LONDON - A member of a notorious gang of British jihadists that brutalized and beheaded Western hostages in Syria, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, was sentenced Tuesday in Turkey to a seven-and-a-half-year prison term.
Aine Davis was an alleged associate of Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State executioner nicknamed "Jihadi John" who was killed in a drone strike a year ago. Davis was charged with membership of a terrorist organization. A weightier charge of preparing acts of terrorism, which carried the possibility of a longer sentence, was dropped by Turkish prosecutors, who struggled during an 18-month-long court process to amass the necessary evidence for the graver charge.
Davis is one of 850 Britons estimated by security forces to have traveled to Syria to join the IS terror group. Of those, 350 have returned to Britain, adding to a potential terrorist threat. British police admit that keeping tabs on all of them is a challenge. Up to 30 intelligence officers are needed to mount 24-hour surveillance of each suspect.
'I am not IS'
Davis, who was arrested in November 2015 during a raid on a villa in Silivri, west of Istanbul, denied membership of IS at his trial. After his arrest, Turkish officials said he had been planning with others to mount an attack in Istanbul to coincide with the 2015 Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.
At Tuesday's trial, a Saudi national and a Jordanian were also found guilty of IS membership and given the same sentence as Davis.
The BBC reported Davis denied involvement with the terror group. "I am not IS. I went to Syria because there was oppression in my country," he said. Speaking in English, he told the court, "I want to make clear I am innocent of the charges. I don't even know why this case has taken so long to judge. I just want my freedom." Davis claimed he went to Syria on two occasions to participate in humanitarian work.
According to European captives who were freed by IS in return for ransoms, Davis was a member of a group of four British militants whom hostages nicknamed "the Beatles." Thanks to IS propaganda videos, the group quickly acquired a singular place in this century's annals of terrorism.
The quartet put their Western captives, especially the British and Americans, through rounds of excruciating suffering, routinely beating and waterboarding them and staging mock executions.
Foley was earmarked for the worst treatment of all the Western hostages, possibly because he had a brother who had served with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "You could see the scars on his ankles," Jejoen Bontinck, a 19-year-old Belgian and convert to Islam, told The New York Times subsequently. 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."
The 35-year-old Davis, who is from west London, is thought to have been radicalized in jail after having been convicted on drug dealing and firearms charges. He is the highest profile British IS militant to have been arrested. Both U.S. and British authorities lobbied Ankara for his extradition, hoping to put him on trial in their own countries. In 2014, his wife, Amal el-Wahabi, was sentenced in a British court after convincing a friend to try to smuggle $21,000 to Davis.
Three other defendants, Jermaine Burke, Mohammed Karwani and Deniz Solak, all of them British, were found not guilty at Tuesday's trial. Turkish officials say the trio will be deported to Britain. They will be interviewed on their return by police, a British intelligence official told VOA.
Arrests in Britain
There were 260 terrorist arrests in 2016 in Britain, and more than 19,000 people were pulled over for extra counterterrorism checks at British ports of entry.
Of the 850 Britons who joined IS or al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria, 15 percent are thought to have been killed. Some of the returnees have been jailed on their return, including Mashudur Choudhury, 34. He is the first person to be convicted after returning from Syria. Imran Khawaja, a 29-year-old from London, was jailed in 2015 after he faked his death in a bid to enter Britain undetected. Tarik Hassane, a 23-year-old Londoner, was jailed for life in 2014 for plotting to shoot a police officer.
Officials say many returnees cannot be prosecuted because of a lack of evidence. Some of them are thought to have become disillusioned with jihadism, but many are thought to pose a significant terror risk and their names have been added to a watch list of more than 3,000 high-risk radical Islamists in Britain whom authorities are trying to monitor.
"We don't know how many others will return," Nazir Afzal, the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, told VOA. "We don't know how many will return aiming to inflict harm."