A member of an Islamic State cell involved in a hostage-taking plot that led to the beheadings of American journalists and aid workers was sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. federal court on Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, during a hearing in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, in a ruling the families and friends of his victims said provided "a bit of justice."
Four months ago, a jury found the former British citizen guilty of charges that included lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder. He was found guilty in April.
After a six-week trial in April and hours of deliberation, the jury concluded that Elsheikh was part of an Islamic State cell, nicknamed "The Beatles" for their English accents, that beheaded American hostages in Iraq and Syria.
"The behavior of this defendant can only be described as horrific, barbaric, brutal and of course criminal,” Ellis said.
Elsheikh, who was born in Sudan and raised in London, was accused of conspiring to kill four American hostages: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
Foley and Sotloff, both journalists, and Kassig, an aid worker, were killed in videotaped beheadings. Mueller was raped repeatedly by the group’s leader at the time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before her death in Syria, U.S. officials have said.
The deaths of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were confirmed in 2014; Mueller's death was confirmed in early 2015.
Speaking with reporters following the sentencing, Foley's mother, Diane, said:
"Let this sentencing make clear to all who dare to kidnap, torture or kill any American citizen abroad that U.S. justice will find you wherever you are, and that our government will hold you accountable for your crimes against our citizens."
The charges against Elsheikh, whose British citizenship was withdrawn in 2018, carried a potential death sentence, but U.S. prosecutors had previously advised British officials that they would not seek the death penalty.
Prosecutors argued that a life sentence was needed to prevent Elsheikh from causing future harm and to set a precedent that such crimes will get strict punishment.
Another cell member, Alexanda Kotey, was sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. judge earlier this year. Kotey was held in Iraq by the U.S. military before being flown to the United States to face trial. He pleaded guilty last September to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Kassig and Mueller.
A third member of the group, Mohammed Emwazi, died in a U.S.-British missile strike in Syria in 2015.
Some former hostages, released by the cell after protracted negotiations, testified during trials about the torture they endured. Family members of those killed also testified.
At the peak of its power from 2014-2017, Islamic State ruled over millions of people and claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in dozens of cities around the world.
Its leader, al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate covering a quarter of Iraq and Syria in 2014, before he was killed in a raid by U.S. special forces in Syria in 2019 as the group's rule collapsed.