iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- ISIS's official news agency claimed Tuesday that its senior leader and top spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani has been killed in Aleppo, Syria, but it did not detail the circumstances of his death. The Pentagon later confirmed that coalition airstrikes on Tuesday had targeted al-Adnani but that the results of the airstrike are still being determined.
The Amaq News Agency, affiliated with ISIS, first posted news of al-Adnani's death in a social media posting on Tuesday.
"#Breaking Military source to #AmaqAgency: Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesman of the Islamic State, was martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against #Aleppo," read an English translation of the post from SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremists on the internet.
Later on Tuesday the Pentagon confirmed that an airstrike had targeted al Adnani earlier in the day.
"Today coalition forces conducted a precision strike near Al Bab, Syria, targeting Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, one of ISIL's most senior leaders," said Peter Cook, the Pentagon Press Secretary, in a statement Tuesday. ISIL is another acronym used to describe ISIS.
"We are still assessing the results of the strike, but Al-Adnani's removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to ISIL" said Cook who described al-Adnani as the "principal architect of ISIL's external operations" in addition to his prominence as the group's top spokesman.
"He has coordinated the movement of ISIL fighters, directly encouraged lone-wolf attacks on civilians and members of the military and actively recruited new ISIL members," said Cook. The U.S. military will continue to prioritize and relentlessly target ISIL leaders and external plotters in order to defend our homeland, our allies and our partners, while we continue to gather momentum in destroying ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and combat its metastases around the world."
Al Adnani's stature in the terror organization was so important that only top ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ranked higher in importance.
Because of his high rank within the ISIS organization, the U.S. Department of State's Rewards for Justice program had placed a $5 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.
"Al-Adnani is ISIL’s main conduit for the dissemination of official messages, including ISIL’s declaration of the creation of an Islamic Caliphate," reads the program's website of al-Adnani, born in Syria in 1977. "Al-Adnani was one of the first foreign fighters to oppose Coalition Forces in Iraq before becoming ISIL’s spokesman."
In September, 2014 al-Adnani released an audio recording where he called on ISIS sympathizers in the western world. That message has been seen as an inspiration to lone-wolve attacks that have occurred in the United States and France. A U.S.official tied several high-profile ISIS attacks outside of Syria and Iraq to al Adnani's role as the head of external operations.
"Significant operations carried out on his watch include the Paris attacks, the Brussels airport attack, the Istanbul airport attack, the downing of the Russian airliner in the Sinai, the suicide bombings during a rally in Ankara, and the attack on a café in Bangladesh" said the official. "In total, these attacks killed over 1,800 people, and wounded nearly 4,000. Al-Adnani was a legacy AQI member, a Shura council member, and the most publicly recognizable official in ISIL."
"If confirmed, this is a very significant blow for ISIL, and will degrade its ability to direct and inspire terror attacks on the West," said the official.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released the following statement following reports of al-Adnani's death:
“If the death of Abu al-Adnani is confirmed, it would be a significant blow to ISIS at a time when they are on retreat on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal), the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in a statement. "Al-Adnani has long been one of the most highly targeted ISIS figures due to his responsibility for external operations, his prominent role as an ISIS spokesman, and his advocacy of lone wolf attacks in the West."
The initial post from Amaq stated that al-Adnani had been killed in Aleppo, but provided no details on how he had died. If al-Adnani died in an airstrike it would also be unclear if he was killed in a targeted strike or of happenstance from an airstrike targeting an ISIS position.
Russian and Syrian regime aircraft conduct airstrikes in the city of Aleppo, but U.S. military aircraft do not fly over the city because U.S. military officials say there is not a large ISIS presence there.
However, American military aircraft conduct airstrikes in eastern Aleppo province that stretches east of the Euphrates River. Recently American airstrikes there have helped with offensives that have retaken the ISIS-held cities of Manbij and Jarabulus.
Obtained by ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- A Pennsylvania woman held by the Taliban since 2012 appeared in a new video posted online Tuesday, looking dazed but healthy with her Canadian husband and saying their captors will kill the couple if the Afghanistan government doesn't stop executing militant prisoners.
The 2 1/2-minute video with Caitlan Coleman, 30, of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, 33, is the first glimpse of the couple since 2014, when her parents released two short video clips of them speaking in captivity.
"We have been told that the Afghan government has executed some of their prisoners of these men that are holding us, and that our captors are frightened of the idea of further executions and further death, and that because of their fear they are willing to kill us, willing to kill women, to kill children, to kill whomever in order to get these policies reversed or to take revenge," Coleman says in a slow, halting voice, almost never raising her gaze from the floor.
Dressed in a black dress and head covering, with her left hand holding what appears to be an earpiece to the side of her face, Coleman speaks directly to her parents and says she knows it is "terrifying and horrifying" for them to hear that she might be executed herself. A counterterrorism analyst studying the video said Coleman and Boyle appeared "out of it."
Near the end of her short statement, as she asks for their help, the video camera light illuminating the couple switches off suddenly.
"So, if you are willing, if you are able to do anything to help," Coleman tells her family, just as the light plunges the couple into a dark shadow and she looks up into the lens for a moment, "if you could, please try to help stop this depravity."
