Kayla Mueller, standing in front of her Syrian boyfriend in an Islamic State prison, denied she was married to him, foiling his plan to claim she was his wife and free her, the boyfriend said in his first published interview since the aid worker was declared dead by her captors earlier this month.
The 33-year-old photographer and activist identified as Omar Alkhani told the Daily Mail in Britain that he had allowed Mueller to accompany him into Syria on a trip in 2013 despite his misgivings about the danger because she was insistent.
Ultimately, they were both abducted during that trip. After he was later freed, Alkhani returned to the Islamic State militants to beg for her release, he told the newspaper.
The account published late Saturday night comes after The Arizona Republic detailed the couple’s time together in Turkey and Syria, based on interviews with half a dozen friends around the world, a family spokeswoman and U.S. officials. Those interviews detailed the warnings the couple received from aid workers and war correspondents about the risk of going into the country and the boyfriend’s attempts to retrieve Mueller from captivity.
Via online messages, Alkhani had declined to speak with The Republic for the story.
The Republic withheld his name out of caution for his safety. A friend of Alkhani’s had said his name is an assumed identity because of the risk of reporting in Syria.
In the Daily Mail article, Alkhani does not mention whether the name is real or a pseudonym.
Alkhani’s explanation of events mirrors The Republic‘s reporting:
Alkhani said he and Mueller met in Cairo in 2010. They stayed in touch for about two years before moving together to Turkey. She got involved in refugee work. He pursued documenting the conflict through photojournalism and film.
Friends of the couple — Syrian and foreign journalists, as well as aid workers — told Mueller that visiting Syria was too dangerous, The Republic has reported.
But, according to Alkhani’s interview, when he was asked to visit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo to fix the Internet service, Mueller persuaded him to take her along.
The couple rehearsed a safety plan: she would not speak in the taxi on the way there, for fear of alerting others that she was a foreigner. If captured, they would say that they were married.
“Because I am Syrian and not a spy, and she was my wife, they would have let her go,” he told theDaily Mail. ” ‘They won’t harm a Muslim man’s wife,’ ” he said he assured her.
They stayed overnight at the hospital and took a taxi the next morning to a bus station to return to Turkey. On the way, a vehicle began tailing them and forced the taxi off the road, he said.
Masked men with rifles forced the passengers into the van and covered Alkhani’s face.
Soon they were separated at a makeshift prison, according to the Daily Mail interview, where Alkhani was beaten and interrogated. He said he signaled to Mueller with coughing when he was led by her cell.
He was later freed, but Mueller was not.
Soon after, he sought to find the militants holding her, Alkhani said. An Islamic State commander said that he could see a militant judge about the matter.
That led to the moment when Alkhani stood before Mueller, who was covered head to toe by a black abaya robe, according to the report.
“The (prison) judge said she’d denied being my wife and I asked her why she had said this. She was crying and could only say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Alkhani told the Daily Mail.
The judge told Mueller that militants would not harm Alkhani if she told the truth, the boyfriend recalled.
” ‘No, he is not my husband. He is my fiance,’ ” Alkhani said she replied.
Alkhani told the Daily Mail he doesn’t know why she didn’t go along with the ruse.
The family isn’t sure either, a family spokeswoman told The Republic on Friday, but she speculated that Mueller was a “woman of principle” and wouldn’t lie. U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who was in touch with the family since Mueller’s kidnapping and was briefed by the U.S. State Department, provided a similar explanation earlier.
After the reported failed rescue attempt, Alkhani was detained a second time, according to his interview and previous social-media posts. He said he was released after two months.
Mueller’s family announced they had obtained proof of her death Feb. 10.
Alkhani blames himself for allowing Mueller to go with him to Aleppo, he told the Daily Mail.
“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,” he was quoted as saying. “She was the most beautiful thing that happened to my life. We were planning our future together.”
SOURCE: Rebekah L. Sanders
The Arizona Republic