UK terror suspect's brutality uncommon even for ISIS, US court told

‘ISIS Beatle’ accused of the kidnap and murder of four Americans in Syria meted out ‘unrelenting and unpredictable’ torture to his captives, including hitting one 25 times on his 25th birthday: Families of US victims stare him down in court as trial begins

  • El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is accused of belonging to a cell that operated in Iraq and Syria
  • Members were nicknamed ‘the Beatles’ for their British accents
  • Elsheikh played a leadership role in keeping more than 20 Western hostages captive between 2012 and 2015, prosecutors told the court in Alexandria 
  • Four Americans, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller were among the slain hostages
  • Throughout opening statements, Elsheikh sat stiff, avoiding eye contact with the jury while Gibbs described the atrocities inflicted on hostages
  • Only two members of the cell, Elsheikh and Kotey, will be prosecuted in the US. One of the militants is jailed in Turkey and the other was killed
  • Elsheikh and Kotey are accused of inflicting electric shocks with a taser, forcing hostages to fight each other, and waterboarding

A British ISIS jihadist meted out ‘unrelenting and unpredictable’ torture to his hostages, including giving ‘going away beatings’ and beating one captive 25 times after learning it was his 25th birthday, prosecutors said at his federal terror trial in Virginia.  

El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is accused of being involved in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and relief workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

Elsheikh, who is also charged with lethal-hostage taking, is believed to be one of four British ISIS terrorists belonging to the ‘Beatles’ cell – nicknamed for their UK roots and accents – that operated in Iraq and Syria.

He played a leadership role in keeping at least 27 Western hostages captive between 2012 and 2015 whilst inflicting torture on his victims using brutal methods such as waterboarding, prosecutors told the court in Alexandria on Thursday.  

Prosecutor John Gibbs said Elsheikh – dubbed as ‘Jihadi George’ – was known by his captives not only for his British accent, but for his unusual penchant for brutality even within a terrorist group known for its cruelty.  

As the victims’ families stared down Elsheikh in the courtroom, Gibbs described the ISIS propaganda videos showing Foley, Sotloff and Kassig being beheaded, and how Mueller was forced into slavery and raped repeatedly by the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before being killed. 

Throughout opening statements of the trial, which is expected to last at least three weeks, Elsheikh sat stiff, avoiding eye contact with the jury while Gibbs described the atrocities inflicted on hostages. 

When Elsheikh and the other militants learned that a European hostage was marking his twenty-fifth birthday, they ensured they inflicted exactly 25 blows, Gibbs said. 

Only two members of the cell, Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, will be prosecuted in the US. The third, Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen who oversaw the executions known as ‘Jihadi John’, died in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey on terrorism charges and jailed.   

 El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is accused of being one of four ISIS militants belonging to a cell that operated in Iraq and Syria, which members were nicknamed ‘the Beatles’ for their British accents

Paula (left) and Ed Kassig (second left), the parents of Peter Kassig walk towards the Alexandria federal court house after a break for the trial of IS member El Shafee Elsheikh on Wednesday

Diane and John Foley, the parents of James Foley, an American journalist slain by Islamic State militants, arrive at the court case for the US terror trial of Elsheikh on Wednesday

Bethany Haines, the daughter of Briton David Haines, who was slained by Islamic State militants, arrives at the courthouse in Alexandria on Wednesday. While Elsheikh has not been charged in America over Mr Haines’ death due to America lacking jurisdiction, Haines wanted to come face-to-face with her father’s alleged killer

Pictured left: James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. Pictured right: US aid worker Peter Kassig – otherwise known as Abdul-Rahman Kassig – in Syria

Left: US freelance journalist Steven Sotloff. Right: Kayla Mueller is shown after speaking to a group in Prescott, Arizona. Both were killed in Syria by ISIS

The families of the four US victims attended the trial on Wednesday, with Foley’s parents Diane and John as well as Kassig’s parents Paula and Ed pictured arriving at the courtroom. 

Bethany Haines, the daughter of David Haines – a British aid worker kidnapped and beheaded by the ISIS ‘Beatles’ cell – also arrived at the courtroom in Virginia, as she said she wanted to come face-to-face with the man accused of kidnapping and torturing her father.   

While Elsheikh has not been charged in America over Mr Haines’ death due to America lacking jurisdiction, Haines wanted to have some sense of closure by attending the US trial.  

Elsheikh and Kotey are accused of inflicting electric shocks with a taser, forcing hostages to fight each other, 20-minute beatings with sticks and waterboarding. 

Surviving hostages will testify that Elsheikh and Kotey were more likely than day-to-day guards to hand out beatings, Gibbs said. 

The hostages ‘all experienced brutal mistreatment at the hands of the British men they called the Beatles,’ prosecutor John Gibbs said Wednesday as part of his opening statement.

He said Elsheikh, who was stripped of his British citizenship, had ‘knowingly conspired’ to take Westerners hostage. 

The ISIS militants ‘were utterly terrifying’ to the hostages, Gibbs said. The physical abuse they dished out was ‘unrelenting and unpredictable’ and they ‘seemed to get satisfaction from physically abusing the hostages’. 