Last month, Jim and Lyn Coleman revealed that they had received a letter from their daughter in November through a neutral party. Caitlan, who was pregnant when she and Boyle went missing during a trip to Ghazni, Afghanistan, four years ago, told her parents in the letter that she'd had a second son born to her, according to the Colemans. The parents also made a video addressed directly to new Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada.
"Thank you for sharing such wonderful news. These blessings brought us great joy," James Coleman said in the video made last June at the family's home. "Such news has also brought us great sorrow. We desperately want to be with our daughter and hold our grandsons, who we long to meet and care for."
Caitlan Coleman has been suspected of being in the custody of the Afghan Taliban's Haqqani network, which has fought U.S. forces in a lethal insurgency along the border with Pakistan while also operating a lucrative kidnapping for ransom business in both countries. Two years ago, the Obama administration carried out a controversial prisoner swap of five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner of the Haqqanis for five years.
But the Coleman family in rural Pennsylvania has not received any demands for ransom since her disappearance. Senior counterterrorism officials tell ABC News that Coleman is being held as a hostage against her will and efforts have been made to secure freedom for the young mom and her kids.
The video released Tuesday is suspected by counterterrorism officials to be linked to a recent kidnapping, likely by the Haqqani network, of two people including an American in the capital Kabul a few weeks ago. Both incidents are assessed to possibly be in retaliation for the recent death sentence given to Haqqani Network leader Siraj Haqqani's brother Anas. Siraj Haqqani also serves as one of the deputy emirs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban call their shadow government.
"The Haqqanis are ticked off," a counterterrorism official familiar with hostage recovery operations told ABC News.
"Our captors are terrified of the thought of their own mortality approaching, and are saying that they will take reprisals on our family," Boyle says in the new video. "They will execute us, women and children included, if the policies of the Afghan government are not overturned. ... And therefore we ask Canada and the United States to change the policies of the Afghan government so that our captors do not have to face the fear of execution in the future, and that we will -- our family -- will be able to live safely."
State Department spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that American officials "remain concerned obviously about the welfare of Caitlan and her family, and we continue to urge immediate release on humanitarian grounds."
iStock/Thinkstock(ZELENCHUKSKAYA, Russia) -- News of a possible extra-terrestrial signal detection sent social media into a frenzy this week, but scientists remain skeptical that the signal picked up by a Russian radio telescope actually indicates alien life.
Paul Gilster reported on Saturday of a "strong signal" from the direction of HD164595, a star about 95 light years away from Earth in the constellation Hercules, on his respected deep space exploration blog.
The signal was actually picked up in May of 2015 by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, according to Gilster. But it wasn't until last week that researchers circulated a paper about the signal.
"No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study," Gilster wrote for Centauri Dreams.
Based on the strength of the signal, "researchers say that if it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization," Gilster noted, referring to a type of beacon that transmits in all directions, with the intent, in theory, of making contact with alien civilizations.
The Kardashev scale measures how technologically advanced a civilization is, and Kardashev Type II ranking would indicate the civilization is more advanced than our own. News of the promising signal sent social media into a tizzy.
The discovery is scheduled to be discussed at a meeting during the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sept. 27, Gilster added.
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, told ABC News Tuesday that the institute was investigating the signal with its Allen Telescope Array in northern California, and had swung it in the direction of HD164595 on Aug. 28 but did not detect any signal.
Shostak said he has no idea why it is only being reported on now. "Total supposition, but it could be they may have thought they just saw it once so they won't get too excited. That's me guessing," Shostak said.
Shostak added on the institute's website that it was unusual that this kind of discovery would not be shared immediately with the scientific community.
"One particularly noteworthy thing about this discovery is the fact that the signal was apparently observed in May, 2015 (it seems that this was the only time in 39 tries that they saw this signal). The discoverers didn’t alert the SETI community to this find until now, which is not as expected," Shostak wrote. "According to both practice and protocol, if a signal seems to be of deliberate and extraterrestrial origin, one of the first things to do is to get others to attempt confirming observations. That was not done in this case."
Shostak said that the institute is still looking into the signal, but that he does not think it is a significant discovery.
"We looked again at the source last night using our antennas, the Allen Telescope Array, and nothing," Shostak told ABC News. "The Russians themselves looked 39 times and only saw it once."
Shostak added that there is a long list of other possibilities that could have caused the signal.
"It could have been a military or a commercial aircraft with radar," Shostak said, "or telecommunication satellites. The laundry list for things that could fool you is not very short."
"I think the fact that we didn't find it last night has me convinced that this is not a significant discovery," Shostak said. "If you find the cure for cancer but you only cure one patient, then you would not say you have found the cure for cancer."
MSF(TRIPOLI, Libya) -- Twins who were only five days old and born prematurely were among the thousands of migrants who were rescued on Monday in the Mediterranean, according to a humanitarian group.
The mother was traveling alone with her two infant boys. One of the babies was sick -- he was vomiting and had a dangerously low body temperature, according to Doctors Without Borders, an international nonprofit agency also known by its French acronym, MSF.
"After a first triage, our medical team decided to request an evacuation due to the fact that his health was so fragile that he would not have survived the long journey to Italy in our boat. We transferred both mother and twins to another vessel that could evacuate them to shore,” Antonia Zemp, medical team leader with Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement.
