Who was Kayla Mueller and what was she doing in Syria?

Kayla Mueller was confirmed dead this morning. Who was she, and what does her death say about humanitarian efforts in the Middle East?

Felicia Fonseca/AP
American hostage Kayla Mueller, 26, was confirmed dead after 18 months in IS captivity. Laura Spaeth (pictured) looks at a memorial honoring her on the corner of courthouse plaza in Prescott, Ariz., Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.

Kayla Mueller was taken hostage by the Islamic State in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2013. On Tuesday, her family and the White House issued statements confirming her death.

"We are heartbroken to share that we've received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life," a statement from the family reads, reported CNN. "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 said.

Ms. Mueller graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2009, and devoted her life to humanitarian efforts around the world. From 2009 to 2011, she worked with humanitarian aid groups in northern India, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. In 2012, she was drawn to the plight of Syrian refugees on the Turkish/Syrian border to work with Support to Life, the Danish Refugee Council and other organizations that assisted refugees who were forced to flee their homeland

As the Monitor reported, Mueller spoke about her work with families and children in Syria at a Kiwanis Club in Prescott, Ariz., during a visit home in May 2013. She shared with the group the joy of helping reunite a family that had become separated after their refugee camp had been bombed and she expressed sorrow and frustration at the level of attention that the Western world has paid to the crisis in Syria.

“This story is not rare in Syria,” Mueller said, according to a subsequent article in The Daily Courier. “This is the reality for Syrians for two and a half years on. When Syrians hear I’m an American, they ask, ‘Where is the world?’ All I can do is cry with them, because I don’t know....“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal,” Mueller said. "[I will not let this be] something we just accept.”

Mueller was captured after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo on Aug. 4, 2013.

In May, IS militant groups demanded $7 million from Mueller’s family by Aug. 13, 2014. While it is unclear what happened after the deadline passed, Mueller was able to write her family during her captivity. One letter reads:

“It’s hard to know what to say . . . Please know that I am in a safe location, completely unharmed + health (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/the utmost respect + kindness,” her letter reads, reported CNN.

Overall, IS has not targeted humanitarian workers with their attacks. Business Insider reported that the militant group actually views the humanitarian efforts as positive, as long as they are completed in a specific way. With the rebranding of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] to IS [Islamic State], they have decided that aid “advances its state-building project and deepens the group's control over the estimated 3.6 million people living under the ‘Caliphate.’”

In fact, the group has been aiding in the distribution of unlabeled supplies, going as far as re-branding it as aid provided by the ‘IS Department of Relief,’ although proof of its legitimate access to supplies cannot be proven, reported the Overseas Development Institute. The propaganda has furthered the group’s mission to become an established state capable of helping its people by behaving like the state it proclaims itself to be.

Mueller was the fourth American hostage to be killed at the hands of the jihadist terrorist organization, including James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig. The use of hostages as propaganda war pawns – from the US and most recently Japan and Jordan – by IS groups has reached unprecedented levels. Before the death of Mueller was verified, earlier this week Western experts were skeptical of its claim, since it seemed to be more of a militant move than a chance happening.

“Some intelligence experts believe that the video purporting to show [Jordanian pilot] Lieutenant Kassasbeh’s death had been taped weeks ago. It was released at a time IS leaders thought it might have maximum impact. Similarly, IS might believe that an announcement of a US hostage friendly-fire death might help it manipulate opinions in the outside world, blunting American support for Jordan’s airstrikes,” reported The Christian Science Monitor.

It is yet to be seen how the US will respond to this latest act of violence involving the IS terrorist group. Mueller was the last publicly known American hostage, yet it is clear that tensions are continuing in a cycle of violence and retaliation. Obama released a statement declaring justice will be sought.

"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," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "ISIL is a hateful and abhorrent terrorist group whose actions stand in stark contrast to the spirit of people like Kayla."

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