If the Britons came into contact with hostages, they were supposed to kneel down, face the wall and avoid eye contact at all times.  

‘If a hostage looked at any of the three men, they would be beaten,’ Gibbs said. ‘In fact, they did not have to do anything to be beaten.’

Even hostages about to be released after paying a ransom were given ‘going-away beatings’ by the British men, Gibbs said.  

Among specific murders the prosecution alleges Kotey and Elsheikh were involved in was that of Mueller, who was seized and detained by Islamic State militants in August 2013. 

The indictment says that beginning about October 2014, Mueller was sexually abused by the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi while held captive in Syria.

Mueller’s family received an email from Islamic State fighters in February 2014, confirming her death in Syria, the indictment says.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Islamic State is still trying to radicalize people in the United States and elsewhere.

‘Their goal is to motivate people to launch attacks against Western targets wherever they are, using any means available,’ Wray said.

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

The families of Foley, Kassig, Mueller and Sotloff welcomed the news.

‘James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved, and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria,’ they said in a joint statement.

‘Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a US court.’ 

Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who was kidnapped by the ISIS cell and spent three months as a hostage, said Elsheikh – dubbed ‘Jihadi George’ – was the ‘most brutal’ of the terrorists. 

‘George was the most crazy one,’ the El Mundo journalist said of his former captor Elsheikh.

Espinosa said whilst it was another Beatles member, Mohamed Emwazi, who carried out the executions of prisoners, he was ‘just muscles’ and Elsheikh was ‘the one who was leading the others’. 

Elsheikh is standing trial in Alexandria, accused of being involved in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and relief workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller

Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who was kidnapped by the ISIS cell and spent three months as a hostage, said Elsheikh was the ‘most brutal’ of the terrorists. Pictured: Espinosa running to hug his son as he arrived in Madrid, Spain, after he was released from ISIS captivity

Families of four Americans killed by ISIS terrorist stare him down in court  

The families of four Americans allegedly killed by an ISIS terrorist stared him down in court as he faced trial for their kidnap and murder.

Relatives of James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig glared at El Shaffe Elsheikh at the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia

But for Mueller’s mother Marsha the emotion was too much and she wiped a tear from her eye as Elsheikh walked into court – before her husband Carl put his arm around her to comfort her.

Prosecutors claim Elsheikh was part of an infamous ISIS cell called The Beatles which captured dozens of Westerners in Syria between 2012 and 2015.

The group paraded their victims in orange jumpsuits in gruesome videos shared online which showed them being beheaded.

Elsheikh has denied any role in the kidnapping of the Americans and his trial is due to last four weeks – with relatives of his alleged victims expected to be in court every day.

For the opening statements Foley’s mother Diane and father John sat in one of the benches of the courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia.

John Foley at times closed his eyes while Diana Foley took notes, only pausing when the prosecution described her son’s execution.

James Foley, a journalist, 40, from New Hampshire, was seized by ISIS in 2012 while reporting on the conflict in Syria.

Two years later the group released a video showing Mohammed Emwazi, the leader of The Beatles known as ‘Jihadi John’ , beheading him.

Sotloff, 31, from Miami, Florida, also a journalist, was kidnapped on the way to Aleppo in 2013 and was executed by Emwazi in a sick video released the following year.

In court were his father Arthur and mother Shirley.

Kassig, 26, an aid worker and former Army ranger who converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdul-Rahman, was captured in Syria in 2013 while delivering food and medical supplies to refugees in eastern Syria.

He was beheaded in 2014 after being held in captivity.

Kassig’s parents Edward and Paula were in court – Paula sat taking notes throughout the opening arguments.

Mueller, from Prescott, Arizona, was kidnapped in 2013 while leaving a hospital in Aleppo and, in an appalling turn of events, was repeatedly raped by the former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Her death was confirmed in 2015.

Her parents sat in the second row and stared intently on the first day of the case.

They had spoken movingly at the Republican National Convention in 2020 about their daughter’s captivity.

At the RNC Carl said: ‘Kayla was mostly held in a 12-by-12 cell in solitary confinement. It was cold and dirty. ISIS terrorists shined bright lights in her face. They shaved her head. They beat her and tortured her. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, raped her repeatedly’.

At the RNC the Muellers criticized the Obama administration for failing to bring their daughter back alive, and praised Donald Trump under whose administration the operation to kill Baghdadi was successfully carried out.

Carl said: ‘The operators named themselves ‘Task Force 814’ after Aug. 14, Kayla’s birthday. And they named the mission Operation Kayla Mueller. To those soldiers: thank you. Kayla was looking down on you.

‘The Trump team gave us empathy we never received from the Obama administration. The Obama administration said it was doing everything it could. The Trump administration actually is’.

Also present in court was Bethany Haines, the daughter of British aid worker David Haines, another alleged victim of The Beatles.

Bethany, who had flown from Scotland to be at the trial, shook her head in disgust as Elsheikh walked into court.

