The detention in northern Syria by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters of two notorious British jihadists, the remaining members of a militant quartet that tortured and beheaded Western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, is being greeted with pleas by former Western captives of the terror group that they face trial.
Nicolas Henin, a French reporter held for 10 months by the British gang, has told British and U.S. broadcasters that he wants the militants to face justice for their crimes somewhere he and other former hostages and the relatives of murdered victims will be able to attend and testify.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, the last two members of the British quartet that Western hostages dubbed "The Beatles," were captured last month by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria. News of their detention was reported Thursday by The New York Times. U.S. officials have confirmed their capture and say they were identified from their fingerprints and biometric data.
"This is the beginning of a process that will bring them eventually, hopefully, to a trial. Justice is just what I want," Henin said. "What I want is a trial and a trial potentially that I can attend, so rather, a trial in London rather than one in Kobani in northern Syria."
He rejected the idea of them facing a U.S. military commission in Guantanamo, saying that would risk a "denial of justice."
"Guantanamo was opened 16 years ago. There hasn't been a single trial there," he said.
Rights campaigners are urging the U.S. government not to transfer the men to Guantanamo. "They should prosecute them in U.S. federal court, not send them to Guantanamo," said Laura Pitter of the Human Rights Watch.
"These men are accused of committing serious crimes, including torture, murder and other offenses. If they end up in [formal] U.S. custody, the U.S. should not jeopardize their prosecutions by sending them to the dysfunctional military commissions at Guantanamo where important cases involving serious crimes have languished for years."
According to European captives who were freed by the Islamic State terror group in return for ransoms, the group of four British militants put their Western captives, especially the British and Americans, through rounds of excruciating suffering, routinely beating and waterboarding them and staging mock executions.
Thanks to IS propaganda videos, the gang quickly acquired a singular place in this century's annals of terrorism. James Foley, the first of the Western hostages to be beheaded, was earmarked for the worst treatment of all, possibly because he had a brother who had served with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"You could see the scars on his [Foley's] ankles," Jejoen Bontinck, a 19-year-old Belgian and convert to Islam, said in interviews later. Bontinck, a jihadist recruit who fell afoul of IS, shared a prison cell with Foley in 2013. "He told me how they had chained his feet to a bar and then hung the bar so that he was upside down from the ceiling. Then they left him there."
Foley's mother, Diane, told the BBC on Friday that the crimes of the British jihadists "are beyond imagination." She says they need to face life in prison. "It doesn't bring James back, but hopefully it protects others from this kind of crime."
An international manhunt was launched by Western governments for the fighters in 2014 when IS released a video of Foley's execution at the hands of an masked English-accented militant, who called himself "John" and was the leader of the gang. He was nicknamed by the British media "Jihadi John" and was later identified as Mohamed Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait, but was raised like the rest of the gang in west London.
He was killed in a drone strike in November 2015.
Another member of the gang, Aine Davis, was sentenced last year in Turkey to a seven-and-a-half-year prison term. He was charged with membership in a terrorist organization, but a weightier charge of preparing acts of terrorism, which carried the possibility of a longer sentence, was dropped by Turkish prosecutors for lack of sufficient evidence.
U.S. officials say El Shafee Elsheikh, who fled from Sudan in the 1990s but grew up in London, and Alexanda Amon Kotey, whose ethnic background is Greek Cypriot, are providing information on the remaining IS structure and leaders. But it is unclear who has been interrogating them and whether British intelligence officers also have had access to the pair alongside U.S. counterterror officials.
Family and friends of British photojournalist John Cantlie, a friend of Foley, who remains missing, say they hope the captured jihadists provide information about his whereabouts. Cantlie was used by IS to front propaganda videos.
The British IS gang also was responsible for the murder of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, according to freed captives, as well as David Haines, a British aid worker, and Alan Henning, a British taxi driver from Salford outside Manchester, who had volunteered to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria.
Elsheikh traveled to Syria in 2012 and joined al-Qaida in Syria before switching to IS. U.S. officials say he took pleasure in staging crucifixions and waterboarding while an IS jailer. The two captured jihadists knew Emwazi in the British capital, where all three attended Al-Manaar mosque in west London.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic say the fate remains unclear of the captured jihadists, who may be considered non-state combatants. They could be handed over to the U.S. Justice Department to stand trial in the U.S. or be transferred to the U.S. military authorities to face a tribunal at Guantanamo Bay detention center. U.S. President Donald Trump recently signed an order to keep the detention center.
Another option is for their fate to be left to the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria, but that option is being opposed by freed captives. French officials have raised the possibility of the pair standing trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. However, the U.S. is not a signatory to the court.
The French position was echoed Friday by a British defense minister, Tobias Elwood, who said the two jihadists shouldn't be tried before a U.S. military tribunal or sent back to Britain, but should face justice at The Hague in order to uphold the rule of law.
Relatives of other alleged victims have echoed Henin's call for a trial.
Bethany Haines, the daughter of David Haines, posted on Facebook: "It's brilliant that these evil people have been caught. The families will now have people to hold account for their loved ones death."
She added, "No punishment is enough for these barbarians and in my opinion they should be sentenced to a slow painful death."