The Unbearable Coldness of Empire: The ISIS Trials, Kayla Mueller, and the Tragedy of US Power

(AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

This week I have been absorbed in my memories of my travels to Iraq as well as the many victims of ISIS genocide I met there, people who were trying to make a life for themselves in vast, underfunded refugee camps within already traumatized societies.

I have been thinking about the abandonment of the Yazidi people in Sinjar in August 2014 by the Kurdish peshmerga forces as ISIS overran this part of Iraq from neighboring Syria, and about theories that the United States — which a few days later swooped in with much heralded airstrikes against ISIS — may have facilitated this troop withdrawal. I have been thinking about the many new oil pumps and fires I saw as I traveled through the Sinjar warzone in 2016, wondering where they all came from and to whom they belonged.

What has brought this world once more into my daily presence, for it exists always inside me in more or less perceptible form, is the announcement on Wednesday by the American Federal Bureau of Investigations that two ISIS fighters, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheik, had been indicted on terrorism charges and would be extradited from Britain to the United States to stand trial.

Kotey and Elsheik are two of the four “Beatles” — named by their captives for their British accents — who plotted the kidnapping, torture, and, eventually, the murder of hostages from the United States, Great Britain, Japan and other countries. The four American hostages killed by this ISIS cell were journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and humanitarians Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. I think most Americans remember the trauma of the brutal beheading videos produced by ISIS for the murders of Foley, Sotloff, and Kassig, as well as the confusion and conflicting stories around the tragic fates of all four captives.

The news of the new indictments arrived in my corner of the world through my phone: a notification of a livestream of the FBI press conference as I sat preparing for student conferences.

The notification pierced me immediately in my heart. I had met the parents of Kayla Mueller in Spring 2016 at a conference organized by the Holy See Mission to the United Nations, “Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights: Stopping Mass Atrocities Against Christians and Other Believers.” The Muellers spoke eloquently on the loss of their daughter and on the remarkable relationships Kayla forged with fellow Yazidi prisoners. I spoke on my experiences in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraq among Christian, Yazidi and Shabak-Shia survivors of ISIS genocide in January of that year.

When I met Kayla Mueller’s parents in 2016, they made a deep impact on me as kind, loving, and grieving parents, gentle people through and through who had been horrifically mistreated by US authorities under the Obama administration.

The venue in which we met was new to me. Although I had spoken at the United Nations in December 2015, on the occasion of the inaugural International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime, the 2016 spring conference was being co-sponsored by several faith organizations, including an online ultraconservative advocacy group called CitizenGo that coordinates global petitions against same-sex marriage and against the decriminalization of homosexuality, among other things. It has been implicated in a Trump-linked super PAC that aims to push European citizens to the far right.

As the parent of two trans and queer children, this was clearly not a comfortable space for me. I had to think hard about attending the meeting, since the inherent value of my children as trans and gay was denied by these co-sponsors. I also had to ask myself: Why does the most forceful opposition to genocide so often come from the margins: from religious fundamentalists, on the one hand, and young leftists, on the other?

How should I tell them, I wondered, that hostility towards LGBTQ people was a red flag for genocidal ideology?

I was, however, genuinely honored to be invited to speak by the US-based group In Defense of Christians, which was doing excellent work on raising awareness of ISIS’s crimes and on bringing the suffering of ISIS’s victims to the forefront of American politics.

I also had promised Yazidi, Christian and Kurdish hosts in Iraq that I would do everything possible to bring global attention to ISIS’s genocides. I keep my promises.

As someone working in genocide prevention, I also believe in always leaving lines of communication open, in being willing to work with everyone until it is clear that there is no collective work to be done. Some doors clearly remained closed with this group, but others were clearly open.

There were many reasons to participate and support.

This was spring 2016, months before the fateful US presidential election. I now see the story of Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig as a bridge of sorts between Obama and Trump.

At that time, however, I did not yet understand the depth of the betrayal by the US government of the Mueller family as well as of the families of other captives.

