The trial of a member of IS’s ‘Beatles’ kidnapping and murder cell

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Alexandria (United States) (AFP) – Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial of an alleged member of the notorious Islamic State (IS) kidnapping and murder cell known as the “Beatles”.

El Shafee Elsheikh is accused of having participated in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

Elsheikh, 33, and another former British national, Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria as they attempted to flee to Turkey.

They were handed over to US forces in Iraq and flown to the United States in October 2020 to face charges of taking hostages, conspiring to assassinate US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization .

Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and faces life in prison. Under his plea deal, Kotey will serve 15 years in prison in the United States and then be extradited to Britain to face further charges.

Elsheikh opted to fight the charges and his trial begins Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

U.S. District Judge TS Ellis said he expects jury selection to last one day, with opening arguments expected to begin Wednesday and the trial expected to last three to four weeks.

Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member jihadist cell, nicknamed the “Beatles” by their captives because of their British accents, was allegedly involved in the kidnappings of at least 27 people in Syria from 2012 to 2015.

The hostages, some of whom were freed after their governments paid ransoms, came from at least 15 countries, including the United States, Denmark, France, Japan, Norway and Spain.

The “Beatles” allegedly tortured and killed their victims, including by beheading, and IS released videos of the brutal killings for propaganda purposes.

Ringleader Mohamed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John’, was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while fourth ‘Beatle’ Aine Davis is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted of terrorism .

Kotey, nicknamed “Ringo” by the hostages, and Elsheikh, nicknamed “George”, allegedly oversaw hostage detention centers and coordinated ransom negotiations conducted via email, according to US authorities.

The pair were also accused of engaging in a “protracted pattern of physical and psychological abuse against the hostages”, which included waterboarding, electric shocks and mock executions.

‘Sadism’

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a Spanish photographer detained for six months in 2014, told AFP that “torture and murder were daily occurrences” in an atmosphere of “sadism”.

From left to right, American hostages Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff Handout, Matt HINSHAW, Nicole TUNG AFP/File

Several former European hostages are expected to testify at trial, along with a Yazidi woman detained with Mueller, who was abducted in Syria in 2013 while working for the Danish Refugee Council.

A US special forces raid that killed Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria in 2019 was dubbed Task Force 8-14 in reference to Mueller’s birthday.

Mueller’s parents say she was tortured before being handed over to Baghdadi, who allegedly raped her repeatedly before killing her.

According to the indictment, Elsheikh was born in Sudan and moved to Britain as a child.

After being radicalized, he went to Syria in 2012 and joined the IS cell, which specializes in kidnapping Westerners.

In media interviews after his capture by Syrian Kurdish forces, Elsheikh said he did not always show “compassion” to the hostages, but blamed others for their killings.

Contacted by AFP, Elsheikh’s lawyers did not respond when asked if their client would consider testifying in his own defense at his trial.

Britain stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their British citizenship, but suspended their transfer to the United States until US authorities assured London that they would not seek the death penalty against the two men.

Edward K. Thompson