Two Islamic State militants from Britain were brought to the United States on Wednesday to face charges in a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against four Americans and others captured and held hostage in Syria.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men who were dubbed “the Beatles” by the hostages because of the captors' British accents. The two men made their first appearance Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment that accuses them of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of Western hostages, including South Florida journalist Steven Sotloff.
The charges are a milestone in a yearslong effort by U.S. authorities to bring to justice members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria. Startling for their unflinching depictions of cruelty and violence, recordings of the murders were released online in the form of propaganda for a group that at its peak controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.
The case underscores the Justice Department's commitment to prosecuting in American civilian court militants captured overseas, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who vowed that other extremists “will be pursued to the ends of the earth.” The defendants' arrival in the U.S. sets the stage for one of the more sensational terrorism prosecutions in recent years.
“If you have American blood in your veins or American blood on your hands, you will face American justice,” said Demers, the department's top national security official.
The two men made brief court appearances Wednesday via video hookup from the Alexandria jail, where they were appointed a federal defender. The attorney who heads that office declined to comment after the proceedings. A detention hearing and arraignment were set for Friday.
The indictment charges the men in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — Sotloff, journalist James Foley and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as European and Japanese nationals who were also held captive. The charges include hostage-taking resulting in death and other terrorism-related counts. Because of a recent concession by the Justice Department, prosecutors will not be seeking the death penalty.
The indictment characterizes Kotey and Elsheikh, both of whom prosecutors say radicalized in London and left for Syria in 2012, as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme" that targeted American and European citizens and that involved murders, mock executions, shocks with tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts.
Prosecutors say the men worked closely with a chief spokesman for IS who reported to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. military operation last year. They were joined in the “Beatles” by Mohammed Emwazi, who was killed in a 2015 drone strike and was also known as “Jihadi John” after appearing and speaking in the videos of multiple executions, including Foley’s. A fourth member is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.
The indictment accuses Kotey and Elsheikh of participating in the kidnapping of Foley and other captives. It says they supervised detention facilities for hostages and were responsible for transferring the captives, and that they also engaged "in a long pattern of physical and psychological violence.”
Beyond that, prosecutors say, the men coordinated ransom negotiations over email with hostage families, telling them the release of their loved ones was conditioned on large cash payments. In interviews while in detention, the two men admitted they helped collect email addresses from Mueller that could be used to send out ransom demands. Mueller was killed in 2015 after 18 months in IS captivity.
In July 2014, according to the indictment, Elsheikh described to a family member his participation in an IS attack on the Syrian Army. He sent the family member photos of decapitated heads and said in a voice-recorded message, “There’s many heads, this is just a couple that I took a photo of.”
The indictment describes the execution of a Syrian prisoner in 2014 that the two forced their Western hostages to watch. Kotey instructed the hostages to kneel while watching the execution and holding signs pleading for their release. Emwazi shot the prisoner in the back of the head while Elsheikh videotaped the execution. Elsheikh told one of the hostages, “You’re next,” prosecutors say.
Though the 24-page indictment accuses Kotey and Elsheikh of conspiring to kill the hostages and of helping cause their deaths by kidnapping and detaining them, it does not spell out specific roles for them in the actual executions of the Americans. But G. Zachary Terwilliger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office is prosecuting the case, said under U.S. law Elsheikh and Kotey can “be held liable for the foreseeable acts of their co-conspirators.”
Relatives of the four slain Americans welcomed the prosecution, calling it "the first step in the pursuit of justice for the alleged horrific human rights crimes against these four young Americans.”
“We are hopeful that the U.S. government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice. And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law,” their statement said.
Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in American military custody. They were captured in Syria one year earlier by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces while trying to escape Syria for Turkey. The Justice Department has long wanted to put them on trial, but those efforts were complicated by wrangling over whether Britain, which does not have the death penalty, would share evidence that could be used in a death penalty prosecution.
Attorney General William Barr broke the diplomatic standoff this year when he promised the men would not face the death penalty. That prompted British authorities to share evidence that U.S. prosecutors deemed crucial for obtaining convictions.