The family of Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American aid worker killed while held hostage by the so-called Islamic State, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama last year asking that he commute the 86-year sentence of a Pakistani scientist serving time in a U.S. prison, according to e-mails obtained by The Daily Beast.
The move reflected the desperation of the family, and of those trying to help it, as options to win Kayla's freedom narrowed and the terrorists threatened to kill her if the scientist were not released.
The prisoner in question was once on the list of America’s most-wanted terrorists: Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born neuroscientist who studied at MIT and Brandeis. Soon after 9/11 she was named as part of a close-knit group around that attack’s mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. She had married one of his top deputies. When she finally was caught in Afghanistan in 2008 she allegedly carried plans to make dirty bombs and weaponize the Ebola virus. She also managed to grab a gun while she was being questioned and tried to kill the American soldiers at the interrogation session.
Siddiqui comes from an influential Pakistani family, and her supporters say she was railroaded or framed. But ISIS and, before it, Al Qaeda, often have made her release a condition in hostage negotiations.
The Muellers decided to appeal to Obama as the clock ticked down on a 30-day deadline ISIS imposed to free Siddiqui last summer. "Kayla's parents would have done anything they could for their daughter, as any parents would, and they thought it was worth exploring any and all options," a family representative told The Daily Beast.
The correspondence between the Muellers and the White House was described in an email from Rev. Kathleen Day, a friend of the Mueller family in Arizona, to an American activist who leads the U.S. campaign to free Siddiqui. She is currently imprisoned in Texas.
The proposed swap never materialized, and the Obama administration has rejected other demands from terrorist and militant groups to trade Siddiqui.
But according to Day’s e-mail, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, “received and read the letter” and informed the Muellers “that she would assure that it would be given to the president [at] the soonest possible time.” Day wrote that the Muellers had written to Obama “appealing to a sense of justice, to commute the sentence of Dr. Siddiqui.”
A National Security Council spokesperson declined to comment on the letter and whether Obama read it, citing a policy of not discussing presidential correspondence or White House communications with family members of American hostages.
That the Muellers asked the White House to consider Siddiqui in their daughter’s case underscores the paucity of options families have when trying to negotiate for their loved ones’ release. The Obama administration was almost certain never to take the idea seriously. Current and former U.S. officials have said that releasing Siddiqui, who also briefly figured in the efforts to release Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, would put a dangerous extremist back on the street and violate the United States policy against granting concessions to terrorist groups.
Known in counterterrorism circles as “Lady al Qaeda,” Siddiqui has become a perennial bargaining chip for terrorist and militant groups, but also a cause célèbre for some supporters in the United States who say she was unjustly imprisoned and have petitioned the government for her release.
When ISIS announced in July 2014 that it would kill Mueller if Siddiqui wasn’t let out of prison, it also demanded a ransom of more than $5 million, a sum that vastly exceeds those in more typical hostage cases involving criminal gangs or even other religious extremist groups, hostage negotiation experts said.
With a prisoner swap off the table and such a high ransom demand, the Muellers were left with almost nowhere to turn. That same month, the U.S. military launched a rescue mission to retrieve their daughter and other American hostages held in Syria, but special operations forces arrived a day or two after ISIS had moved the captives. The Muellers later asked officials to keep them apprised of any future rescue missions, a request that the White House said it would grant.
It appears that ISIS didn’t make good on its threat to kill Mueller if Siddiqui wasn’t released. Day, the American activist, wrote open letters to ISIS, appealing to Islam’s prohibition against “deliberate killing of civilian non-combatants, especially women and children.” Siddiqui’s family also wrote that ISIS shouldn’t link the release of Aafia to the liberation of American hostages, arguing that she would be opposed to the idea.
The United States has traded militant prisoners in the past. In May of last year, Obama ordered the release of five Taliban fighters held in Guantanamo Bay for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had gone missing from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was being held by the Haqqani network. At the time, U.S. intelligence officials assessed that most of the Taliban fighters were likely to return to militant activity. They are now living in Qatar, where at least one of them has attempted to make contact with militants again, according to U.S. officials who asked not to be identified.
Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have accused him of desertion and questioned why dangerous fighters should have been traded for him. The swap has also frustrated the family members of some ISIS captives, who see a double standard in the administration’s willingness to make prisoner swaps for soldiers but not civilians.
The administration has justified the Bergdahl swap under long-standing traditions and policies governing the exchange of prisoners of war. Bergdahl’s captors had also repeatedly threatened to kill him if Siddiqui weren’t set free.
The Bergdahl trade may have opened a Pandora’s Box that encouraged other parties to propose swaps. Before he was released from a U.S. maximum-security prison last month, the liberation of Ali Saleh Al-Marri, a confessed al Qaeda sleeper agent, had been the subject of a request from Qatar, which asked for his liberation in a potential exchange that would have freed two Americans held in Doha, Matthew and Grace Huang. The proposal was floated in July 2014, shortly after Bergdahl’s release, to the then-U.S. ambassador in Qatar by an individual acting on behalf of that country’s attorney general, according to two individuals with direct knowledge of the matter.