Around 6,500 migrants were rescued on Monday in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya's coast in 40 rescue operations, according to the Italian coastguard, making it one of the largest numbers of people rescued in a single day. Doctors Without Borders assisted in rescues of 3,000 people in one day, among them the twins and their mother, the group said.
People who were rescued and treated were experiencing health issues such as bloody diarrhea, dehydration, fever, hypothermia, skin diseases and exhaustion, according to Doctors Without Borders. One boat called Dignity I, carried 435 people -- among them 92 unaccompanied minors and 13 children under the age of 5.
Last year, more than 1 million migrants, many fleeing the war in Syria, arrived in Europe, igniting an unprecedented migration crisis. In 2015 and in the first half of 2016, over 6,600 refugees and migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean after their boats capsized while trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many of the bodies have not been identified, and families at home might never find out what happened to their loved ones, according to a new report by the IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Center in Berlin, the University of York and the City University London.
“Behind the visible catastrophe of shipwrecks and deaths in the Mediterranean is an invisible catastrophe in which bodies are found and not enough is done to identify them and inform their families,” Dr. Simon Robins, lead author of the report and a senior research fellow at the Center for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, said in a statement.
“This is devastating for their families back home. They likened it to a form of torture where they are caught between hope and despair, not knowing whether they would ever see their loved one again, not knowing if they should give up hope and focus on the rest of their lives," Robins added.
iStock/Thinkstock(HAVANA) -- The first scheduled U.S. commercial flight to Cuba in more than 50 years takes off this week.
The JetBlue flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara, Cuba, departs Wednesday morning. The new flights make it easier than ever to get to the Communist-run island.
Here is everything you need to know about making the trip. How Do I Get There?
Book a flight or take a cruise.
JetBlue will eventually offer seven daily flights between the two countries.
Overall, 90 daily round-trip flights will pick up slowly over the next few months to nine different Cuban cities, for which six U.S. airlines were initially approved. American Airlines, which has facilitated charter flights to Cuba for years, begins its scheduled service Sept. 7.
And while dates for the start of the 20-daily round-trip flights from the United States to Havana have yet to be set, the U.S. government has now approved 10 total airlines for those flights, but Cuba must sign off.
Charter service is also still available, so if you have your heart set on the capital city, you can still fly there directly. It just may cost more.
After all the approvals are in place, 10 U.S. airlines will travel to 10 Cuban cities from 13 U.S. cities.
But if flying isn’t your thing, cruise on over to the island, only 90 miles away from Florida.
Carnival Cruise Line launched its first trip to the island earlier this summer. Fathom cruise line’s seven-day trips take you to Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
And ferry service is also in the works, meaning travelers would be able to make the quick hop from Florida for day trips.
Can I Go as a Tourist?
No, you still cannot travel to Cuba as a tourist. That means no “sun-and-sand” vacations to those white sand beaches.
In order to go to Cuba, you must verify that you meet one of the 12 pre-approved categories allowed by the U.S. government. This includes family visits and research, journalistic, religious or educational activities.
The most common form of travel is “people-to people.” That is a term for cultural exchanges: meeting the Cuban people in their everyday life, seeing schools or community projects and museums, maybe even take in a favorite Cuban (and American) pastime, baseball. But you must keep records of your activities while there.
You used to have to do this as part of a tour group, but President Obama changed that requirement earlier this year. And pre-approval is no longer necessary from the U.S. government.
“That’s why we’re encouraging travel -- which will build bridges between our people, and bring more revenue to those Cuban small businesses,” Obama said while traveling in Cuba earlier this year.
Do I Need a Visa?
You do need a Cuban visa to visit. But Cuba does not issue visas that match perfectly the requirements of the 12-categories approved by the U.S. government for travel.
That means if you are traveling for a “people-to-people” cultural exchange, you would still get a tourist visa from Cuba.
The Cuban government issues five main types of visas -- family, press, business, tourist and “other” -- that include student or event visas.
If you travel via air and fall into one of the categories for a Cuban Tourist Visa, like a “people-to-people” trip, airlines are making it possible to purchase directly from them at the airport. Such requests don’t need to be made in advance and you can work through the charter companies or airlines, the Cuban embassy told ABC News.
It is best to check with your airline or cruise ship, though, and make sure they will provide this at time of booking. Where Do I Stay?
Cuba has roughly 60,000 hotel rooms, which is below the number of visitors they host.
Starwood announced a deal earlier this year to become the first U.S. hotel chain to operate on the island in decades. Their first Havana location, Four Points by Sheraton, opened in June at the former site of the Hotel Quinta Avenida in the Miramar District.
Starwood plans to convert two other Cuban hotels into its property brands.
Another popular option is to stay at what is known as “Casa Particulares,” which are similar to a bed and breakfast.
Airbnb has partnered with many home owners as a way to make it easier for Americans — and other travelers — to book stays on the island.
Tourism in Cuba is still growing; a nearly 12 percent increase in the first half of 2016 when compared to the same time last year.
What About the Embargo?
That is still in effect, and don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
Obama called on Congress to lift the embargo when he was in Cuba earlier this year, going so far as to say, "The embargo’s going to end. When, I can’t be entirely sure."
And “when” still remains the big question.
