“Welcome to Syria, you mutt”: Surviving hostage testifies to torture in IS captivity

Federico Motka’s captors greeted him in English after he and his colleagues were kidnapped near a refugee camp on the Turkish border: “Welcome to Syria, you mutt.”

For the Italian development worker, it was the beginning of 14 months of brutality by the Islamic State.

Motka testified about the ordeal at Thursday’s terrorism trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, a British national accused of playing a leading role in an Islamic State kidnapping program that took more than 20 Westerners hostage between 2012 and 2015.

Four Americans – journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and helpers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller – belonged to it. Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were beheaded. Mueller was forced into slavery and repeatedly raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was also killed.

Motka is the first surviving hostage to testify at Elsheikh’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia.

Born in Trieste, Italy, Motka said he spent much of his childhood in the Middle East, going to boarding school in England. He was an aid worker surveying the needs of refugee camps in March 2013 when he and a British colleague, David Haines, were captured and taken hostage.

Motka testified that he was only occasionally abused during his first month in captivity, but that abuse often came from three kidnappers, who called hostages “The Beatles” because of their British accents. They learned to talk secretly about their captors, who wore masks and struggled to hide their identities, never knowing what would turn them on. A dispute over bathroom hygiene led to particularly severe beatings, he said.

“They said I was a ‘fine prick’ because I went to boarding school,” Motka testified. “They said I was arrogant and they wanted to bring me down.”

Motka’s use of the term “fancy fucker” sparked a brief period of awkward laughter in the courtroom when the judge interrupted him and asked what the phrase meant, forcing Motka to explain the vulgar meaning of the term in the British idiom.

However, the British accent and diction is an important part of the case as prosecutors are trying to prove that Elsheikh is in fact one of the Beatles who tortured hostages, despite the Beatles going to great lengths to hide their faces. Motka testified that there were at least three Britons in the group of kidnappers and the hostages called them “John”, “George” and “Ringo”.

Prosecutors have said in court that Elshiekh is the one nicknamed Ringo.

One way Motka differentiated the three was their penchant for inflicting punishment.

“George was more into boxing,” Motka said. “John, he kicked a lot. Ringo has always said how much he likes wrestling.

He described a case where Ringo put James Foley in a headlock so hard he passed out.

Motka also recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when the hostages were being held in a facility they dubbed “the box.” The Beatles put Motka and his cellmate David Haines in a room with Foley and British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “royal rumble”.

“They were super excited,” Motka said of the Beatles about the tag-team style fight they foisted on the foursome. “We were so weak and shaken that we could hardly raise our arms.”

The group were told that the losers would be treated to the waterboarding. Two of the four passed out during the hour-long struggle, Motka said. The Beatles had mistaken him for the loser but never promoted him with a waterboarding and instead beat him.

As they were moved to different facilities, Motka said the hostages were sometimes separated from the Beatles for weeks. Those periods are relatively welcome because the Beatles are unique in their cruelty, he said.

When they were taken back to a place they called “the dungeon” and saw the Beatles were there, “we peed our pants,” Motka said. “We had just started to relax a bit” as the abuse had lessened in her absence.

“The Box,” where the Beatles were a regular presence, was one of the worst periods of imprisonment. Motka said he and other hostages there endured a lengthy “punishment regime” that included regular beatings and forced stress positions. “George”, another man named Abu Mohamed and a third nicknamed “the Punisher” regularly tortured them, Motka said.

“They played a lot of games with us,” Motka said, maintaining his composure as he clearly struggled with the emotions to describe his imprisonment. “They gave us dog names. We had to come and answer the dog name immediately” to avoid being hit.

Motka was not released until May 25, 2014. His 14 months in captivity was the longest of any hostage in the group.

However, defenders have highlighted the difficulties hostages have in formally identifying each of their captors, who routinely wore masks that covered everything but their eyes.

In opening statements, prosecutors only referred to three British nationals – Elsheikh, his longtime girlfriend Alexenda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, who frequently played the role of executioner and was known as “Jihadi John”.

Emwazi was killed in a drone strike, and Kotey was captured along with Elsheikh and also taken to Virginia to stand trial. Kotey pled guilty last year in a plea bargain seeking a life sentence.

The jury on Thursday also heard testimony from Danish hostage negotiator Jens Serup, who testified about ongoing efforts to secure the release of Daniel Rye Ottosen in exchange for €2 million.

The jury saw photos of huge bruises on Ottosen’s arm and back after he was finally released. Serup testified that the kidnappers had told Ottosen that the beatings were a “parting gift not to be forgotten.”

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