How US aid worker Kayla Mueller was taken hostage by ISIS -- and how attempts to save her failed
Kayla Jean Mueller was taken hostage in August 2013, while working as an aid worker in Aleppo (AFP Photo)

Source close to family confirms US aid worker whose death was confirmed this week was with Syrian boyfriend in Aleppo when she was taken

It was supposed to be a fleeting excursion from the relative safety of the Turkish border to a hospital in Aleppo, 70 miles south. But what began as a simple call to help people ended up in tragedy for Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American woman who died in Islamic State captivity.

Related: Kayla Mueller mourned by US town of Prescott as family confirms death

The American aid worker travelled to the bombed, battered ruins of Aleppo on 3 August 2013 with her boyfriend, a Syrian photographer she had met three years earlier, a source close to the family who declined to be named said.

The next day, on 4 August, the pair were heading to a bus station to catch a ride back to Turkey when they were ambushed. “Kayla’s detention occurred during the drive to the bus station,” the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose hospital she was leaving when she was kidnapped, said in a statement this week.

So began a harrowing ordeal for Mueller, as a hostage of Isis militants, and for her family 7,000 miles away in Prescott, Arizona. While Mueller tried to engage with her guards and make the best of captivity, her family and US officials made desperate efforts to save her, all the while keeping her plight secret.

Unknown to the wider world, a drama of rescue attempts, DNA samples, prisoner bartering and ransom demands unfolded over 18 months, intertwining politicians, presidents, soldiers and intermediaries.

But it was all in vain. This week Isis sent proof – reportedly three photographs – that Mueller had been killed.

‘You were the most beautiful thing’

Reports of her death provoked anguished scenes in Prescott, where relatives made tearful tributes, and on Facebook , where her boyfriend, using the pseudonym Omar Alkhani, mourned his loss.

I’m sorry I didn’t hold on to you with so much strength [that] even God couldn’t take you away,” he wrote on Wednesday. “You left our world for a bigger and better place now. You were the shining light that gets me through my darkest hours, you were the most beautiful thing that happened to me.”

Two of the photographs, requested by her family, reportedly showed Mueller in a black hijab, another showed her in a white burial shroud used by Muslim for funerals, according to the New York Times . The face in the pictures was bruised.

Isis said Mueller had been killed by a missile strike a bombing raid by Jordanian planes on its stronghold of Raqqa – a purported revenge attack for Isis’ brutal burning to death of a Jordanian pilot – which destroyed the building where Mueller was being held.

However, US officials and others challenged that version, saying there was no indication how or when she died . “The suspicion is that they had already killed her and rolled out this story as a response to the Jordanian attacks,” said Evan Barrett, policy manager of the the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Whatever the cause, her death marked the end of a tangled, tragic sequence of events since her abduction in Aleppo, triggering grief, recrimination and questions.

A twilight world

Friends and family were not surprised when Mueller moved to the Middle East. As a teenager she had marched and campaigned to raise awareness about suffering in troubled lands far from Prescott’s pine forests and granite mountains.

That idealism continued into adulthood, when she planned to do aid work in Africa. It was during a trip to Cairo in 2010 that she met Alkhani – a former Reuters photographer six years her senior, according to his Facebook page.

After Mueller returned to the US, the couple stayed in touch via email and Skype around the time Syria’s civil war began, said the source close to the family: “He spoke to her a lot about the suffering.”

Mueller moved to France as an au pair to learn French but was drawn to Syria, where Alkhani reportedly took risks to help journalists cover atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. By December 2012, she was on the Turkish border working for relief organisations, and reunited with Alkhani.

MSF had contracted a technician - whom they referred to as a “friend” of Kayla’s but who is believed to be her boyfriend – to fix the internet system at the hospital run by its Spanish branch. “Unbeknownst to the MSF team, Kayla,” MSF said in a statement this week , “was accompanying him.” The job took longer than expected and for safety it “harbored” the pair overnight at the hospital.