Can I Bring Back Cigars?
Yeah, we know! You just want to go to Cuba to try those famous cigars and rum. And while in Cuba enjoy it. But what you can bring back still faces limits.
You can only return “with up to $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco or a combination of both,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
You can bring back other mementos from your trip but no more than $400, according to CBP.
Don’t Forget Your Cash
Major credit cards like Amex and MasterCard are approved for use in Cuba. But that doesn’t mean you should plan on using them. Most Cuban businesses aren’t prepared or set up to accept them.
The U.S. Embassy reminds all citizens traveling to “arrive with enough cash to last you through the end of your trip.”
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Tasmanian devils are evolving genetic resistance to a contagious and deadly cancer that's been pushing the endangered species to the brink of extinction, an international team of scientists has found.
Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), a nearly 100 percent fatal cancer first detected 20 years ago, has wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the Australian marsupials, according to a news release from Washington State University.
Because Tasmanian devils often display aggression by biting each other's faces, DFTD -- one of only three known transmissible cancers -- is easily spread among the animals, WSU said.
But now, scientists mining a vast trove of devil DNA have discovered that two regions in Tasmanian devils' genomes are changing in response to the rapid spread of the cancer.
"Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease," Andrew Storfer, a professor of biology at WSU and one of the study's authors, said in the news release.
Storfer said that he, along with other researchers in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, are hopeful they can soon breed DTFD-resistant devils to enhance the genetic diversity of an off-island captive insurance population.
He added that the genomic data could also be ultimately used to "help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and reoccurrence in cancer and other diseases."
Storfer and his colleagues' findings were published in the scientific journal Nature Communications on Tuesday.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon is calling on Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies to stop fighting America’s Syrian Kurdish allies in northern Syrian because it is taking attention away from the fight against ISIS.
The United States has called on Turkey to “stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not to engage Syrian defense forces,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a Pentagon news conference Monday, using an alternate name for ISIS.
He said there had been various senior-level contacts in recent days with Turkey to make that point and that he would do the same in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart next week.
Last week’s Turkish offensive that captured the ISIS-held border town of Jarabulus has resulted in a chaotic situation where various Syrian and Kurdish rebel groups supported and trained by the United States have clashed in battle because of pre-existing animosities.
The Turkish force that retook Jarabulus also includes a Syrian rebel force previously trained by the Pentagon to fight ISIS. They have pushed south of Jarabulus to take on Kurdish fighters aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces who have pushed north from the recently captured city of Manbij.
“We call on both sides to not fight with one another to continue to focus the fight on ISIL that’s the basis of our cooperation with both of them,” Carter said.
The push south of Jarabulus by Turkey and its rebel allies seems intended to prevent Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces from pushing northward and creating a Kurdish buffer zone along the border with Turkey.
In its fight against ISIS, the United States has had to walk the fine line of training, advising and assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has become its strongest partner in the fight against ISIS in eastern and northern Syria, while giving strong concern to Turkish concerns about the group.
A large number of the Syrian Democratic Forces come from what is known as the YPG, an acronym for Self Protection Units in Kurdish, a group that Turkey says is aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that conducts terrorist attacks inside Turkey.
An earlier statement Monday from Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary, called the fighting south of Jarabulus “unacceptable” and labeled them “a source of deep concern.”
“This is an already crowded battle space,” Cook said. “Accordingly, we are calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to de-conflict.”
Carter said one of the things the United States is talking to Turkey about is clarifying where different elements of the SDF are in the area, particularly those belonging to the YPG.
“We do understand that they have historical differences with one another, but American interests are quite clear we, like they, want to combat ISIL,” Carter said. “We’re calling on all involved, let’s keep our priorities clear in helping them to de-conflict, so to speak on the battlefield.”
Carter called on the Turks to keep prior commitments that they would not engage the Syrian Democratic Forces and remain only north and west of Jarabulus. He called on the Syrian Kurds to keep their commitment that they would move east back across the Euphrates once the Manbij operation is fully over.
The Kurds are moving across the Euphrates, according to Carter.
“They are doing that, yes,” he said. “But that’s the understanding we have with them and we want to make sure that they continue that commitment.”
Mueller Family(NEW YORK) -- Even after a failed U.S. Special Forces hostage rescue mission in Syria, the launch of hundreds of coalition airstrikes and the subsequent video beheadings of three hostages, ISIS offered hope to Carl and Marsha Mueller that made them believe paying a ransom could still bring their captive daughter Kayla home, emails from the family's negotiations show.
But a former senior FBI agent told ABC News that U.S. government negotiators missed the likely final opportunity to free the last American in captivity for ransom almost two years ago, which ISIS said was "still a possibility" in its last email to her parents before her death.
"I think the Muellers have a right to be upset," said retired FBI chief hostage negotiator Chris Voss, who reviewed 27 emails exchanged between ISIS and Kayla Mueller's parents for ABC News' "20/20."
Numerous Obama administration officials were perceived by some families, including the Muellers, as threatening them with prosecution for "material support to terrorism" if they paid ISIS a ransom, so none attempted to. All of the other American hostages were eventually killed by ISIS. The U.S. confirmed Mueller's death in ISIS hands in 2015. ISIS claimed that she died in a Jordanian airstrike, but the exact cause remains a mystery.