I was still grieving in my own private way for the massive trauma I had witnessed in Iraq a few months prior, when I visited Iraqi Kurdistan and traveled along the secured and unsecured military border between peshmerga forces and ISIS in Sinjar and Nineveh provinces with two colleagues from the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS). We had visited empty and destroyed villages and towns, including the completely flattened Sinjar, and had met with religious leaders, government authorities, parliamentarians, survivors, and refugees. The experience was shattering and uplifting, as we witnessed both the darkness of human evil and the light of human resilience.

In particular, we had met Yazidi women and girls who had survived ISIS captivity, many of whom still had family members, including their little boys, in ISIS captivity. One cannot overstate the severity of the trauma we saw. Two women we met had lost their husbands to ISIS — they had been massacred along with the other men from their village. All that was left of them were photos on the women’s phones. These women’s young daughters had been in captivity with them, and rescued with them, but their little sons were still imprisoned, being beaten, mistreated, and “reeducated” to eventually become an ISIS front-line corps of indoctrinated Yazidi fighters.

The experience of sitting together with these women — of holding space against horror — has never left me. In fact, part of me has never left the tent in which we sat. It has taken up permanent residence in my soul.

At the time, the evening news around the world was full of stories of ISIS depredations against women and girls, including detailed descriptions of sexualized torture in all of its physical, mental, and spiritual forms.

News of Kayla’s treatment had also emerged. For the last months of her life she was held at a high-ranking ISIS official’s house, where she was tortured and used as a sex-slave by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

One thing we saw right away: The world liked to talk about these things in graphic detail, but did not like to show up to help the victims. Survivors themselves noted this to us. Yazidi leaders encouraged rescued captive women to tell their stories in the desperate hope that such openness would lead to international help. It was a radical move, in many ways, given how patriarchal societies usually respond to rape, and it was so resourceful — haven’t we always heard that one of the problems with rape during war and genocide is that women do not talk about it and it languishes in obscurity? Hasn’t the assumption always been that if there were more information and documentation that there would also be more resources?

The Yazidi case has proven that even when victims do talk openly and frankly about some of the worst tortures and atrocities committed during genocide, the world does little to respond. In fact, survivors of ISIS sex slavery and their children languish to this day in under-resourced refugee camps in the KRG where the meager programming for returned Yazidi captives comes mostly from overburdened Kurdish and Yazidi sources. Traumatized women, girls, and boys are simply not on the funding agenda.

Kayla Mueller’s story spoke to me through that dark lens at the time–for she too was a victim of ISIS, tied to the people in Northern Iraq by that fateful, tragic thread. She too was abandoned by the international community.

But I did not yet appreciate that there were other, much more direct links — links to the same sexualized tortures, links to specific Yazidi girl captives, links to the terrible moral choices, the “choiceless choices,” that people face in times of genocide, and links to abandonment and betrayal by the very people who are supposed to rescue you.

Kayla Mueller was a victim of the genocidal darkness that was seething in the heart of American imperial expansion just as much as the Yazidi people were.

So much has happened since spring 2016, in my life and in the life of this country and the world, that it has been some time since I felt overcome by those days. Being overcome by these memories is always traumatic, a mixture of fear, despair, and a desire to disappear into the place of horror, since living in its constant shadow has posed its own uncomfortable difficulties.

So my heart soared a little bit when I heard FBI Director Christopher Wray make the following opening remarks at the press conference:

Not long after these terrorists were captured in 2018, the parents of their American victims wrote the following about their loved ones, and I quote:

“One by one, our children … were taken from us by the hateful criminals of the Islamic State … Jim, Steven, Peter, and Kayla were like so many of your own sons and daughters. They were four unique, passionate young Americans … and all risked their lives pursuing a greater good.”

The families of the victims have suffered the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers. And while their pain may never fully subside, today, with the announcement of this indictment, we’re beginning to bring them the justice they deserve.

But we owe these families more than justice—we owe them our gratitude. And I say that because their advocacy for their loved ones has led to positive changes in how our government supports and partners with victims’ families.

