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Doubts About ISIS Claim That Airstrike Killed Kayla Mueller

U.S. officials are investigating a claim by ISIS that Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker the group has been holding, was killed in an airstrike.
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Foreign policy experts are skeptical of ISIS claims that an American woman held hostage was killed in an airstrike — coming just as Jordan launched an air campaign against the terror group in retaliation for the execution of one of its fighter pilots.

The Islamist militants released no video to back up its claim Friday, only photos showing a flattened building. U.S. officials were trying to verify the claim that 26-year-old aid worker and Arizona native Kayla Mueller was killed in the Jordanian bombing.

ISIS said she was purportedly killed in the Syrian city of Raqqa, but the U.S. military noted that no American or Jordanian airstrikes happened anywhere near there.

"Of course we should be skeptical, it's far too pat," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the national security think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He said ISIS is known for making robust claims that simply can’t be verified.

The immolation of the Jordanian fighter pilot outraged his fellow countrymen, and emboldened the Arab kingdom’s leaders to act aggressively against ISIS. Jordanian state media, however, reported that the pilot had actually been killed a month earlier — and ISIS was simply stringing the Jordanians along.

"The Jordanians pressed them for a proof of life, but of course (ISIS wasn't) able to give it," said Steven David, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “Now, we don’t know what happened with this young woman. It’s possible that she was killed a long time ago, and they simply didn’t reveal it,” he added.

Gartenstein-Ross said this latest airstrike led by the Jordanians, who are vowing revenge, appears to be a "convenient" excuse for ISIS to say that Mueller was killed. She was taken hostage in Syria in August 2013, but her name has not previously been publicly reported at the request of her family.

ISIS made no mention of others who might have been killed when it claimed a Jordanian warplane pounded the building she was supposedly being held in. A spokesman for Jordan's information ministry told NBC News that it was puzzling for the terrorists to hold her in a training center or weapons storage facility, which were what the country's planes were targeting. "ISIS is being illogical and they're lying," said spokesman Mohammad Al Moumani.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judah tweeted Friday that ISIS' claim isn’t believable. "An old and sick trick used by terrorists and despots for decades: claiming that hostages human shields held captive are killed by air raids," he said.

Unless Mueller's body has been irretrievable under the rubble, showing the American would play into ISIS' harsh propaganda tactics of showcasing their Western hostages on social media — both alive and dead, observers say.

"They've been masters of propaganda, so if this has really happened, they would certainly think about the best way to package it in a propaganda piece," Gartenstein-Ross said.

But if ISIS' claim that Mueller was killed is simply a way to drive a wedge between Jordan and the United States, which has been leading the Obama administration's mission to "degrade and destroy" the terror network, the pronouncement is a "miscalculated" move, David added.

"I don't see America blaming Jordan or causing any sort of rift," he said.

NBC News' Moufaq Khatib contributed to this report.