to Mueller’s parents, the Obama administration didn’t do all it could to bring back their daughter, and how a series of White House missteps led to Mueller’s being left behind and ultimately lost.
The Muellers were able to get into contact over email with ISIS, who asked for a ransom payment. But as they were organizing several wealthy donors who were willing to contribute, a senior White House official warned them that they could be criminally prosecuted for attempting to pay such a ransom. The FBI dictated the emails that the Muellers sent to ISIS. Carl Mueller, Kayla’s father, tried to convince the FBI that they should respond with references to a financial offer, but the FBI would never include it. They weren’t permitted to make any counter offers. The emails instead contained stalling tactics about how the Muellers didn’t have money and how Carl had retired. Finally, ISIS stopped responding. Meanwhile, a failed rescue mission was attempted in July 2014, although those involved said delays in the planning led to missing Mueller and three other hostages by days or even hours.
After the fact, Obama said it would be “totally unacceptable” to prosecute a family whose loved one was being held hostage, and the Justice Department made a public statement saying that it had never before prosecuted families who were raising money to pay hostage money for a loved one. But the Muellers weren’t the only ones who reported being threatened by the administration. The parents of James Foley, another American hostage who was later executed, were told three times that it was illegal for them to try to pay a ransom and that they could be prosecuted if they proceeded. The family of Steve Sotloff, another executed American hostage, were similarly threatened with criminal prosecution by their own government.
To make matters worse, President Obama only agreed to meet with Mueller’s parents after the highly public and gruesome beheadings of U.S. journalists Foley and Sotloff, in 2014, despite requesting a meeting with him twice before. The Muellers described Obama as cold during the course of their meeting. Adding to their sense of neglect by the administration, was the fact that Obama made a personal pledge to make a substantial donation to a foundation the Muellers had set up in Kayla’s name. As of this week he still hasn’t done so.
Obama Doesn’t Care About ISIS Hostages Because They Aren’t Politically Useful
While the situations differed greatly, it’s important to compare this sad tale with the four American hostages who were being held in Iran and were released in January of this year. In recent weeks, it’s come out that their release mysteriously coincided with a U.S. cash payment of $400 million to the Iranian government. While the Obama administration breathlessly insists this was not a ransom payment, the reality is quite clear. The hostages’ release was contingent on the payment.
So why the enormous difference in attitude between one hostage scenario and another?
Iran is Obama’s pet project, the cornerstone of a misguided Middle East foreign policy initiative. He’ll go to any lengths to ensure he leaves behind a “legacy” showing that he, and he alone, thawed diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. Despite the fact that the Iran nuclear deal gave Iran everything that it wanted with little of the oversight America and the international community demanded, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry persist in touting it as one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of the 21st century.
In the case of the Iranian hostages, Obama didn’t want to jeopardize the Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, he was anxious to show what a good sport he was willing to be. So he was happy to pay a hefty ransom to get the hostages back.
The Iran hostage situation could have, and should have, been resolved by America flexing its muscle against Iran and asserting itself. It didn’t have to be, and in fact ought not to have been, resolved financially. But this wouldn’t have jived with the Obama doctrine of leading from behind. In fact, it was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his magnanimity.
The ISIS hostage situations, whether the Muellers, the Foleys or the Sotloffs, weren’t politically useful so they weren’t a priority for the administration. What’s more, they were a reminder of Obama’s failed policies in both Iraq and Syria. In the former, the vacuum left by a hasty withdrawal of troops from Iraq led to ISIS’ flourishing. In the latter, his refusal to keep his word on the “red line” aided Syria’s descent into anarchy, which in turn gave ISIS the opportunity to take control of large swaths of territory. The Obama administration’s neglect of these hostage situations reflected where Obama’s own political self-interest lay.
Kayla Mueller’s story is one of perseverance under the most horrific circumstances, and of the unparalleled anguish of losing a child. It’s also an ugly reminder that for the brave young woman who was left behind, Obama’s political priorities were the difference between life and death.