"I think they put a lot of faith in the United States government helping them, and there were some people from the government that tried very hard to help them and did their absolute best. And there were some that just didn't know any better, didn't know what they were doing, and so instead of moving the ball forward, they threatened them," Voss said in an interview.
On Sept. 19, 2014, ISIS sent the Muellers an email which reassured them their daughter had not been executed on her 26th birthday, Aug. 14, as the hostage-takers had threatened would happen after a 30-day countdown to pay.
"Kayla's safe release Is [sic] still a possibility considering our demands are met!" ISIS told the Muellers. "These demands are very straight forward and could have easily been achievable a long time ago had it not been for the stubbornness of your government!"
But U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets, which had begun Aug. 8, 2014, in northern Iraq, expanded dramatically on Sept. 22 in a blitz across Syria. The hostage-takers never replied to the Muellers' emailed pleas again until she was publicly reported dead by her captors the following year.
Asked last week why the U.S. expanded airstrikes in 2014 with almost a dozen western hostages still in the hands of ISIS, a senior administration official told ABC News, "The U.S. didn’t have any great choices here. No matter what we did, there would be a price to pay.”
The final message from ISIS to the hostage's family was among the nine emails the Muellers received from the terrorists -- more than any other hostage's family -- and which they provided to ABC News. The Muellers' 18 emails were primarily written by FBI hostage negotiators. A selection of the emails is posted here.
The Muellers told ABC News that their FBI hostage negotiation team promised to help them make a genuine ransom offer for their daughter's life with messages sent from the family email account used to communicate with the hostage-takers, in Carl Mueller's name. But the emails sent to ISIS obtained by ABC News contain no offer in exchange for her release.
“Carl would say we need to make an offer, and then the [FBI-authored] email would not have anything about an offer in it,” Marsha Mueller told ABC News.
“We were like sheep. We were following what the government told us to do. We had no idea,” Kayla’s father Carl Mueller said in the couple's interview for ABC News' "20/20” segment, “The Girl Left Behind.”
Some counterterrorism officials have told ABC News that the FBI has quietly helped American families negotiate and facilitate the payment of ransom to other terrorist groups since 9/11 in order to recover loved ones held hostage.
Not making a ransom offer to ISIS -- which would have been, in fact, legally allowable under a Bush-era presidential directive -- was the biggest missed opportunity to free Kayla, said Voss, the retired FBI agent.
“There is an exception. And it's when you have the possibility, a reasonable outcome of retrieving the ransom. And of bringing the terrorists to justice. And it's been done in the past,” Voss said. “As far as I know they [Kayla's parents] were never allowed to... They were told if they made any sort of an offer they’d be prosecuted, which is unconscionable.”
Citing classification and privacy concerns, FBI and Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell officials declined to comment about the Kayla Mueller hostage negotiation or about the White House order containing the legal exception which allowed payments as part of a lure with a reasonable chance of denying the hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, National Security Presidential Directive-12.
But a former senior White House official involved in the hostage crisis in 2014 told ABC News there was no way to justify paying ransom to a group like ISIS operating in lawless Syria, where money could not easily be traced.
"The National Security Council and FBI, Department of Justice and Department of Defense carefully considered options to capture the hostage-takers in conjunction with an exchange but none of the options were judged viable," retired Army Col. Mark Mitchell told ABC News last week.
A Green Beret who earned the nation's second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, in Afghanistan, Mitchell has acknowledged publicly that as counterterrorism director in the Obama NSC, hostages' family members such as journalist James Foley's parents have accused him of threatening that anyone who paid ransom would land in a federal prison.
Mitchell denied doing anything more than stating U.S. law to the families but his past comments in those White House meetings have been privately disavowed as inappropriate by some senior administration officials since 2014. The Muellers say Mitchell was one of many Obama administration officials who warned that their donors could be prosecuted and they do not fault him for their inability to raise a ransom fund.
It was almost a year after Kayla was kidnapped on Aug. 4, 2013 before Carl and Marsha Mueller were even able to learn the identity of the hostage-takers as ISIS, much less start negotiating with them.
Though a 10-second proof-of-life video of Kayla by then-unknown hostage-takers was received by her family a few weeks after her abduction in Aleppo, Syria, after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in a marked vehicle from the medical aid group, her parents weren’t able to begin negotiations for their daughter’s release until May 23, 2014. That was the date Doctors Without Borders turned over to Carl and Marsha Mueller an ISIS email address brought out of Syria seven weeks earlier by three of their aid workers who had been held hostage with the young American. ISIS had ordered the women to memorize the email address and to use it to negotiate for Kayla.
But ISIS reached out to the Muellers first -- only hours after the family received the contact information from Doctors Without Borders.
“This message is to inform you that we have the American citizen, Kayla Jean Mueller PRISONER. We don’t want to harm her. She’s like a guest with us at the moment,” the email read. The Muellers were told they could ask three questions only their daughter could answer, to prove she was still alive and in their custody, which ISIS quickly provided:
How did you get the stitches in your eyebrow as a child? Answer: Her older brother Eric was pulling her in a wagon and it tipped over and she fell on her head onto a small rock.
What did you teach your niece to say? Music is______? Answer: Music is Everywhere
What is your friend Moe’s real name? Answer: Her name is Monica and she is a kinder garden friend.
