MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – On Tuesday, the family of ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller said it received confirmation via email that she had died.

The 26-year-old humanitarian aid worker, who was originally from Arizona, was taken hostage in August 2013 while leaving a hospital in Syria. ISIS claims she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials say they’re certain that’s not true. The Pentagon says she was killed by the terrorist group.

Mueller is now the fourth known American hostage to be killed while being held by ISIS. American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were beheaded last year. Mueller was also the last known American hostage to be held by the extremist group.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there is at least one other hostage being held in the region. He did not specify if that person was an ISIS hostage but said, “We have avoided discussing the individual cases of Americans who are being held hostage, but we are aware of other American hostages being held in the region.”

So, how many American hostages are there? Good Question.

“I’m certain our intelligence agencies have an estimate, and it’s probably pretty accurate,” said Eric Schwartz, a former White House official and dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “They may not have precise information and, in some cases, they may not know if the people are still alive, but they will have a fair amount of information, far more than you’ll see in the media.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many hostages exist and who might be holding them because the U.S. government and families work hard making sure that information is private.

In Mueller’s case, her family asked she not be named publicly for her own safety. The hope was that keeping it quiet would offer the best chance for a successful outcome. All of that changed on Friday when ISIS claimed Mueller had been killed.

“You want to do everything possible to diminish the value of that captive,” Schwartz said. “The more that situation is publicized, the more the terrorist organization has the ability to bring pressure to bear on the question of a ransom payment.”

It is U.S. and British policy to not pay ransoms, but other countries have not followed suit. Last year, the New York Times reported Al-Qaeda and its affiliates had received $125 million in ransom money since 2008 from some European countries. Those countries deny any payments were made.

In an interview with Buzzfeed on Tuesday, President Obama said telling families the U.S. won’t pay ransom is “as tough as anything I do.”

He went on to talk about deploying a Special Forces operation to try to rescue Mueller and other captives last summer. Ultimately, it was unsuccessful and officials believe they missed the hostages by a day or two.

“I don’t think it’s accurate … to say that the United States government hasn’t done everything we could,” Obama said. “We devoted enormous resources and always devote enormous resources to freeing captives or hostages anywhere in the world.”

Heather Brown

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