DOJ charges ISIS members accused in death of journalist James Foley and other hostages

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department unsealed charges Wednesday against two Islamic State militants from Britain, accusing them of carrying out a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against hostages they had captured in Syria, including four Americans.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men dubbed “the Beatles” by the hostages they held captive because of their British accents. The group is alleged to have detained or killed hostages in Syria, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

They made their first appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment accusing them of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme.” 

The men’s arrival in the U.S. sets the stage for a terrorism trial— the most notable since the 2014 criminal case against the suspected ringleader of a deadly attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The charges are a milestone in a years-long effort by U.S. authorities to bring to justice members of the group. The case underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to prosecuting militants captured overseas, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who vowed that other extremists “will be pursued to the ends of the earth.”

“If you have American blood in your veins or American blood on your hands, you will face American justice,” Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said at a news conference announcing the charges.

Videos of the killings, released online in the form of Islamic State propaganda, stunned the U.S. government for their unflinching violence. The recordings routinely showed prisoners in orange jumpsuits on their knees beside a captor dressed in black whose native English drove home the global reach of a group that at its peak occupied vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Relatives of four of the slain hostages praised the Justice Department for transferring the men to the U.S. for trial, saying, “Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court.”

The indictment describes Kotey and Elsheikh as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme targeting American and European citizens” from 2012 through 2015.

In July 2014, according to the indictment, Elsheikh described to a family member his participation in an Islamic State 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.”

The two have been held since October 2019 in American military custody, and the Justice Department has long wanted to put them on trial. They were captured in Syria in 2018 by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

“These charges are the product of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for our citizens slain by ISIS. Although we cannot bring them back, we can and will seek justice for them, their families, and for all Americans,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement.

In order to secure British help in obtaining evidence on the pair, Barr agreed that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty in any cases against them and would not carry out executions if they were imposed.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and Demers said the support of the British government was critical to moving the investigation and prosecution forward.

In interviews while in detention, the two men admitted that they helped collect email addresses from Kayla Mueller that could be used to send out ransom demands. Mueller was killed in 2015 after 18 months in ISIS captivity.

Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of the National Security Division, FBI Director Christopher Wray, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger, and Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office James A. Dawson host a press conference to announce that two alleged Islamic State militants known as the ‘Beatles’ will arrive in the United States to face trial on U.S. charges for their alleged involvement in beheadings of Western hostages, at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., October 7, 2020. Jim Watson/Pool via REUTERS

The State Department described their conduct in terms not nearly so benign. The agency declared Elsheikh and Kotey as specially designated global terrorists in 2017.

Specifically, the State Department said Elsheikh “was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions while serving as an ISIS jailer.”

Kotey, according to the State Department, acted as an Islamic State recruiter and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding.”

The other two Beatles included the most infamous member of the group, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” who was killed in a 2015 drone strike. Emwazi appeared and spoke in the video of Foley’s execution. The fourth member, Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to 7 years in prison in Turkey in 2017.

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