Kayla was still alive, her elated parents concluded.
The kidnappers demanded the release of convicted terrorist operative Aafia Siddiqui or 5 million euros. They said there should be “NO MEDIA EXPOSURE WHAT SO EVER!” Anything less and they’d put a bullet in Kayla’s head, they wrote.
But Voss says the FBI negotiators missed an important opportunity to make Kayla safer from the start, by failing to exploit the cultural importance of guests in Muslim countries.
“This is something huge that they missed, because they should have responded with, ‘No, she's not like a guest. She is a guest and she is your responsibility as a guest',” he said.
The kidnappers also sent an audio of her voice.
”Mom and Dad, I still am remaining healthy. You should have already received the three answers to the proof life questions you provided,” Kayla said, still sounding strong.
The negotiation drama for Kayla played out over the next four months, from May to September 2014, amid an astounding chain of events with potential impact on all the western captives, who included nine journalists and aid workers.
Mosul fell in June and ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was freed in a Qatar-arranged swap for five Taliban detainees, a Special Forces operation in July to free the western hostages came up empty near Raqqa, Syria, the U.S. began bombing ISIS across Syria and Iraq, and beginning Aug. 19 James Foley, Steven Sotloff and a British hostage were beheaded on video by an English-speaking executioner in retaliation for ISIS being bombed by coalition warplanes.
Throughout this turmoil, however, the Muellers received nine emails from ISIS and in reply they sent 18 email pleas for their daughter’s life composed mostly by a team of FBI hostage negotiators with access to the family’s email account. No other American hostage’s family is known to have received so many emails from ISIS.
But the FBI repeatedly failed to leverage the discussion in a way to get Kayla home, said Voss, who is respected by many government insiders for his success as a senior agent formerly in charge of operations such as hostage recovery for the FBI in Iraq.
“I know that there are some very talented hostage negotiators in the FBI that knew what they were doing. I see no evidence of their voices in these emails,” he said.
The communications quickly deteriorated as the FBI wrote lengthy email after email begging for time to raise a ransom and with the father complaining about money troubles that only seemed to increasingly anger the hostage-takers, who Voss said had little time for page-long family pleas to spare Kayla.
“Kayla may not know that I retired this January,” an FBI-composed email from Carl Mueller explained on June 2, adding that after selling their auto repair shop the family had “limited resources.” ISIS told him to go back to work to earn money for the ransom demand.
“From this point on you will only speak about the objectives, SO NO MORE SENTIMENTAL SOB STORIES!” the hostage-takers responded.
The correct use of an American phrase suggested it was a western jihadi writing the messages, Voss said.
"'Sentimental sob stories' is a phrase that will only come from certain cultures," he said. "You begin to develop a cultural profile of who you're dealing with, because ultimately you want to track these guys down."
The FBI kept sending messages from the Muellers pleading for time. Carl Mueller began to suspect that the FBI was merely stalling with no intention of actually negotiating Kayla's release, and thereby angering ISIS.
In apparent frustration, ISIS sent an email that told her parents they wanted to know if the Muellers had “reached a SIGNIFICANT BENCHMARK with regards to the amount of CASH you have raised from the demanded sum.”
The FBI made no cash offer and instead had Mueller simply plead for more time and complain that the U.S. government wasn't helping.
“At one point I even said to the [FBI] team, I said if I got this email back I would be really mad,” Mueller told ABC News.
There were reasons for initially stalling including an unprecedented Joint Special Operations Command raid being planned for almost two months, held up for weeks before approval by the administration and by U.S. Central Command, current and former officials told ABC News. It culminated in an entire squadron from the Army's special mission unit Delta Force raiding a "desert pipeline prison" south of Raqqa over the weekend of July 4th.
But it was a "dry hole," a source said at the time -- the hostages had been relocated a few days earlier without overhead surveillance spotting the move.
"Yes, there was a period of deliberation I remember," a senior administration official told ABC News last week. "The intel wasn’t rock solid. It was compelling."
Assets had to be moved into the region, hundreds of operators were involved. A diversionary attack was launched nearby to draw fighters away from the prison site. It was also close to Damascus and the Assad forces had air defenses, the official recalled.
“We were working very hard to find the hostages. But after the July 4th raid, the trail ran cold," the senior official said.
On July 12, 2014, a week after the still-secret U.S. raid failed to rescue Kayla and the others, the hostage-takers’ tone grew suddenly more hostile in an email giving the Muellers 30 days to pay up.
"If you fail to meet this deadline we will send you a picture of Kayla’s dead body!" ISIS wrote. "This will be our FIRST act of revenge taken for the MISERABLY FAILED and unsuccessful attempt by your arrogant government to free their prisoners!"
Carl and Marsha Mueller were baffled.
"It was Kayla’s birthday, that was the deadline for them to kill her," Carl Mueller said. "So we immediately call our 'arrogant government' and say, 'What are they talking about?' And the response was, 'I don't know.' They had conducted a raid, a military operation. ISIS told us they were going to kill our daughter because they did that and their response was, 'No, we don't know anything about a raid.'"
The Delta Force raid was not publicly disclosed by the White House until six weeks later, after James Foley was beheaded in a shocking video by ISIS executioner Jihadi John.
