Opening arguments in the trial of a member of the notorious Islamic State kidnap and murder cell known by its hostages as “The Beatles” started Wednesday in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.
El Shafee Elsheikh, a British citizen, is charged with involvement in the killings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
Elsheikh and another British national, Alexanda Kotey, were captured in 2018 by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. They were held in Iraq before being extradited to the U.S. in 2020 to stand trial in federal court.
Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Mueller and Kassig. He will be sentenced in April.
Elsheikh chose to fight the charges. He is accused of conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, hostage-taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, and conspiracy to provide support to a terrorist organization.
The pair are accused of overseeing the places the hostages were held and coordinating ransom negotiations, U.S. authorities say.
Both allegedly took part in a "prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages," which included waterboarding, electric shocks and mock executions, Agence France-Presse reported.
The charges carry a potential death penalty, but U.S. prosecutors have told Britain they will not seek that sentence.
Terrorism expert Seth Frantzman said the trial in Alexandria was seen as an exception. Those involved in kidnaps, killings and terror activity are rarely extradited to face trial in the country where their victims were from.
The so-called “Beatles” cell was allegedly involved in the abductions of at least 27 people in Syria from 2012 to 2015. The hostages created the moniker based on the accents of their captors.
Their hostages — journalists and aid workers — came from several countries, including the U.S., Britain, Denmark, France, Japan, Norway and Spain.
Mohamed Emwazi, a British citizen who oversaw the killings of some of those hostages, died in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey in 2017 on terrorism charges and sentenced to 7½ years in prison.
Defense arguments rejected
Elsheikh's lawyers attempted to have the charges thrown out before trial, arguing that Elsheikh and Kotey had made confessions under duress. The legal team has said the killings were planned and carried out by Emwazi at the behest of the IS leadership.
But a judge rejected those arguments, saying evidence showed that confessions made both to government interrogators and to journalists were made freely.
Defense attorney Edward MacMahon called Elsheikh “a simple ISIS fighter” in his opening statement on Wednesday, using another term for IS, which is also known as ISIL.
“Mr. Elsheikh was not a member of the ‘Beatles’ and not involved in the kidnapping, torture and deaths of any of these individuals,” he said.
The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation applauded U.S. authorities for holding Kotey and Elsheikh accountable for their alleged crimes.
“Hostage takers, like Kotey and Elsheikh, must be held accountable to deter further hostage-taking. Too often captors of U.S. nationals evade arrest and indictment, and therefore never face justice,” the foundation said in a statement Tuesday.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a Spanish photographer held captive by IS for six months in 2014, told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that “torture and murder were daily occurrences” in an atmosphere of “sadism.”
American freelance journalist Foley was in Syria to report on the conflict, He and British photographer John Cantlie were kidnapped together as they left an internet café in late 2012.
Footage released by the IS group in August 2014 showed Foley being killed. Videos of the killings of Sotloff in September and Kassig in November followed. Aid worker Mueller is believed to have been killed in 2015.
Cantlie appeared in several IS propaganda videos, the last in Mosul. But he has not been located since the military defeat of IS in 2019. That same year, British and Syrian Kurdish officials said he could still be alive.
Experts say bringing those allegedly responsible for killing U.S. citizens and others to the U.S. to stand trial is a positive sign.
“If the U.S. can get convictions against ISIS members, it may at least give us a record of prosecution and determination of some facts that can serve as a symbolic sentence for the crimes against humanity this group carried out,” said Frantzman, author of the book After ISIS.
Most IS members were not prosecuted, even though thousands of have been captured, he added.
“The prosecution of El Shafee Elsheikh is important because it is also symbolic,” Frantzman said. “Like the war crimes prosecutions after the Holocaust, it is important to bring at least a few suspects to court to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the acts they are accused of.”
Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.