The only trial in a US court of a member of a notorious terrorist cell is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, as El Shafee Elsheikh is accused of complicity in the Islamic State’s capture and killing of journalists and aid workers.
Elsheikh, 33, was one of four Isis fighters who traveled to Syria from London and whose British accent prompted prisoners in the terror group to dub them “The Beatles”. Some of these prisoners were released on ransom by foreign governments. When countries didn’t pay up, their hostages were killed – some decapitated in videos broadcast around the world.
He is before Alexandria federal court over the deaths of four Americans who reported on or supported victims of the Syrian civil war — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aides Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. Prosecutors say he was also implicated in the deaths of British, Japanese and Norwegian prisoners.
Mohamed Emwazi, a member of the cell known as “Jihadi John” before his identification, himself killed many of these prisoners on camera while taunting Western leaders. He died in a drone attack in 2015. The other three guarded the hostages and ran ransom negotiations. One, Aine Davis, was convicted in a court in Turkey after denying any connection to IS. Elsheikh and his girlfriend Alexanda Kotey were captured by Kurdish forces in 2018 and handed over to American authorities. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in exchange for a chance to serve part of his sentence in the UK.
“I had no doubt that any failure by these foreign governments to comply with our demands would ultimately result in either the indefinite detention of these foreign prisoners or their execution,” Kotey said at his Alexandria federal court hearing.
A Canadian Isis leader who commented on some of the execution videos has also pleaded guilty in Alexandria.
ISIS began taking hostages in Syria in late 2012 when fighters crossed the border from Iraq to take advantage of the neighboring country’s civil war. Foley, a 39-year-old New Hampshire teacher and journalist, reported on this conflict with British photographer John Cantlie. Both were freelancers who loved working in dangerous terrain, and both had been kidnapped before. This time they were taken together by a taxi to the Turkish border. Accordingly GQ Magazineone of their kidnappers was a man they had spoken to briefly at a nearby internet cafe – Emwazi, whom they would come to know as “John”.
More hostages were taken over the next two years. Sotloff, a 30-year-old Middle East reporter from Miami, was kidnapped on his way to Aleppo in 2013 when human rights activist Mueller, who was about to turn 25, was kidnapped as he was leaving a hospital in that city. Peter Kassig, a former Army Ranger who converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdul-Rahman while in captivity, was arrested months later while traveling to deliver food and medical supplies to refugees in eastern Syria.
By this time, the Obama administration had tried and failed to rescue the hostages based on information from released European prisoners.
Foley was killed first in August 2014 video, followed by Sotloff, two British aides and Kassig. Cantlie, who later appeared in several ISIS propaganda videos, was never found; In 2019, the UK government said he may still be alive. Militants sent Mueller’s family a photo of her body in 2015; it was not clear when she died.
Emwazi was implicated in the deaths of Foley, Sotloff and British laborers David Haines and Alan Henning.
After her son’s death, Diane Foley worked to ensure that the killers be tried in federal court and that the US government do better with citizens held hostage abroad.
“This accountability is imperative … if our country is ever to deter a hostage situation,” she said in a statement following Kotey’s guilty plea. “Attacks on journalists are at an all-time high and our US hostage crisis is a silent epidemic that few are aware of.”
The White House now has a special envoy for hostage affairs, a position that did not exist when the hostages were killed by Isis.
Elsheikh said the killings were planned and carried out by others, notably Emwazi, at the behest of the Islamic State leadership. He is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, but also with hostage-taking resulting in death, conspiracy to commit a hostage-taking resulting in death and conspiracy to support a terrorist organization resulting in death. He could be convicted on these charges without involvement in the planning or execution, so long as the jury found that he had consented to a conspiracy to murder hostages.
Prosecutors plan to play in-process clips of media interviews in which Elsheikh volunteered that he solicited information from hostages and used it to ransom demands. In conversation with The Washington Post In 2019, Elsheikh admitted that his behavior towards the hostages “wasn’t always – now being older and understanding much more about religion – not always in line with what’s incumbent on me as a Muslim”. He said he lacked “compassion” and saw the harsh treatment of Westerners as “tit for tat”.
Elsheikh also claims he was tortured by Kurdish forces into making false statements about his actions.
Prosecutors also plan to summon a Yazidi woman who was being held with Mueller as a witness. Unlike the other American victims, Mueller’s death was not filmed and her remains were never found. And they will likely show videos of the deceased hostages and messages between their families and the kidnappers.
In an intelligence briefing with Defense Ministry officials, shown at a previous court hearing, Elsheikh said he personally contacted the Norwegian and Japanese consulates to negotiate ransoms for three hostages, who were eventually executed.
Elsheikh was born in Sudan and grew up in London with his mother and two brothers. In a 2016 interview with The post, his mother, Maha Elgizouli, said her son was a normal Londoner and a “perfect” kid for most of his life. He spent three years in the Army Cadet Force, a military-backed youth group – an experience he would refer to in an interview with the BBC after his capture. He cheered on a local soccer team and worked as a mechanic.
But as he got older, family friends said, he got angrier. His brother had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in a deadly dispute; his Canadian wife was denied entry to the UK. He came under the influence of a radical West London imam. Elsheikh went to Syria in 2012 and was joined by his younger brother Mahmoud a few years later. Mahmoud was later killed fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq.
“This is not the son I raised,” Elgizouli said upon learning that Elsheikh was one of the hostage-takers.
But she fought to have him tried in Britain rather than the United States, a legal battle that led American authorities to agree he would not face the death penalty. Instead, he faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted. The trial before US District Judge TS Ellis III is expected to last four weeks.
The Washington Post