Between July 12 and Sept. 19, 2014, the FBI composed and sent a dozen emails to the hostage-takers. In what would be the final email from ISIS to the Muellers while Kayla was still alive, and before she was taken by "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be raped, they added a third demand.
"That is the immediate halt of ALL military activities by your government within and around the lands of the Islamic State," the email said, in the group's first reference they had made to the ISIS caliphate. "Kayla will not be released until these conditions are met."
Three days later, on Sept. 22, the U.S. commenced Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria, with more than 15,000 airstrikes since then.
Kayla Mueller was moved in August or September to the Shaddadi, Syria, house of a senior ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, and kept there for Baghdadi. ISIS tweeted on Feb. 6, 2015, that she had been killed in a Jordanian airstrike, which U.S. officials have denied. A building ISIS showed in a photo had been bombed much earlier as a barracks for fighters and arms depot, a counterrterrorism official has told ABC News. The White House confirmed Mueller's death a few days later without stating a suspected cause.
Retired FBI agent Voss said the final evidence that Kayla probably could have been ransomed was an email sent in February 2015, after her reported death, to Marsha Mueller containing three photos of Kayla's face after she was killed, dusty and sprinkled with tiny pieces of rubble, and one photo after her face was cleaned for burial, per Muslim custom. An accompanying note was respectful in tone.
"They respected her parents enough to send those photos. And they wouldn't have done that if her parents hadn't struck a chord with them. And if you can strike a chord, then you can create communication that's productive," Voss said.
iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A month ahead of schedule, the Obama administration has announced that it has met a goal set a year ago to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees.
"The 10,000th Syrian refugee will arrive this afternoon (Monday)," National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced in a statement.
"On behalf of the President and his Administration, I extend the warmest of welcomes to each and every one of our Syrian arrivals, as well as the many other refugees resettled this year from all over the world," Rice wrote in the statement.
The U.S. government’s goal was to welcome 10,000 refugees within this fiscal year, which ends September 30th.
In total, nearly five million people have fled Syria since 2011, according to the U.N., the vast majority of which are living now in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
A policy director at Church World Service, who has worked closely with the U.S. government and nonprofits to resettle Syrian refugees, described the 10,000-benchmark as sort of bitter-sweet. "It was sort of a meager goal to begin with," Jen Smyers told ABC News.
"This demonstrates that where there’s a will, there’s a way," Smyers continued. "But if we had been processing Syrian refugee applications for the last four years then many more people could be rebuilding their lives in safety, rather than risking their lives to take the very dangerous trip across the Atlantic."
"We would like to see the U.S. demonstrate more leadership on this," Smyers added, referencing the fact that the U.S. took in hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese refugees during and after their civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said the U.S. plans to take in 85,000 refugees from around the world this year in total. "We recognize that more needs to be done to help those who are besieged inside Syria; more has to be done to assist refugees; more has to be done to support Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; and more has to be done to resolve this brutal conflict that has cost far too many lives and forced far too many people from their homes."
During a briefing Monday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said he believed the U.S. would likely take in additional refugees from Syria this year.
ABC News(MIAMI) -- A tropical depression has taken aim at Florida and is expected to become a tropical storm by Monday night, bringing heavy rain to the Sunshine State over the next few days.
Tropical Depression 9 has brought torrential rains over West Cuba, according to the National Hurricane Center. The tropical depression is currently about 170 miles west-southwest of Key West, Florida, and 125 miles west-northwest of Havana, Cuba. Its maximum sustained winds are 35 miles per hour.
The depression is currently moving west at around 7 miles per hour, although it is forecast to turn in a west-northwest direction today and then head north on Tuesday night.
The depression is forecast to strengthen over the next 48 hours and is likely to become a tropical storm by tonight, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Tropical Depression 9's max sustained winds~ 35 mph. Likely becomes tropical storm tonight, affecting FL by Thurs: pic.twitter.com/kLhzVZu4aA
The depression is also expected to bring rain to the Southern Florida peninsula and the Florida Keys over the next few days. The rainfall may cause localized flooding, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Meanwhile, a tropical storm watch is in effect for the coast of North Carolina from Cape Lookout to Oregon Inlet, according to the National Hurricane Center, as Tropical Depression 8 moves to the northwest. Tropical Depression 8 is bringing with it heavy rain over far Eastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks. It has sustained winds of 35 miles per hour and is forecast to strengthen slightly
Bildagentur-online/UIG via Getty Images(AUSTIN, Texas) — “Lucy," the famous upright-walking human ancestor who is estimated to be more than 3 million years old, may have died after from falling from a tree, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin.
What caused Lucy's death has been the source of much debate in the scientific community since the discovery of her partial skeleton in 1974.
At 3.18-million-years-old, Lucy's skeleton is one of the oldest and most complete fossils of an erect-walking hominim ever discovered, according to a statement from UT Austin announcing the research. Lucy's remains have also caused a major debate over whether her species (Australopithecus afarensis) was arboreal, or spent time in trees, according to the UT Austin researchers.
An autopsy performed on her remains suggests that she did spend some time in trees, according to John Kappelman, a UT Austin professor and the lead author of the study, who calls the cause of death "ironic."
