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British men accused of helping behead Islamic State hostages plead not guilty

2 suspects, allegedly part of brutal Jihadi cell dubbed ‘The Beatles,’ are on trial in US for helping terror group carry out killings, hostage negotiations

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

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (AP) — Two British men charged with helping the Islamic State group carry out executions, including the beheading of Jewish journalist Steven Sotloff, pleaded not guilty Friday in a US federal court.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are identified by authorities as two of four men who were dubbed “the Beatles” by hostages, who took note of their British accents. They were also charged with and carrying out ransom negotiations for Western hostages for the terror group.

They were indicted this week in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on charges including hostage-taking resulting in death and providing material support to terrorists.

The indictment charges the men in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — Sotloff, journalist James Foley, and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as European and Japanese nationals who were also held captive.

Sotloff, who was Jewish and grew up in Miami, published articles from Syria, Egypt and Libya in various publications, including Time, the World Affairs Journal and Foreign Policy. He had deep roots in Israel, and held Israeli citizenship.

Journalist Steve Sotloff in Egypt, 2011. (Facebook/Oren Kessler)

At a brief hearing Friday in the court just outside Washington, DC, the two men pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. No trial date was set after both men waived their right to a speedy trial because of the case’s complexity. A status hearing was set for January 15 to set a trial date then.

The men appeared for both hearings via a video hookup from the Alexandria jail, handcuffed and wearing green jail jumpsuits. At their initial appearance Wednesday, the magistrate made an offhand remark that one of the two has tested positive for the coronavirus, but authorities have declined to confirm anything related to their medical status.

The men were transferred from American military custody to stand trial in civilian court after the United Kingdom agreed to share evidence it had on the men. The information was shared only after US Attorney General William Barr promised that the men won’t face the death penalty.

Five of the eight counts each man faces, though, carry a mandatory minimum life prison sentence if convicted.

A Kurdish security officer escorts Alexanda Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up a brutal Islamic State cell dubbed “The Beatles,” at a security center in Kobani, Syria, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, FILE)

The charges capped a yearslong effort by US authorities to bring to justice suspected members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria.

Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in American military custody. They were captured in Syria one year before that by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.

Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said some of the evidence in the case is classified, which will require some pretrial hearings to be closed to the public to sort out how that evidence will be handled.

“This involves a long investigation involving multiple countries,” Fitzpatrick said when asked about the volume of evidence that must be weighed.

The indictment characterizes Kotey and Elsheikh, both of whom prosecutors say radicalized in London and left for Syria in 2012, as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that targeted victims with mock executions, shocks with tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts.

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