Last week the Arizona Republic released a story detailing the fate of Kayla Mueller, an ISIS prisoner whose death was announced a few days earlier. The most novel part of the story (and the reasons for my choice that word will become evident shortly) is that her Syrian boyfriend, who had been abducted with her in Aleppo on 4 August, 2013 before being released, attempted to secure her freedom by returning to an ISIS camp and pretending to be her husband. The ruse was uncovered, and she was not liberated. The boyfriend was detained for a time, before being released again.
The Republic withheld the boyfriend’s name:
The Arizona Republic is withholding the name of Mueller’s boyfriend out of caution for his safety. At least one friend says the name is an identity he assumed to lessen the risk of reporting in Syria.
This is rather odd, because said boyfriend was quite voluble in an interview with the Daily Mail. He goes by the pseudonym Omar Alkhani (or al Khani). And he tells a rather dramatic story:
It was the moment Omar Alkhani believed he was about to secure the release of his girlfriend, the last American hostage held by Islamic State.
Kayla Mueller stood before him in her dimly lit cell dressed in a traditional long black abaya cloak, her face covered.
At great personal risk, Omar had ventured into the heart of the terror group’s power base in Syria to try to bring her home.
Naively, perhaps, he was convinced that all Kayla had to do was confirm their cover story that they were man and wife to the IS ‘judge’ standing between them.
He spent two months there before being freed.
In the five months after his release, Western hostages including Britons David Haines, 44, and Alan Henning, 47, would become victims of the British executioner known as Jihadi John, whose voice Omar heard every morning interrogating Western prisoners.
Speaking for the first time about his four-year relationship with Kayla, 26, and the events that led to her capture and his own incarceration, Omar told MailOnline and the Mail on Sunday: ‘To this day I don’t know why she didn’t go along with the story.
‘Because I am Syrian and not a spy, and she was my wife, they would have let her go. I came to get Kayla out but that was the last time I saw her.’
He added: ‘She once asked how much I loved her and I said that I would risk my life for her. And I did. I tried for her. She was the most beautiful thing that happened to my life. We were planning our future together.’
Quite dramatic, no? Quite romantic, no? Quite touching, no?
Adding to all this is his farewell Facebook post to her.
I’m not writing her to say goodbye, this is a thank you. Thank you for coming into my life and giving me joy, thank you for loving me and receiving my love in return.
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.
You came into my dream nights ago, with that charming smile, All l remember from the dream is a feeling of peace. l woke up with that feeling , and tried to keep it in my mind as long as l could. l’m writing to tell you l’m sorry about so many things. I’m sorry l didn’t ‘t take better care of you , ”I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to find the words , to tell you what I was feeling. And how much I loved you.
I’m sorry for all our nonsense fight and argue we ever had before , I just wanted to love you for ever , I’m sorry I didn’t hold on to you with so much strength. That even God couldn’t take you away. ”
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 once, and you ll always be…
Always & Forever. . .
For all of this, we have the uncorroborated word of al Khani. Period. Color me skeptical.
Why? For one thing, how many people does ISIS release not once, but twice? And it’s not as if al Khani was some random Syrian guy who was getting it on with a kafir (which is not exactly something that ISIS condones). As I will detail below, he was a very well-known Syrian in opposiiton circles. Further, I have not been able to find any statement by ISIS hostages that were ransomed, and who gave interviews about hostages including Sotloff, Foley, and Mueller, mention al Khani, who claims he was held in the same place at the same time.
For another, despite his expression of undying love last week, he said precious little about her on Facebook while she was in ISIS’s hands. His Facebook page is replete with images from Syria and Istanbul taken as a Reuters photographer, mentions of publication of his photos in Vanity Fair, and touts of his film. He does have one post that alludes to her on 21 September, 2013, about 3 weeks after he posted a statement that he had been released from ISIS captivity. (Since he had been captured on 3 or 4 August, the Daily Mail claim that he had been imprisoned for 2 months is obviously wrong.) Then nothing. He says nothing about her after his purported rescue effort in November, 2013-January, 2014. This hardly screams undying love.
(It is also somewhat odd that the story of this trip is treated now as a revelation, as it was reported in the region at the time-again based on what al Khani said.)
Something also doesn’t ring true about his account of how he met Mueller. He claims she answered an ad for a roommate in Cairo, where he’d moved after spending several years in Sudan working as “events marketing” executive, and where she’d traveled on a short vacation. (Who knew there was a market for event planning in Sudan?) The Sudan connection jumps out, because at home in Arizona Mueller had been actively engaged in Darfur-related protests. Maybe the story in the Mail is accurate, but it is also plausible that they had been in contact online regarding Sudan before, and that’s why she went to visit him in Cairo.
