ISIS Fighters Radicalized in London Indicted on Beheadings of Americans

For El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, the road to the federal courthouse in Alexandria has been a long one.

Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, were among four British jihadis who made up a brutal Islamic State cell dubbed “The Beatles.” They were interviewed on March 30, 2019, by journalists at a security center in Kobani, Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) — Finally filing charges over the beheading of American journalist James Foley and others, the United States on Wednesday indicted half of the Islamic State group nicknamed “The Beatles” because of their British accents.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey were charged in the U.S. Eastern District of Virginia and flown this morning to the United States from Iraq where they have been detained by the U.S. military for the last year.

Prosecutors say Kotey and Elsheikh are linked to more than two dozen murders between 2012 to 2015, having directly participated in the ransom negotiations that led to the deaths and torture of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and U.S. aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, among several others. 

In press interviews, Elsheikh and Kotey have only admitted to demanding information from the Americans during hostage negotiations. They deny having been involved in or been aware in advance of the either the executions or the rape and sexual abuse of Mueller. 

Kotey became radicalized in West London, where he was born. The other members of the cell — Elsheikh, Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi and Aine Davis — were all raised there as well. Elsheikh moved to Britain as a child with his family from Sudan.

The group splintered in 2015 after Emwazi was killed in a U.S.-British drone strike in Raqqa. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces picked up Kotey and Elsheikh in Syria in 2018, turning them over to the U.S. military after Turkey invaded northern Syria. Davis is serving a seven-year terrorism sentence in Turkey.

Even after Britain stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their citizenship, the men’s families pushed to have the men tried in the U.K. where the death penalty is illegal, as it is throughout Europe.

In March, a British court ruled that the British government must only turn over evidence to prosecutors in the U.S. if America agreed not to pursue the death penalty. Attorney General Bill Barr agreed to rule out the death penalty this August.

“The indictments of Alexanda Kotey and Elshafee Elsheikh are the result of more than eight years of tireless work by the FBI Washington Field Office and personnel across the U.S. Government and the international law enforcement community,” said James Dawson, acting assistant director for the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “These individuals allegedly conducted a litany of heinous and barbaric crimes as part of their duties as members of ISIS and for too long, the families of their victims have suffered while awaiting the day they would finally see justice for their loved ones. The men and women of the FBI remain dedicated to bringing the full force of the US justice system upon those who harm our citizens in furtherance of terrorism.”

The 24-page indictment accuses Elsheikh of filming the video where Emwazi beheaded Foley in August 2014. The journalist was kidnapped in Syria along with his translator and another British journalist two months before, with the captors demanding that Foley’s family pay millions for his release.

Former President Barack Obama ultimately authorized a rescue mission, but all of the hostages were moved just before U.S. forces arrived. Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist who became known professionally as the “Voice of the Voiceless” for his reporting on human rights abuses and crises in Syria, was beheaded within weeks of Foley’s murder.

Kassig was transporting food and medical supplies in Syria when he was captured by members of the Islamic State in October 2013. His beheading was not recorded outright but the White House in 2014 confirmed that a video uploaded online by the terrorist network did in fact depict Kassig’s severed head near the feet of Emwaszi. 

Mueller, who was doing relief and human rights work in Aleppo, Syria, at the time of her abduction, was raped by her captors repeatedly before her beheading. For a time, Mueller was taken as the “wife” of Abu Sayyaf, a former financier for the group otherwise known as ISIS. She was later transported against her will to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, who raped and tortured her as well, U.S. counterterrorism officials reported.

Baghdadi was killed in Syria by U.S. forces last October.

According to the indictment, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a leading ISIS commander and media spokesman for the terrorist network, reported directly to Baghdadi during Mueller’s capture. He also met with Kotey and Elsheikh on numerous occasions and regularly communicated their plans to take, torture and kill hostages. 

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday they agreed to the deal because they “want justice to be done.”

If the men are convicted, they each face up to life in prison.

The Eastern District of Virginia, seated in the U.S. intelligence community’s backyard, saw a busy week for ISIS cases. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected a compassionate release requested filed by Ardit Ferizi, a 24-year-old man currently serving a 20-year sentence for hacking the personal data of over 1,300 U.S. government and military personnel.

Ferizi cited his obesity and asthma as cause for his release amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but Brinkema refused saying if he were released, he may pursue hacking again.

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