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Islamic State ‘Beatles’ charged in gruesome killings of American, other hostages

British-born suspects appear in US court to face charges over campaign of torture, beheadings of victims in Syria including American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff

In this March 30, 2019, file photo, 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," speak during an interview with The Associated Press at a security center in Kobani, Syria.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
In this March 30, 2019, file photo, 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," speak during an interview with The Associated Press at a security center in Kobani, Syria.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Islamic State terrorists from Britain were brought to the United States on Wednesday to face charges in a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against four Americans and others captured and held hostage in Syria.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men who were dubbed “the Beatles” by the hostages because of the captors’ British accents. The two men made their first appearance Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment that accuses them of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of Western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

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.

File photo dated June 02, 2011 courtesy Etienne de Malglaive shows American journalist Steven Sotloff (center with dark helmet) talking to Libyan rebels (photo via AFP)

The charges are a milestone in a yearslong effort by US authorities to bring to justice members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria. Startling for their unflinching depictions of cruelty and violence, recordings of the murders were released online in the form of propaganda for a group that at its peak controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.

The case underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to prosecuting in American civilian court militants captured overseas, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who vowed that other extremists “will be pursued to the ends of the earth.” The defendants’ arrival in the US sets the stage for one of the more sensational terrorism prosecutions in recent years.

“If you have American blood in your veins or American blood on your hands, you will face American justice,” said Demers, the department’s top national security official.

The two men made brief court appearances Wednesday via video hookup from the Alexandria jail, where they were appointed a federal defender. The attorney who heads that office declined to comment after the proceedings. A detention hearing and arraignment were set for Friday.

The indictment charges the men in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — Foley, Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as British and Japanese nationals who were also held captive. The charges include hostage-taking resulting in death and other terrorism-related counts. Because of a recent concession by the Justice Department, prosecutors will not be seeking the death penalty.

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 American and European citizens and that involved murders, mock executions, shocks with tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts.

In this May 27, 2011, file photo, American journalist James Foley of Rochester, NH, poses for a photo in Boston. (photo credit: AP/Steven Senne)

Prosecutors say the men worked closely with a chief spokesman for IS who reported to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US military operation last year. They were joined in the “Beatles” by Mohamed Emwazi, who was killed in a 2015 drone strike and was also known as “Jihadi John” after appearing and speaking in the videos of multiple executions, including Foley’s. A fourth member is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.

The indictment accuses Kotey and Elsheikh of participating in the kidnapping of Foley and other captives. It says they supervised detention facilities for hostages and were responsible for transferring the captives while also “engaging in a long pattern of physical and psychological violence.”

Beyond that, prosecutors say, the men coordinated ransom negotiations over email with hostage families, telling them the release of their loved ones was conditioned on large cash payments. In interviews while in detention, the two men admitted they helped collect email addresses from Mueller that could be used to send out ransom demands. Mueller was killed in 2015 after 18 months in IS captivity.

In July 2014, according to the indictment, Elsheikh described to a family member his participation in an IS attack on the Syrian Army. He sent the family member photos of decapitated heads and said in a voice message, “There’s many heads, this is just a couple that I took a photo of.”

In this May 30, 2013, file photo, Kayla Mueller is shown after speaking to a group in Prescott, Ariz. (AP Photo/The Daily Courier, Jo. L. Keener, File)

The indictment describes the execution of a Syrian prisoner in 2014 that the two forced their Western hostages to watch. Kotey instructed the hostages to kneel while watching the execution and holding signs pleading for their release. Emwazi shot the prisoner in the back of the head while Elsheikh videotaped the execution. Elsheikh told one of the hostages, “You’re next,” prosecutors say.

Though the 24-page indictment accuses Kotey and Elsheikh of conspiring to murder the hostages and of helping cause their deaths by kidnapping and detaining them, it does not spell out specific roles for them in the actual executions of the Americans. But G. Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office will prosecute the case, said under US law Elsheikh and Kotey can “be held liable for the foreseeable acts of their co-conspirators.”

Relatives of the four slain Americans welcomed the prosecution, calling it “the first step in the pursuit of justice for the alleged horrific human rights crimes against these four young Americans.”

“We are hopeful that the US government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice. And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law,” their statement said.

Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in American military custody after being captured in Syria one year earlier by the Syrian Democratic Forces while trying to escape Syria for Turkey. The Justice Department has long wanted to put them on trial, but those efforts were complicated by wrangling over whether Britain, which does not have the death penalty, would share evidence that could be used in a death penalty prosecution.

Attorney General William Barr broke the diplomatic standoff this year when he promised the men would not face the death penalty. That prompted British authorities to share evidence that US prosecutors deemed crucial for obtaining convictions.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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