Al Khani was in Cairo when the Arab Spring broke out. Soon the ferment spread to Syria, and he went back there to participate in the anti-Assad movement. He soon became a “coordinator” of a “Facebook battalion of revolutionaries” that facilitated communications among anti-Assad forces. He claims the title of “Secretary General of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators.” Before long, he was a go-to guy for western media, being quoted about Syrian events in the Telegraph, Financial Times, Die Welt, Public Radio International, and other publications. He also worked as a photographer for Reuters, and his photos were run by Vanity Fair, AFP, and other media. He was regularly traveling to rebel-held areas of Syria as a photographer.
Most bizarrely, he wrote a profile of ISIS leader Al Baghdadi while Kayla Mueller was in ISIS captivity. (The article was originally written by al Khani, and Maya Gebeily, but their names were not on the byline of the piece as it ran in Newsweek. Another odd thing.)
In other words, al Khani was pretty much a celebrity in Syrian revolutionary circles, with considerable familiarity with ISIS. It is almost inconceivable that ISIS did not know who he was. But in the Daily Mail interview he presents himself as just some Syrian guy, and plays down his activism: indeed, that isn’t mentioned at all. Why so shy all of a sudden about describing his work? He was General Secretary, after all, and had been quite assiduous in promoting his role as an activist in print and film. Now all of a sudden he hides his light under a bushel basket.
And of course Syrian revolutionary circles are rife with Islamists of all stripes, from the Muslim Brotherhood to numerous varieties of Salafists. Al Khani navigated in those circles for years. He did not mention much about religion from what I’ve seen, though an acknowledgement of receiving funds from Muslim Brotherhood members and an expression of gratitude to people in Turkey for help are tantalizing clues.
That all raises questions about his relationship with ISIS, and their treatment of him. He obviously had deep connections in the Syrian opposition. That had to have mattered.
Again, his word is the sole basis for reports that ISIS held him captive and tortured him, and then freed him. Twice. Maybe it happened, but maybe it didn’t.
The story of the reason for his fateful trip with Mueller in August, 2013 also strains credulity. He supposedly made the trip to one of the most dangerous cities on earth to fix the wifi at the Medicins Sans Frontiers office in Aleppo. Events marketing executive, photographer, activist, filmmaker, and . . . wifi repairman? Quite the Renaissance Man.
The Daily Mail story also suggests that Mueller insisted that al Khani take her to Syria with him on this trip, and insinuates she hadn’t been there before. But she posted pictures from “Souria” (a tell that she had been radicalized) she had taken earlier, so why the suggestion that she had to pester al Khani to take her along?
Finally, I don’t find the story of Mueller ruining her chance at freedom by refusing to acknowledge that she was his wife to be credible. Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe. But it sounds like a convenient tale to explain why he could not bring her out. Again, we have only his word that he tried.
I can’t but conclude that there is much more to the story of Omar al Khani that what is being breathlessly repeated today. There are many loose ends, which no one wants to pull, apparently being content with the romantic tale of tragic love. Many questions, but nobody is asking him to answer them. His story is being taken as gospel.
What makes this particularly infuriating is that despite the fact that al Khani was widely known among western media for his activism, this is not being mentioned at all today. It appears that even the media that used him as a source on the revolutionary movement is conspiring to support the tragic love narrative.
Finally, this all sheds some light on Kayla Mueller. She cannot have been unaware of al Khani’s opposition activities. Her biography suggests that those activities would have been a great attraction to her. Her short video (linked in the Daily Mail story) expresses solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people, and that is a piece with her involvement with the International Solidarity Movement which unabashedly supports the Palestinian “struggle” against Israel: Rachel Corrie was an earlier American in ISM, and Mueller seems to have much in common with Corrie. And like Corrie, she put herself in harms way in connection with an opposition movement. And like Corrie, she paid for this with her life.
On one level, this was Kayla Mueller’s decision. She ran the risk, she paid the price. You can admire her or question her as you will. But there are broader issues involved. Policy issues.
What got me chasing this rabbit was a story in the Washington Post describing the extreme risks the US ran to mount a rescue raid for Mueller and the other hostages. This means that the decisions of people like Mueller and Foley and Sotloff did not just affect them. They put other Americans at mortal risk. They also put the lives of Syrians (whom they professed to want to help) at risk. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or fatalities in the US special operations direct action to attempt to release them. But that wasn’t inevitable. It was training, planning, skill, and luck. Sometimes bad luck can undo the best training, planning and skill in the world.
Given the pronounced narcissism and romanticism that characterizes all of those Americans who have been kidnapped and killed by ISIS, I wonder about the prudence of a policy that risks American soldiers, sailors, and airmen to rescue the reckless. People should be on warning: swim at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty. If you want to engage in entrepreneurial activism in very dangerous places, without the official sanction of the US government or any credible NGO, more power to you, but you are on your own. Risking lives to rescue American military captives, or those seized while engaged in official aid missions, is one thing. Risking lives to retrieve romantic free-lancers (including love struck ones who may have fallen in with the company of questionable characters) is something else altogether.
Note: h/t to @libertylynx for all of the links and research.