A member of the notorious Islamic State kidnapping cell dubbed the “Beatles” pleaded guilty Thursday in a US court to charges of conspiring to murder four American hostages, including Israeli-American journalist Steven Sotloff.
Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, pleaded guilty to all eight counts against him at a plea hearing in US District Court in Alexandria. The charges include hostage-taking resulting in death and providing material support to the Islamic State group from 2012 through 2015.
He admitted guilt in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — Sotloff, journalist James Foley, aid worker Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, also an aid worker — as well as European and Japanese nationals who also were held captive.
Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, were flown from Iraq in October to face trial for involvement in the murders.
After the two suspects were captured in January 2018 by Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria, they were turned over to US forces in Iraq.
Britain, which did not want to put them on trial at home, stripped them of their UK nationality.
But their transfer to the United States was made possible only after the US authorities assured London they would not seek the death penalty in the case.
They both originally pleaded not guilty, but earlier this week Kotey indicated he would change his plea.
The plea deal sets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole. After 15 years, though, he would be eligible to be transferred to the United Kingdom to face any possible charges there.
In the plea deal, he admits that life is an appropriate sentence in the United Kingdom as well. If he were to receive a sentence of less than life there, the deal requires that he serve the rest of his life sentence, either in the United Kingdom if that country will do so, or be transferred back to the US to serve the life term.
The deal also requires him to cooperate with authorities and answer questions about his time in the Islamic State group. He would not, though, be required to testify at Elsheikh’s trial, scheduled for January.
US District Court Judge TS Ellis said Kotey had “agreed to cooperate fully and truthfully with the United States and provide the government with all the information you know about any criminal activity, not just what is in the indictment, but if you know about any criminal activity.”
The deal also requires him to meet with victims’ families if they request it.
Kotey gave a somewhat detailed account of his time in Islamic State when Ellis asked him to explain in his own words what he had done.
He said he traveled to Syria to “engage in a military fight against the Syrian forces of Bashar Assad” and that he eventually pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“I accept I will be perceived as a radical who holds extremist views,” he said.
He acknowledged that he had participated in “capture-and-detain operations” to kidnap Foley and other Western hostages and that he led efforts to extract ransoms.
He described the acts of violence that were inflicted on the hostages as a necessary part of keeping them in line and persuading Western governments to pay ransom.
In the years after the hostages had been killed, he said he filled multiple roles within the Islamic State, including as a sniper and as director of a special forces training camp.
Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member IS cell was dubbed the “Beatles” by their captives due to their British accents.
They allegedly tortured and killed their victims, including by beheading, and IS released videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.
Alleged ringleader Mohamed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a US airstrike in Syria in November 2015 while the fourth “Beatle,” Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted on terrorism charges.
Kotey and Elsheikh supervised detention facilities for hostages and allegedly coordinated ransom negotiations conducted by email, according to the US authorities.
The pair also engaged in a “prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages,” they said.
Kotey and Elsheikh were “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that targeted American and European citizens and that involved murders, mock executions, shocks with Tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts, the indictment alleged.
Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said at Thursday’s hearing that Kotey, Elsheikh and Emwazi were all friends at a young age in London, where they became radicalized.
In a statement, Raj Parekh, acting US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is also a member of the prosecution team on the Kotey and Elsheikh cases, said the case has always been focused on the victims and their families.
“Their resilience, courage, and perseverance have ensured that terror will never have the last word. The justice, fairness, and humanity that this defendant received in the United States stand in stark contrast to the cruelty, inhumanity, and indiscriminate violence touted by the terrorist organization he espoused,” Parekh said.
A US special forces raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria in 2019 was code-named Task Force 8-14, in reference to the birthday of the young aid worker Mueller. Prosecutors say Kotey and Elsheikh worked closely with a chief spokesman for IS who reported to al-Baghdadi.
Family members of all four victims attended Thursday’s hearing and stood outside the courthouse afterward with prosecutors. They will have an opportunity to speak at Kotey’s formal sentencing on March 4.
James Foley’s mother, Diane, said she was grateful for the conviction and praised prosecutors for obtaining a detailed account of Kotey’s culpability.
“This accountability is essential if our country wants to discourage hostage-taking,” she said. Diane Foley also called on the US government to prioritize the return of all Americans being held abroad.
Foley was kidnapped on November 22, 2012 in northern Syria with British Sunday Times journalist John Cantlie, who is still missing.
A writer and videographer, Foley covered the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for various media, including Agence France-Presse (AFP).
On August 19, 2014, IS posted a video online showing a masked, black-clad man beheading him in retaliation for the US strikes in Iraq. He was 40.
Sotloff was captured on August 4, 2013, north of Aleppo where he was covering the refugee crisis.
Originally from Miami, he was the grandson of Holocaust survivors and had dual US-Israeli citizenship.
His family and the Israeli government kept his kidnapping secret for a year to try to assist his safe return.
He was beheaded in early September 2014 in an execution in which Emwazi appeared. He was 31.
Mueller was working with the Danish Refugee Council when she was abducted in northern Syria in 2013.
Mueller’s parents say she was tortured before being handed over to al-Baghdadi, who allegedly raped her repeatedly before killing her. IS claimed, without offering any proof, that she was killed in an air strike near Raqqa, Syria by a Jordanian plane in 2015, when she would have been 26.
Kassig was the head of a small NGO that distributed food, clothing and medicine to Syrian refugees when he was kidnapped on October 1, 2013.
In November 2014, IS claimed responsibility for his execution in a video in which Emwazi appeared, standing next to a severed head. He was 26.