ISIS has released a statement claiming that 26-year-old American Kayla Jean Mueller, the group's only remaining American hostage, was killed by Jordanian airstrikes. That might be true, but we should assume they are lying.
ISIS uses its hostages executions for propaganda purposes. So while ISIS is undoubtedly carrying out brutal murders of innocent hostages, the group's claims about the circumstances of those killings — when they took place, what precipitated them, and what could have averted them — are intended to manipulate. And the group has repeatedly lied in the past.
The propaganda purpose of ISIS's brutal executions
ISIS uses filmed hostage executions and other atrocities as a tool to increase its political power. "By publicizing its brutality," a recent UN report concluded, "the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology."
This latest claim is no exception. ISIS released a statement on February 6 saying that Mueller, a 26-year-old Arizona woman who had been doing aid work in Syria, had been killed this week during Jordanian airstrikes on the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. ISIS claimed that "The failed Jordanian aircraft killed an American female hostage," and "no mujahid was injured in the bombardment, and all praise is due to Allah."
The intended message was clear. The statement was supposed to convey that ISIS is invincible, and that the Jordanian airstrikes, which were intended to avenge the death of a previous hostage, Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, had only succeeded in killing another prisoner. It may also have been intended to split the US-led coalition by implying that Jordan had been responsible for the death of an American.
Don't believe all of ISIS's claims
It's possible that ISIS's claims about the circumstances of the young woman's death are true. But they have not released any proof, and their statement is so carefully tailored to the group's propaganda message that it lacks credibility. In that regard, it's of a piece with the group's actions in the past.
For one thing, it is awfully convenient that Jordanian airstrikes would have only killed the American hostage, but not a single ISIS fighter (the "mujahid" referenced in the statement). Furthermore, ISIS has a well-established track record of releasing photographs and videos of its dead hostages. If she had indeed been killed in the airstrikes, they would presumably have released images proving that.
ISIS also has a track record of lying about the timing of its hostage executions. In January the group engaged in weeks of negotiations with the Jordanian government for Kasasbeh's release, but failed to produce proof that he was still alive. Although ISIS did not publish its footage of Kasasbeh's death until February 3, the Jordanian government believes that he was murdered a month earlier.
Those lies are not just manipulative, they are cruel. They prolong the pain of the hostages' families. ISIS's continued demands and bad-faith negotiations offer the illusion that something can be done to save their loved ones, when in fact all has already been lost. Kasasbeh's widow, for instance, apparently held out hope that negotiations would succeed, and only learned of his death when it was reported on the news.
As of now, the young American hostage's death has not been confirmed. But the sad truth is that if she is dead, that may have happened long before Jordan's airstrikes even began.