The trial of an Islamic State fighter accused of belonging to a notorious kidnap-and-murder cell known as the “Beatles” began in earnest Wednesday near Washington, with his defense claiming he had been mistakenly identified.
El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is accused of involvement in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
They were among at least 27 people abducted in Syria between 2012 and 2015 by a four-member cell dubbed the “Beatles” by its captives due to the jihadists’ British accents.
The “Beatles” allegedly tortured and killed the four American victims, including by beheading, and IS released videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.
Elsheikh has denied the charges and faces life in prison if convicted.
The hostages “all experienced brutal mistreatment at the hands of the British men they called the Beatles,” prosecutor John Gibbs said Wednesday as part of his opening statement.
He said Elsheikh, who was stripped of his British citizenship, had “knowingly conspired” to take Westerners hostage.
As the victims’ families listened in the courtroom Gibbs described propaganda videos showing the captives being beheaded, and how Mueller was handed over to Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who allegedly raped her repeatedly before killing her.
Defense lawyer Edward MacMahon said there was “no dispute” about the horror of the captives’ fate.
But, he said, while there was “no doubt” that Elsheikh had gone to Syria and fought with IS, there also was no evidence he was one of the “Beatles.”
The jihadists were masked and shared “similar traits” such as their accents, background, and characteristics, MacMahon said.
“The former hostages will give you different versions of whom the Beatles were, you will hear very, very different stories,” he said, arguing that the evidence “will fail to prove” that Elsheikh was involved.
Several former European hostages are expected to testify at the trial along with a Yazidi woman detained with Mueller, a humanitarian worker who was abducted in Syria in 2013.
– Prolonged violence –
Elsheikh and another former British national, Alexanda Amon Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria while attempting to flee to Turkey.
They were turned over to US forces in Iraq and flown to Virginia in October 2020 to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison. Under his plea agreement, Kotey will serve 15 years in jail in the United States and then be extradited to Britain to face further charges.
“Beatles” ringleader Mohamed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while the fourth member of the cell, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted on terrorism charges.
Kotey and Elsheikh allegedly supervised detention facilities for hostages and coordinated ransom negotiations, according to the US authorities.
The pair were also accused of engaging in a “prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages,” which included waterboarding, electric shocks and mock executions.
– ‘Sadism’ –
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a Spanish photographer held captive for six months in 2014, told AFP that “torture and murder were daily occurrences” in an atmosphere of “sadism.”
According to the indictment, Elsheikh was born in Sudan and moved to Britain when he was a child.
After becoming radicalized, he went to Syria in 2012 and joined IS.
Britain stripped both Kotey and Elsheikh of their citizenship but held up their transfer to the United States until the US authorities assured London the death penalty would not be sought for the two men.