Alexandria Sheriff’s Office via AP
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A jury convicted a British national on Thursday for his role in an Islamic State group hostage-taking scheme that captured about two dozen Westerners a decade ago, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including three were beheaded.
In convicting El Shafee Elsheikh, the jury found he was one of the notorious “Beatles”, Islamic State kidnappers nicknamed for their accents and known for their cruelty – torturing and beating prisoners, forcing them to beat until they collapse and even they sing parodies of cruel songs. Surviving hostages testified that the Beatles delighted in rewriting “Hotel California” as “Hotel Osama” and having them sing the chorus “You will never leave”.
The sentence was pronounced even though none of the surviving hostages could identify Elsheikh as one of their captors. Although the Beatles had distinctive accents, they always took great care to hide their faces behind masks and ordered hostages to avoid eye contact or risk being beaten.
Prosecutors suggested in their opening statements that Elsheikh was the Beatle nicknamed “Ringo”, but only had to prove that Elsheikh was one of the Beatles, as testimony showed that the three were major players in the stratagem.
Elsheikh, who was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces in 2018, eventually confessed his role in the scheme to interrogators as well as media investigators, acknowledging that he helped collect email addresses and provided proof of life to families of hostages as part of ransom negotiations.
But the testimonies showed that he and the other Beatles were much more than salesmen of paper. The surviving hostages, all Europeans – the American and British hostages were all killed – testified that they dreaded the appearance of the Beatles in the various prisons to which they constantly shuttled and moved.
Surviving witness Federico Motka recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when he and his cellmate David Haines were placed in a room with American hostage James Foley and British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “Royal Rumble”. The losers were told they would be overwhelmed. Weak from starvation, two of the four passed out during the hour-long battle.
The jury deliberated for four hours before finding Elsheikh guilty on all counts. Elsheikh remained motionless and gave no visible reaction as the verdict was read. He now faces a life sentence.
Several family members of the victims, who were present throughout the three-week trial, fought back tears as the charges were read.
“Glory to God! I’m so grateful,” Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother, said after the verdicts were announced. “I’m so proud of the American justice system. El Shafee Elsheikh was treated with great mercy. . He had four lawyers. … I hope we were able to turn this into justice, not revenge.
She contrasted what she said was the prosecution’s stellar work with what she said was the government’s inaction to bring Foley and the other Americans home while they were hostages.
“When we really needed to use the full force of the government to bring them home, it failed,” she said. “They were abandoned.”
She said she hopes the case will bring attention to the more than 60 Americans who are being held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world.
The convictions on the eight counts by the US District Court in Alexandria revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings released online. Mueller was enslaved and repeatedly raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before being killed.
They were among 26 hostages captured between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Defense attorneys have acknowledged that Elsheikh joined the Islamic State group, but said prosecutors have failed to prove he was a Beatle. They cited a lack of clarity as to which Beatle was which, and in the trial’s opening statement they cited confusion as to whether there were three or four Beatles.
Prosecutors said there were three – Elsheikh and his friends Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, who all knew each other in England before joining Islamic State.
Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John” and who carried out the executions, was later killed in a drone strike. Kotey and Elsheikh were captured together in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 for trial after the United States promised not to seek the death penalty. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence, but leaves open the possibility that he could serve his sentence in the UK after 15 years in the US.
Kotey will be officially sentenced on April 29. Elsheikh will be sentenced on August 12. But on Thursday, the judge handling both cases, TS Ellis III, ordered that Elsheikh also appear at Kotey’s hearing to hear the victim’s testimony which will be presented. before Kotey’s sentencing.