One of those changes was the creation a few years ago of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. This multi-agency team, based at FBI Headquarters, represents our government’s unified approach to recovering American hostages abroad. Its single focus is to bring these hostages home safely and partner with their families in the recovery effort.

A key part of that fusion cell is the Family Engagement Team. That team not only coordinates support to family members of hostages during times of agony and uncertainty—it also supports hostages and families once the crisis is over.

The FBI and our partners are working tirelessly every day to recover all U.S. hostages held abroad, and we won’t rest until we see a similar resolution for justice against all those responsible for holding Americans captive—especially when those captives’ lives are taken.

(Emphasis added)

I had not heard of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell or the Family Engagement Team, both of which were created as a consequence of the failed US response to the ISIS hostage crisis. The fact that there have been efforts to redress the inexcusable wrongs done to the ISIS hostages and their families seemed to speak to a real sense of regret within an institution not known for accountability.

Certainly one of the hopes of the upcoming trials of Kotey and Elsheik is that the Muellers may be able to learn more about Kayla’s fate, which is still leaves many questions unanswered. Hopefully, as well, the trials will begin to shed light on US government actions while Kayla and her three fellow hostages were in ISIS detention. If the trials lead to some account taking by US authorities who have worked to destabilize the Middle East for decades now, and especially since the war in 2003 (which led directly to the rise of ISIS), it will be a miracle. At the very least, the trials will give the US a chance to face our responsibility for terrorism, at home and abroad.

The FBI press conference made predictable political use of the indictments, with a strong message directed to global terrorists stating that they will not get away with kidnapping American nationals. One hopes this indicates a permanent change in US state policy towards negotiating for the release of American captives, since the majority of ISIS captives who were nationals of other countries were ransomed by their governments and hence survived their ordeal. (In June 2015, months after Kayla’s death, President Obama issued an order that would allow for US nationals to organize private ransom payments for their family members without facing prison time, but it still prevented the US government from doing so. President Trump has largely ignored the no negotiations policy during his presidency).

Also predictably, the press conference was used to reinforce a story of the strength of the Trump administration in defending American interests abroad, with particular emphasis on the work of Attorney General William Barr in bringing about this extradition, since it hinged on the US agreeing to drop the possibility of the death penalty.

Naturally, such instrumentalization of justice is par for the course in the war on terror — we in the US have grown used to these simplistic and misleading (though effective) framings. Vice President Pence even invited the Muellers, who have become strong Trump supporters in the years since Kayla’s death, to be his special guests at that evening’s Vice Presidential candidate debate. The Muellers had already attended the 2020 State of the Union address on President Trump’s invitation, where they received a standing ovation from Congress.

None of this official partisanship should compromise the satisfaction that there will finally be very high profile trials against ISIS members who had a direct role in the killing American civilians. None of this should take away in the slightest from our relief that four sets of grieving American parents will see their children’s murderers in court.

But it should complicate the narrative many of us tell ourselves about our present and future.

I have taken an interest in Kayla Mueller since I learned her name at the time of her death in February 2015, when her name was first released by her parents and the media. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, she had traveled globally doing humanitarian work before being kidnapped by ISIS in 2013. She worked with Tibetan refugees in India and in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement and the African Refugee Development Center. A full list of her many humanitarian accomplishments can be found at the “For Kayla” website posted in 2015.

Kayla’s mother told ABC News that Kayla “‘felt suffering in her heart’ and believed she was supposed to help … noting her daughter felt ‘it was what we were just here to do’.”

As with so many other people of conscience, Kayla had felt drawn into the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war and genocide. I could understand this specific connection from my own experience, since the Syrian horror had gripped my mind from the early months of 2011, when a large-scale, nation-wide democratization movement turned to the use of force in wake of genocidal state repression. When I was invited, along with two other genocide scholar colleagues, to visit the Iraqi war zone and witness the suffering of ISIS’s victims, I could never have said no, though our unsecured travels in the region could easily have ended up in ISIS kidnapping as well.

