Lawyers for El Shafee Elsheikh, a British jihadist charged in US federal court over his role in the kidnapping and murder of four Americans while he was a member of Isis, have denied that he was a member of the infamous “Beatles” terrorist cell and claimed a case of mistaken identity early in his trial.
During the opening speech at the trial in Alexandria, Virginia, Edward MacMahon described his client as a “simple Isis soldier” and claimed the evidence would show that Elsheikh was not a member of the so-called Isis “Beatles,” a name he was given one Group of four British Isis fighters held by western hostages.
Mr MacMahon said the evidence presented by prosecutors was “more than heartbreaking and appalling” but claimed it “will not prove he is a member of the Beatles or was involved in the kidnapping and murder of four Americans”. .
Elsheikh, 33, is accused of being part of a cell that ran a massive hostage-racking scheme that ultimately led to the brutal killings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and development workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. The indictment also blames him for the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
The court heard that Elsheikh formed a cell that became known as the “Beatles” with alleged co-conspirators Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi – an Isis executioner known by his nickname “Jihadi John”. The group is accused of being involved in more than 20 kidnappings between 2012 and 2015.
Elshiekh is the most prominent Isis member to be tried, and the trial may shed some light on the terrorist group’s inner workings. It is expected to last four weeks and the jury will hear testimony from more than 30 witnesses – some of them former prisoners of the group.
Elsheikh wore a blue striped shirt and glasses in the courtroom. His beard had grown long and his hair was cut short and gelled at the top. He occasionally took notes during the proceedings but did not turn to look back at the court. The parents of all four American victims sat a few yards behind him, often comforting each other as details of their children’s captivity were read or shown on the screen.
In the opening statement for the indictment, attorney John Gibbs said the evidence would show Elsheikh was a key participant in a widespread hostage-taking program run by Isis. He said they would present witnesses who would identify Elsheikh as a member of the “Beatles,” who were prison guards for these hostages, and their torturers.
Mr Gibbs said Elsheikh went to Syria “not as a helper or journalist” like his victims, “but as a combatant”. After traveling to Syria in 2013, he joined an al Qaeda affiliate before finally pledged allegiance to Isis and fought in at least one battle, he said.
The court heard that Elsheikh, Kotey and Emwazi had all fought together as Isis members to capture the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Syrian army, prompting Elsheikh to send gruesome images of beheaded Syrian soldiers to his brother via the Telegram messaging app .
The group later became jail guards for Isis, watching over Western hostages and handling ransom demands, prosecutors claimed. Mr Gibbs said they had a “common purpose in the detention and ill-treatment” of these hostages.
Some hostages who were later released would testify that the group seemed to “enjoy and enjoy” the physical abuse of detainees under their supervision, Mr Gibbs said. They were described as “absolutely terrifying,” he added, and regularly beat them with kicks, punches and clubs for no reason. The abuse was described as “relentless and unpredictable” and included stress positions, waterboarding and death threats.
Mr Gibbs said Elsheikh’s own words would be used as evidence against him – statements he made in interviews with the FBI, the Department of Defense and numerous media interviews following his capture by Kurdish-led forces in Syria in 2018.
In these media interviews, Elsheikh admitted to being an Isis fighter and to overseeing western hostages and that he was responsible for collecting email addresses from them to make ransom demands. He also admitted to beating prisoners and witnessing a Syrian hostage being shot dead in front of other detainees. Mr Gibbs said jurors would see correspondence between Isis kidnappers and the families of the hostages, in which they make cruel threats and demand millions of dollars.
Mr MacMahon, for the defence, said his client testified during his captivity fearing for his life and that the evidence of what he told journalists would prove contradictory. He also noted that witnesses said the British speakers who tormented them were careful to wear masks at all times, making identification difficult.
Elsheikh was born in Sudan and grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, London. He went to Syria in 2012 and joined an offshoot of Al Qaeda there. Later, he and his girlfriend Alexanda Kotey would pledge allegiance to Isis, joining Emwazi and Davis.
Emwazi was perhaps the most notorious of the group and was considered a ringleader. Known as “Jihadi John,” he performed the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning – acts which Isis filmed and published in propaganda videos.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2018 while fleeing the former Isis capital of Raqqa disguised as civilians. They were held in Syria until October 2020, when they were eventually taken to the US to stand trial.
Kotey pleaded guilty to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Meuller and Kassig in September 2021 and is due to be sentenced next month. Emwazi was killed in a drone attack in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey in 2017 on terrorism charges and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
The court heard that when Elsheikh was first captured, he pretended to be a Yemeni who could not speak English. When US Department of Defense officials used biometrics to identify him, he walked in and started speaking English.
After the opening statements, prosecutors presented the testimony of Bruce Hoffman, an Isis expert and Senior Fellow on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Hoffman gave a comprehensive overview of IS’s worst crimes, from the treatment of prisoners to the mass enslavement of Yazidi women.
Prosecutors played excerpts from Isis propaganda videos, including some showing James Foley, David Haines and Alan Henning before their deaths. At those moments, their families turned around in the courtroom to comfort each other.