The next day, on 4 August, the pair were heading to a bus station to catch a ride back to Turkey when they were ambushed. “Kayla’s detention occurred during the drive to the bus station,” MSF’s statement said.

MSF staff were reportedly aghast when she turned up with the “technician” - whom the organisation did not name - in the midst of a kidnapping wave, at the hospital.

After Mueller’s car was ambushed in Aleppo, the kidnappers eventually let Alkhani go while Mueller entered the twilight world of hostage-taking in Syria. She was held with other female captives, forced to wear the hijab and moved to different locations around Raqqa, capital of Isis’s self-declared caliphate, former hostages told the New York Times .

Alkhani audaciously returned to Raqqa to ask for Mueller’s release, claiming to be her husband in a bid to petition for her release, according to the source close to the Mueller family, risking his life to try to save her. “The family was very aware that he cared for her deeply. Mueller, apparently unaware of the ruse, told her captors she was not married, and her chance of freedom was foiled.

Unlike male hostages, Mueller was apparently not tortured, nor sexually abused, claims seemingly supported by a letter to her family that she wrote last spring:

Please know that I am in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/utmost respect + kindness. If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through.”

‘I feel in a way that I’ve failed them’

Unknown to most of Prescott, a close-knit town, the Muellers’ ranch-style home became a nerve centre, collating reports and rumours from the middle east and seeking help from multiple sources in a bid to save the much-loved daughter.

Carl Mueller, Kayla’s father, enlisted Congressman Paul Gosar, whose district includes Prescott, and Senator John McCain. Both politicians detailed their efforts this week to the Arizona Republic .

McCain travelled the region, lobbying President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan, the emir of Qatar, officials in Saudi Arabia and contacts at the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army.

“All of these leaders and intelligence people pledged to me they were doing everything they could,” McCain said. “Some few details did emerge from these sources, but obviously not enough. I feel in a way that I’ve failed them, because of what apparently has happened.”

Gosar’s chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, met moderate Muslim activists in Turkey in December 2013 as well as a US diplomats in Ankara, whom he accused of doing little to help.

It was until May 2014, 10 months after Mueller’s abduction, that Isis gave her family the first proof of life, the source close to the family said.

The group also demanded a $5m ransom, said Gosar, but US government policy prohibits ransom payments. Then, in July, Isis threatened to kill Mueller within weeks unless the US met a different demand: the release of Aafia Siddiqui , a Pakistani scientist jailed in the US for allegedly working with al-Qaida and trying to kill Americans.

The Muellers made contact with Siddiqui’s supporters, who maintain her innocence, and asked the White House to consider a prisoner swap, the family source said. The White House’s official response is unclear, but Siddiqui remained in jail.

Last July, almost a year into Mueller’s detention, US commandos raided a suspected hostage-detention site but arrived too late: Mueller and other prisoners had been moved. The soldiers reportedly recovered strands of Mueller’s hair . Soon after, Isis beheaded its first American captive , James Foley.

McCain and Gosar, both Republicans, accused the Obama administration of not acting swiftly or nimbly enough to save Mueller. The president rejected that, telling Buzzfeed: “I deployed an entire operation – at significant risk – to rescue not only her but the other individuals who had been held, and probably missed them by a day or two, precisely because we had that commitment.”

‘Kayla remained Kayla’

The Muellers received the last proof that Kayla was alive in October. After that, silence, the family source confirmed.

Facebook posts suggest Alkhani now lives in Turkey. The eulogy for his lost love thanked Mueller for enriching his life. “You were everything I wanted. You were so beautiful and charming, and you supported me in everything I did, even if it was extremely stupid.”

Friends and relatives who gathered at Prescott’s tree-lined town square on Tuesday sought consolation in the fact Mueller retained her spirit and desire to connect right till the end, even teaching her guards origami. “We took delight in that,” said Kathleen Day, the head of United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University where Mueller had studied. “Kayla remained Kayla.”

Alkhani did not answer a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi in New York © Guardian News and Media 2015