Kayla was working at the time of her abduction with aid organizations in the on the Syrian border. Many readers will already know the story of her abduction and the mystifying, regrettable, unforgivable failure of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to help with her rescue. MSF has defended its actions, though some of the facts presented in its official defense have been questioned by MSF workers who were held captive with her. (For comparison, one can read about the successful rescue attempt made by entrepreneur and publisher of The Atlantic David Bradley on behalf of Clare Gillis, a freelance reporter being held captive in Libya, even though she was not an Atlantic employee).

Kayla’s humanitarianism extended into her ISIS detention. The stories one hears about her from fellow American, European, and Yazidi captives are reminiscent of the stories one hears about Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi concentration camps. Her fellow captives describe her as being very courageous, standing up to ‘Jihadi John’ when he lied to other captives that she had converted to Islam. Later, when she was held along with several very young Yazidi girls, she tried to protect them from al-Baghdadi and other ISIS militants who raped them. She also refused a chance to escape with them because she feared that if she, the American, were to leave with them, their tormenters would work even harder to find them. The Yazidi girls managed to make it to freedom, which is how Kayla’s family learned of her selfless decision.

Kayla Mueller’s parents were gracious enough to share with me a little bit about how they had suffered and how little they had been told by US officials when we spoke briefly alone the day before the UN Conference. Later I began to learn more from the press about how the Obama administration had so coldly refused to negotiate for Mueller’s release and had kept her parents in the dark about so many things; how the US government had missed real opportunities to save Kayla, including an offer by Qatar to negotiate her release; how Kayla’s parents had been threatened with imprisonment by the FBI if they negotiated on behalf of their child; how they had been disrespected by US authorities at every turn, in a way that truly hard to fathom.

The Obama administration defended its actions with reference to the US “no concessions” policy, which had been active since the Nixon administration and had been codified in the US Patriot Act in 2001.

The theory behind the “no concessions” policy is that to pay ransom would be make the world less safe for Americans, as they would become lucrative targets for kidnappers. But this seems more to be an ex post facto rationalization of a policy that has more to do with the toxic masculinity of American imperial hubris.

President Nixon, in establishing the policy in 1973, simply said “we will not pay blackmail” when a Palestinian group demanded ransom for two American diplomats. They were summarily executed a few hours later.

This prompts one to ask: What is a country for if we must sacrifice four singular human beings because ransoming them would pose too many risks to other Americans across our global imperial reach? Why have that country, if nationals must allow other nationals to be tortured and killed — gruesomely, publicly, humiliatingly — as their captors taunt the US president?

The abandonment of Mueller, Foley, Sotloff and Kassig to their fates at the hands of 21st century genocidaires exposed the unbearable coldness of the American empire.

And the group that killed them was the terrible creature that emerges from such a system, in which human life is so easily and cooly sacrificed for masculine hubris and macho theory.

ISIS’s genocidal destruction in Iraq at the time was everywhere apparent and horrific, as it still is now. It was written in the cultural destruction of historic Yazidi, Christian, and Shabak Shia religious structures, among others; it was written in the land carved apart by mass graves; it was written in the bodies and minds and hearts of survivors and rescued captives, who told stories of such searing heartbreak that one sometimes wished to lose consciousness just upon hearing them.

ISIS is one of the greatest tragedies of human history.

ISIS is cruelty embodied.

But, sadly, ISIS is also a creation of US foreign policy in the region — the militarization of Iraq, the support for Saddam Hussein, the failure to defend the Kurds against genocide, the First Gulf War, the sanctions regime, and the illegal 2003 US invasion. ISIS’s supporters in Iraq and much of its leadership were drawn from secular Baathists, Sunnis who had lost their middle class positions after the US war and imperial bungling. Al-Baghdadi was detained in Camp Bucca prison in 2004, the conditions of which have been described by US witnesses as terrifying and humiliating. It was after this detention that Al-Baghdadi joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later became ISIS.

Genocide is a common response to masculine humiliation.

