Isis in court: Victims’ families hope for justice as landmark case of Isis ‘Beatle’ begins in US court

TThey were the public face of the most notorious terrorist organization in modern history: four British nationals who fled their homeland to join ISIS in Syria, where they have been accused of kidnapping, torturing and eventually murdering Western hostages while continuing their crimes to the world. “The Beatles,” as they were known, became a symbol of the group’s extreme brutality.

Now, for the first time, a member of the group is standing in front of a US courtroom. El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, will face a jury in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on hostage-taking charges and conspiracy to murder.

The case focuses on his alleged role in the murders of four Americans: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and development workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. The indictment also makes him responsible for the deaths of British development workers David Haines (44) and Alan Henning (47).

Elsheikh is the longest-serving Isis character to have faced the US justice system. His trial – perhaps the most significant terrorism trial of the decade – could offer a glimpse into the inner workings of the group, its crimes and its secrets. It will also be an opportunity for the victims’ families to confront a man who changed their lives forever.

Diane Foley, the mother of journalist James Foley, said accountability was “essential” to helping victims’ families heal.

“That’s how often hostage-takers are never held accountable,” she said The Independent before the process. “It has taken a lot to get these men here and I hope that sends a message. I know it’s just a step, but for me it’s a big step.”

She added: “A trial is a much more positive way of being accountable than a drone strike. I think violence breeds violence. That is fairer and more transparent.”

James Foley, “Jim” to his friends and family, was a former teacher-turned-freelance journalist who went to Syria to cover the impact of the war on civilians. He was kidnapped in northern Syria in November 2012 and killed two years later.

His mother, who has been active in helping the hostages’ plight since his death and set up a foundation in his name, said the trial could also be an opportunity to answer open questions.

“I hope he also points the finger at other culprits. I fear that many people are involved in the kidnapping, torture and eventual death of the Americans and British who are lurking who knows where – in Syria or Germany or wherever they may be.

“Some families are also really hoping that we might be able to find the remains of loved ones,” she added.

Elsheikh was born in Sudan and grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, London. He went to Syria with his girlfriend Alexanda Kotey in 2012, where they joined a group close to al-Qaeda. Later, the couple would pledge allegiance to Isis and join forces with fellow Britishers Mohammed Emwazi and Aine Lesley Davis. The four would form the terrorist cell that became known as “The Beatles,” a nickname given to them by their hostages because of their British accent.

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 Haines and Henning – acts which Isis filmed and published in propaganda videos.

Elsheikh pictured in October 2020

(AP)

The four were accused of being involved in the kidnapping of at least 27 people in Syria between 2012 and 2015, most of them Westerners. The US Department of Justice said Elsheikh, Kotey and Emwazi oversaw detention facilities where hostages were being held, where they had engaged in a “prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence” against detainees.

Former hostages who escaped or were released testified to the brutality of their captors.

French journalist Didier Francois, who was held by Isis for 10 months until his release in 2014, once described Elsheikh as “an absolute psychopath”. He told French radio station Europe 1 that the “Beatles” were “our most violent guards,” keen on systematic torture and a penchant for techniques like drowning and suffocation, but not only. They also loved mock executions and crucifixions.”

According to the U.S. State Department, “Elsheikh earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixion while serving as Isis’ jailer.”

Elsheikh is also tasked with coordinating the ransom negotiations for the western hostages via email.

The Obama administration launched at least one operation to rescue American hostages held by Isis, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Some European hostages have been released after their governments paid ransoms, but both the US and UK governments have long had policies of not paying ransoms to terrorist groups.

A massive US-led military operation slowly eroded the territory of the Isis Caliphate beginning in 2015. The last Isis territory was conquered in March 2019, ending the group’s goal of establishing a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 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, Mueller and Kassig in September 2021 and is scheduled 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.

Elsheikh’s trial will be held in Alexandria, Virginia near Washington DC. Among the witnesses set to testify are a number of former detainees of the group, including a Yazidi woman kidnapped by Isis and held with Kayla Mueller, and Nicolas Henin, a French journalist held by Isis for almost 10 months in 2013 and 2014 became. The court will also hear via video link from Kurdish guards who have been holding Kotey and Elsheikh in Syria.

In addition, the court will hear evidence from Elsheikh himself in the form of interviews he gave to journalists while he was in SDF custody in Syria. In a series of hawkish interviews with Western journalists, Elsheikh admitted taking part in negotiations with the hostages’ families, but showed little remorse for his actions.

That the trial is taking place at all is the result of almost unprecedented cooperation and negotiation between the US Department of Justice and the UK government and intelligence agency.

The US journalist James Foley was kidnapped in November 2012 in north-west Syria by unknown persons

(AP)

After Elsheikh and Kotey’s citizenship was revoked, the UK Home Office agreed to share a pool of information Scotland Yard had collected on the couple in return for an assurance from the US Department of Justice that the death penalty would be dropped in their case would let.

Ms Foley said that despite the years of heartache she endured, she focused her energies on forcing something positive out of the experience. The James W Foley Legacy Foundation not only advocates for hostages, but also promotes journalist safety by providing training and access to insurance and information.

“Jim was very positive. He was a very optimistic guy. He’s always looked for the good, he’s always looked for the silver lining, and that’s really one way we can keep his spirit alive,” she said.

“He aspired to be a man of moral courage and we can try to do the same and inspire people to do the right thing in the face of many bad things in the world. Jim would have wanted something positive to come out of it.”

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