“It is ironic that the fossil at the center of a debate about the role of arborealism in human evolution likely died from injuries suffered from a fall out of a tree,” Kappelman, the professor of anthropology and geological sciences at UT Austin, said in a statement.
Kappelman studied thousands of high-resolution CT scans of Lucy's remains and noticed unusual fractures in her bones, which led him to theorize that Lucy may have fallen to her death. He believes that Lucy most likely sought refuge in trees during the night, according to a statement from UT Austin.
“When the extent of Lucy’s multiple injuries first came into focus, her image popped into my mind’s eye, and I felt a jump of empathy across time and space,” Kappelman said. “Lucy was no longer simply a box of bones but in death became a real individual: a small, broken body lying helpless at the bottom of a tree.”
Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — A lightning storm killed more than 300 reindeer in Norway over the weekend, according to the Norwegian Environment Agency, which released photos of reindeer carcasses lining the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.
The Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (also known by its Norwegian acronym SNO) said that 323 animals died, of which 70 were calves. Of the 323 dead, five reindeer had to be euthanized by the SNO.
The SNO and representatives from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research visited the area on Sunday and extracted samples from the animals, the SNO said in a statement.
Hardangervidda is home to about 10,000 to 11,000 reindeer, the largest population of wild reindeer in Norway, according to the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre.
iStock/Thinkstock(SABRATHA, Libya) — Thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe were rescued off the coast of Libya on Monday morning after their overcrowded wooden boats sent people falling into the Mediterranean Sea.
The refugees, many of them from Eritrea, jumped into the water from more than 20 boats roughly 13 miles north of Sabratha, a coastal city in Libya. They were helped by the Italian Coast Guard and workers for a non-governmental organization.
Images show people struggling to swim in the water and groups clustered together in the rescue vessels.
Large numbers of small children who apparently braved the perilous journey along with their families can be seen seated on the laps of adults.
In one image, clusters of personal belongings are shown scattered around the deck of an abandoned ship.
Imagery of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea has become iconic in recent years, as hundreds of thousands seek safety or employment by journeying to Europe from the shores of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey.
The UN reports that 271,218 of people arrived by sea this year, and that 3,167 who attempted such a trip are either missing or dead.
Although much attention has focused on refugees from war-torn Syria, many refugees are also from Eritrea.
Hundreds of thousands have fled Eritrea, located on the horn of Africa and bordering Sudan, due to the country's violent, repressive government and limited opportunity for many citizens, according to rights organizations.
"Eritrea’s dismal human rights situation, exacerbated by indefinite military conscription, has led thousands of Eritreans to flee every month," according to Human Rights Watch.
The group cites forced labor, arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, restrictions on freedoms of expression and movement, and repression of religious freedom as being among the incentives Eritreans have to flee their country.
Mike Trew/ABC News(LONDON) — In this age of the cell phone, Britain’s iconic red phone booths are quickly disappearing from the streets. Originally designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1920s, the red booths were a 20th-century necessity of life.
Now, sadly, like the dinosaur, extinction threatens. They are being removed to junk yards to decay or sold to collectors as a little bit of British fun.
But some imaginative people are saving these noble edifices, their beloved "telephone boxes," on their original sites, throwing away the phones and repurposing the space inside for the 21st century. Phone booths have been transformed into lending libraries, tourist information points, Wi-Fi hubs, defibrillator stations, places to charge electric cars, coffee shops and more.
In the leafy North London suburb of Hampstead, a few of telephone booths still survive, but one is very special. Since February, this one booth has morphed into Kape Barako, a coffee shop owned by Pakistani-born Umar Khalid and his wife Alona. They see it as a unique business opportunity.
When they opened, they served coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pastries and pies. With summer, the oven was replaced by a fridge for cold drinks along with sandwiches and milkshakes. The coffee is good and cheaper than a lot of nearby coffee shops. They are building up a loyal clientele, particularly the local dog walkers, who can enjoy their coffees without having to tether their dogs in the street.
For Umar and Alona it's full steam ahead for what Umar says must be the smallest coffee shop.
The head of Colombia's FARC leftist guerrilla, Timoleon Jimenez, aka 'Timochenko,' speaks during a press conference with other members of his delegation in Havana on August 28, 2016. Colombia's FARC rebel force ordered a definitive ceasefire late Sunday as part of an accord to end 52 years of conflict with the government. YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images(BOGOTA, Colombia) -- A ceasefire between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, the FARC, was announced Sunday evening.
The ceasefire brings an end to the 52-year-old war, one of the world's largest insurgencies, following four years of peace negotiations in Cuba. An official agreement is expected to be signed in the coming weeks, the BBC reports.
FARC's leader Rodrigo Londono ordered all of his group's combatants to "cease fire and hostilities against the Colombian state from midnight tonight" on Sunday evening. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree earlier in the day that halted military action against FARC.
On Friday, Santos tweeted that the end of the conflict had arrived.
According to the BBC, the more than 50 years of conflict left more than 260,000 people dead and millions displaced internally.
The FARC is expected to abandon its armed resistance and join the legal political process, the BBC says. In March, the Colombian government announced the beginning of negotiations with the second largest rebel group, the ELN, but that group has yet to reach the government's requirement to release all hostages and stop all kidnapping.