So on Wednesday I was reminded of all these horrors — ISIS, the Obama administration’s continuation of a disastrous foreign policy in the region, the administrative coldness of a state serving no purpose anymore — and I began to feel things I had willfully forgotten about: How angry I was when the USA refused to pay ransom for Mueller, Foley, Sotloff and Kassig, citing policy and precedent. How mystified I felt that our president did not react to ISIS’s taunts and threats with anything but the same florid language and staid, aloof manner that had characterized his strange response to tragedies, which explains, perhaps, his lack of effective response to American suffering and certainly set the stage for the Democrats’ downfall in the elections of 2014 and 2016. How desperate and helpless I felt in the face of my country’s effective indifference to the fates of these four people, well before I could ever have imagined going to Iraq myself, or speaking at the United Nations about the plight of ISIS’s victims, or meeting the Muellers.

I remembered the crass commentators who, in their utter cynicism and lack of reason, tried to place blame on these four people for their own kidnappings because they had bothered to take an interest in the human suffering of the people of Syria, which put them in harm’s way.

Is it any surprise that people were looking for radical change?

Kayla Mueller, though abandoned by her natal country as well as by a Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization, is a role model for youth engagement all over the world. Photographs of her show a radiant, joyous, open face; her blog and video clips of her thoughts well before anyone had heard of ISIS suggest a young woman who was honest and wise well beyond her years. She reminds me of the young people today in Rwanda, Iraq, and the USA who are standing up against this cruel, global ‘business as usual’. They are today’s real pragmatists, for it is their vision only that will save our species from oblivion.

As the story of the Obama administration’s callous and even hostile treatment of hostage families came out, Kayla’s personal sacrifices in the name of humanitarianism stood in stark contrast to a country — the US — that has become unbearably cynical and directionless.

President Trump, though he claimed to be the solution to this imperial hypocrisy, has merely amplified and concentrated it within ever-narrowing goalposts.

This endless quest for power shares far too much overlap with what we know of the internal workings of the ISIS organization that our leaders say they are fighting.

I was thereby forced to meditate on the benighted fall of the American empire, our abandonment of moral reason, our current dark state of affairs, which have been developing over decades, of course, but have been on depressing hyperdrive since 9-11 and especially since the 2003 illegal war of aggression against Iraq.

We can’t even rescue people’s children anymore.

I felt overwhelming fatigue that the announcement of the indictment against Kotey and Elsheik was coming right before this momentous election — though it is no coincidence, I am sure.

How tragic, in my estimation, that a tiny bit of justice should begin for Kayla, James, Peter, and Steven, when thousands of separated migrant and refugee children are being detained across the country, when 8,000 unaccompanied children were just turned away from our southern border, when women have been forcibly sterilized while in ICE and CBP detention, and when ICE an CBP have built up political loyalties and fearsome police powers that make them akin to a presidential guard, ready to disappear or kill other peoples’ children, whether because they are labeled “antifascists,” or because they are of color, or because they are transgender.

When over 200,000 people have died of a pandemic that has been allowed to spread with the same mystifying callousness to the value of human life.

But then again, how appropriate it is that these four young people should perhaps receive a modicum of justice at the very moment when our own society is rising up against our history of genocide and slavery, both of which involved the murder of children and separation of families, and are taking on the impact these crimes have had on our social order and political culture up to the present day!

All these crimes against peoples’ children may not seem connected at first glance, but they are the fruits of a collective global madness driven by a system that relies on greed and the endless quest for power. Endless power, as Hannah Arendt reminded us after the Holocaust, requires endless violence, for, at some point, without the violence there appears to be no power.

Whose children are safe in such a world, I wonder?

As the beautiful soul, Kayla Mueller, said in 2013:

“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 would not let this suffering be normal, become something that we just accept. … It’s really important sometimes to just stop and realize what we have, realize why we have it, realize how privileged we are. And from that place of knowing how blessed we are, start there. And if we start there, we’ll do a lot of good.”

I hope Kayla’s words will inform the younger generations as they struggle to dismantle a system that now pursues power for power’s sake.

For the time being we must content ourselves with focused, isolated successes, which sometimes come from unexpected places. The indictment and extradition of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheik are one of those.

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