ABC News' 20/20 sets record straight on Kayla Mueller's witness to her Christian faith

The story of Kayla Mueller, a 25-year-old American aid worker in Turkey whose quick trip over the Syrian border to Aleppo in August 2013 turned into a hellish captivity ending with her death in February 2015, got new life last week when ABC News' 20/20 ran an hour-long special: "The Girl Left Behind."

We've reported on how the network, which has been following Mueller’s story for years, has sounded confused as to whether Kayla's faith played a role at all in her travails. Now, the ABC team has come up with many new details about her captivity, including a tortuous final year where she was forcibly “married” to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. even though she had not converted to Islam, as has been alleged before. Plus, it appears that she stood up to the notorious “Jihadi John” at publicly professed her Christian faith.

ABC went out of its way to emphasize the latter with this headline to their story: “Kayla Mueller in captivity: Courage, selflessness as she defended Christian faith to ISIS executioner ‘Jihadi John.’ Here is how the written summary begins:

American hostage Kayla Mueller was tortured, verbally abused, forced into slave labor for ISIS commanders in Syria and raped by the group's top leader, but her fellow hostages say she never surrendered hope, she selflessly put the welfare of fellow captives above her own and she even stood up to executioner "Jihadi John" to defend her Christian faith.
Four former hostages who shared cells with Mueller, speaking publicly for the first time about their shared ordeal for ABC News' "20/20" broadcast, "The Girl Left Behind," airing Friday, say the Prescott, Arizona, humanitarian aid worker was a courageous 25-year-old who inspired them.

The report, narrated by investigative correspondent Brian Ross, had come up with lots of new details and new video (see above) about her 18 months of captivity.

Their ISIS guards were overseen by the British tough Mohammed Emwazi, who would later be dubbed Jihadi John, as he carried out the beheadings and killings of 10 hostages. The Londoner led three other Britons who oversaw the hostage operation. Their prisoners called them "The Beatles."
In March 2014, Mueller was taken to a room next door several times where male hostages were being held. Former hostages said Emwazi paraded her in front of them to show prisoners about to be released who she was and to offer her own proof-of-life by removing her head scarf and briefly introducing herself.
Former hostage Daniel Rye Ottosen, a Danish freelance photographer, recalled how Mueller turned the tables on the men in black.
"One of the Beatles started to say, 'Oh, this is Kayla, and she has been held all by herself. And she is much stronger than you guys. And she's much smarter. She converted to Islam.' And then she was like, 'No, I didn't,'" Ottosen told ABC News.

The network came up with lots of other new details, such as how she was sold down the river by the aid group Doctors Without Borders; how the FBI bungled negotiations for her release and –- when it was clear that a ransom payment was the only way Kayla was going to live -– the U.S. government threatened the parents with jail time if they tried going that route. As a result, their daughter died.

ABC had already reported a year ago that Kayla Mueller had been raped repeatedly by Al-Baghdadi, but neither in that piece nor in Friday’s special did they explain the theological reasoning behind this.

Traditional Muslims will, of course, argue about the doctrinal details. However, it is clear that in the ISIS view of Islam, non-Muslim women –- aka infidels -– are candidates for rape and Islamic State leaders teach that the Quran says that women who are prisoners of war can be forced to have sex with their captors. This is the same theology that has meant misery for thousands of Yazidi women who have been sex slaves for ISIS. 

I watched the hour-long program and what was said there differs somewhat from the written text on ABC’s site.

There are other references to religion: The mother talked about how she was “asking God for a miracle” after the months of her daughter’s captivity dragged on. The mother also spoke on behalf of religious freedom during a speech at the United Nations after Kayla's death. ISIS had thought Kayla Mueller to be a spy, so one way they tortured her, the program revealed, was to pull her fingernails out.

Then, somehow, her status seemed to change. Maybe that was after Al-Baghdadi began using her. There was a lot more said about how Kayla’s captors said again and again they were willing to negotiate a ransom; that she was considered a “guest,” which meant they would not automatically kill her.

Again, it would have helped if ABC had explained how the status of “guest” in Islam means that one is protected. By the end of the program, you were left convinced that here is a young woman who could have been rescued or at least ransomed, but that betrayal, missteps and bungling by Doctors Without Borders and the U.S. government led to her death.

ABC is to be congratulated with correcting the record on Kayla’s faith background, which had been murky before this broadcast. This highlighting of her fight to the finish is crucial, with her insistence that she’d not given up her Christian faith adding a key detail that deserved this strong emphasis. Fortunately, 20/20 picked up that ball and ran with it well.

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