Beheading of U.S. aid worker draws condemnation
Indianapolis — Peter Kassig was captured in eastern Syria while delivering relief supplies to refugees whose lives had been upended by war, and for a year, his family and friends quietly worked to secure the former U.S. Army ranger’s release.
Then last month, he appeared in an Islamic State group video showing the beheading of a fellow aid worker, Britain’s Alan Henning. The militants vowed that Kassig would be next, leading to public pleas for mercy from his parents, who stressed his humanitarian work and conversion to Islam while in captivity.
Kassig’s captors followed through on their threat, though, and released a video Sunday showing that they beheaded the 26-year-old aid worker, who took the first name Abdul-Rahman after converting. The White House confirmed Kassig’s death after a review of the video.
Kassig’s parents, Ed and Paula Kassig of Indianapolis, released a statement through a family spokeswoman earlier Sunday saying they were waiting for government confirmation before they would comment and requesting privacy. After the death was confirmed, the spokeswoman said she was preparing a statement.
President Barack Obama, in a statement issued as he flew back to Washington after a trip to the Asia Pacific region, said the group “revels in the slaughter of innocents, including Muslims, and is bent only on sowing death and destruction.”
Kassig first went to the Middle East with the Army, which he joined in 2006, according to his military records. He ultimately served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, a special operations unit, and served in Iraq from April until July 2007 before being medically discharged as a private first class that September.
His desire to perform aid work in the region was kindled during a spring break trip to Beirut while he was studying political science at Butler University. Kassig, a certified EMT, left school and returned to Lebanon in 2012, where he worked as a medical assistant and humanitarian worker and treated people from all sides of the conflict in neighboring Syria.
Kassig founded a relief organization, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, or SERA, around the belief that “there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of how humanitarian organizations interact with and cooperate with the populations that they serve.”
In a January 2013 interview with Time, Kassig said he traveled heavily throughout Lebanon to assess the needs of people there. SERA, he said, focused on supplementing the work of larger organizations by delivering aid that could “do the most good for the most people over the longest period of time possible.”
“It’s about showing people that we care, that someone is looking out for those who might be overlooked or who have slipped through the cracks in the system for whatever reason,” he said.
Kassig’s friends and family say he understood the risks involved of working in the region, but that he felt called to help.
Burhan Agha, a 26-year-old Syrian, worked with Kassig in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, delivering aid to Syrian refugees before Kassig moved his operations to southern Turkey. Speaking by phone from Switzerland, where he is seeking asylum, Agha described his friend’s purported killing as senseless.
“If I could apologize to each American, one by one, I would,” Agha said while weeping. “Because Peter died in Syria, while he was helping the Syrian people. And those who killed him claimed to have done it in the name of Islam. I am a Muslim, and from Syria, and he is considered a part of the Syrian revolution.”
After IS threatened to kill Kassig last month, his family pleaded for his life to be spared at rallies and in interviews in Indiana and Lebanon, and his mother took to Twitter in the hopes of contacting his captors directly. Kassig’s parents repeatedly said that they were unable to meet the demands made of them by their son’s captors, but they did not specify what those demands were.
Kassig’s purported death drew widespread condemnation on Sunday, including from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim advocacy group that described his killing as a “barbaric murder.”
CAIR said it has denounced all previous killings of civilians by Islamic State militants and repudiates “the anti-Islamic ideology that produces such brutality.”
With Kassig’s death, IS has killed five Westerners it was holding. Britons David Haines, a former Air Force engineer, and Alan Henning, a taxi driver from northwest England, were beheaded, as was U.S. reporter James Foley and American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff.
The Syrian war has killed at least 200,000 people according to activists. It has also been an extremely deadly place for aid workers and reporters.
SERA suspended its efforts while Kassig’s family worked to secure his release.