WASHINGTON – Two notorious Islamic State detainees from the UK were brought to the United States on Wednesday to bring charges against the federal government for playing a role in the torture and beheading of Western hostages, according to American officials.
The broadcast marks a milestone in the saga of two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, half of an ISIS cell of four Britons called “The Beatles” – a nickname that their victims give for their accents – and for which they are their extreme brutality is known. The American government says the group beheaded more than 27 hostages, including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Both prisoners were captured by an American-backed Kurdish militia in Syria in early 2018. In October 2019 she was taken into custody by the American military in the upheaval of the Turkish attacks on the militia and has since been held in Iraq.
The Trump administration wanted to take her to a civil court trial in the United States, as the families of her victims urged. Their rendition, however, was delayed by the need for evidence in British hands which the prosecution needed to prove the case.
A lawsuit in the UK filed by one of the defendants’ mothers has limited the government’s ability to pass on the evidence as then Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to exclude the death penalty, as is usually the case in such cases, since Britain abolished it.
However, in August, Attorney General William P. Barr attempted to resolve the impasse by reversing policy and telling Britain that the United States would not attempt to carry out the two. The UK courts swiftly allowed the government to pass the evidence – paving the way for it to be transferred to American soil for the case to begin.
Justice Department and FBI officials announced a press conference to bring charges against the men Wednesday morning.
Their arrival and the initiation of civil proceedings is a victory for the families of the hostages killed. The families had urged that the men be prosecuted in federal court instead of being taken to the Guantánamo Bay military prison, where military commissions have been found to be inoperative in cases where defendants are appealing instead of pleading guilty to have.
The two men gave numerous interviews in prison, initially adopting a largely unrepentant tone and avoiding questions about their guilt for killing the hostages. But over time, the men seemed to apologize and admitted to taking the Westerners hostage in later interviews.
Another cell member – Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John – was killed in an air strike in Syria in 2015. It was believed that Mr. Emwazi killed the Americans Foley and Sotloff and the helper Abdul-Rahman Kassig.
A fourth man, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey for terrorism. The extradition of Mr. Davis to the United States appears unlikely as US-Turkish relations deteriorate.
The British extremists repeatedly beat the hostages they held in Raqqa, Syria, the former self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, and subjected them to waterboarding and sham executions.
The families of Mr Foley and Mr Sotloff, as well as Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, two Americans who were also killed in Syria, welcomed the news that the suspects were being brought to the US for prosecution.
“James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria,” the families said in a statement. “Now our families can take responsibility for these crimes against our children in a US court.”
The families added that they were especially grateful to Mr. Barr for his decision to waive the death penalty against the two men, and thanked Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, who quietly helped them.
Any trial would most likely involve former hostages, particularly from Italy, France, Spain and Denmark, who may testify and relate the horrors they experienced while imprisoned by the Islamic State in Syria.
All four men had lived in West London. Mr Kotey, born in London, has a Ghanaian and Greek Cypriot background while Mr Elsheikh’s family fled Sudan in the 1990s. Both men were appointed foreign terrorists by the United States. The UK has revoked their British passports.
The prosecution of foreign terrorists in civil courts, which was once common under the Obama administration, has become rare under the Trump administration. Mr. Sessions attacked this approach when he was a Republican Senator from Alabama, portraying it as anti-terrorism and declaring that such suspects should be held as military fighters and tried in Guantánamo Bay.
However, the process system of the military commissions in Guantánamo has proven to be inoperable, and there have been additional legal problems arising from the prospect of keeping members of IS – unlike al-Qaeda – there without trial.
Britain also refused to divulge evidence of its use in Guantánamo, and the victims’ family members instead pushed for prosecution in civil courts to avoid the risk that some would view the men as human rights martyrs, and because civil courts have proven themselves to be so in practice far more more effective.