Interestingly, the prosecutor referred only to three British nationals — Elsheikh, Alexanda Kotey, and Mohammed Emwazi, who frequently carried out the role of executioner and was known as ‘Jihadi John’.

Together, the men were nicknamed ‘The Beatles’ by their captives, in part because of their accents and in part because the hostages felt the need to be surreptitious when talking amongst themselves because they risked punishment to be openly discussing their captors, Gibbs said.

Among them, Elsheikh was known specifically as ‘Ringo’, Gibbs said.

Usually, public discussion has centered on four captors known as ‘the Beatles.’ The fourth, Aine Davis, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.

Emwazi was killed in a drone strike, and Kotey was captured alongside Elsheikh and also brought to Virginia to face trial. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence.

Defense attorney Edward MacMahon highlighted the discrepancy about the number of Beatles as he argued for his client’s innocence, saying Elsheikh was not a ‘Beatle’ but a simple Islamic State foot soldier.  

MacMahon said there was ‘no dispute’ about the horror of the captives’ fate. But, he said, while there was ‘no doubt’ that Elsheikh had gone to Syria and fought with IS, there also was no evidence he was one of the ‘Beatles.’

MacMahon said surviving hostages have different recollections about each of the Beatles and their characteristics, and about whether there were three or four.

He noted that the British speakers were careful to always wear masks, making identification difficult.    

‘The former hostages will give you different versions of whom the Beatles were, you will hear very, very different stories,’ he said, arguing that the evidence ‘will fail to prove’ that Elsheikh was involved.

MacMahon also said Elsheikh’s numerous admissions in media interviews about his role in the hostage-taking scheme should be disregarded.

They were made while he was in custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and he was fearful of being transferred to Iraq, where he heard rumors that detainees were being summarily executed after 10-minute trials, the attorney said.

Admitting that he was a ‘Beatle’ was a way to ensure transfer into Western custody, MacMahon said.

Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother, attended the trial on Wednesday and said it was important to her that the judicial process be carried out.

‘I think we must do the opposite of what was done. That to me is the huge contrast,’ she said, referring to the treatment of her son and the other hostages.

She said she was ‘surprised’ by the defence’s opening statement.

A former Danish soldier later took the witness stand to tell how he had negotiated for months to secure the release of a Danish photographer, Daniel Rye Ottosen.

He read emails to the young man’s family demanding ever higher ransoms. ‘You are negotiating for the life of your only son and time is a factor,’ they wrote to the parents, accompanying their words with photos or videos of executed hostages.   

In pretrial arguments, defense lawyers sought unsuccessfully to have Elsheikh’s confessions to interrogators and journalists tossed out, saying they were made under duress. 

The judge said the evidence was overwhelming that Elsheikh’s confessions were given freely.

Gibbs told jurors that they will hear from numerous witnesses who will provide evidence of Elsheikh’s guilt, including from captives who spent time with the slain Americans as well as family members who received ransom demands.

The first witness to testify was terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University, who walked the jury through the origins of the Islamic State group as an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria while trying to escape to Turkey. 

They were turned over to US forces in Iraq and flown to Virginia, US, in October 2020 to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.

Ringleader Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen who oversaw the executions known as ‘Jihadi John’, died in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey on terrorism charges and jailed.     

Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison. Under his plea agreement, Kotey will serve 15 years in jail in the US and then be extradited to Britain to face further charges.

The charges against Elsheikh carry a potential death sentence, but U.S. prosecutors have advised British officials that they will not seek the death penalty against Elsheikh or Kotey. He faces an unconditional sentence of life imprisonment. 

The savage ISIS Beatles, including Jihadi John ringleader who shared beheading videos online and killed innocent aid workers

Jihadi John

Mohammed Emwazi – Jihadi John

Emwazi was one of the most prominent members of the so-called ISIS Beatles and was regularly seen carrying out executions in their horrific beheading videos.

He took part in the barbaric beheadings of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and US humanitarian worker Peter Kassig.

The terrorist, who was born in Kuwait and grew up in Queen’s Park, West London, was charged with 27 counts of murder and five counts of hostage taking in November 2014.

He was killed in a Hellfire missile drone strike in Syria in 2015. 

Jihadi Paul

Aine Lesley Davis – Paul

Davis was born Aine Leslie Junior Davis in 1984 to Fay Rodriquez, and is believed to have spent the early years of his childhood in Hammersmith where his mother lived. 

He was one of 13 children his father had by four different women.

The former tube driver, who has drug-dealing and firearms convictions to his name, converted to Islam while in prison.

In 2014 his wife, Amal el-Wahabi, was convicted of funding terrorism after she persuaded a friend to try and smuggle £16,000 in cash in her underwear to him.

Davis was captured by Turkish security officials in 2015 and was later found guilty of being a senior member of a terrorist organization and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

Alexanda Kotey

Alexanda Kotey – Ringo 

Kotey, 38, was born to a Ghanaian father and a Greek Cypriot mother and grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Before his radicalization, he is thought to have worked as a drug dealer before converting to Islam in his early 20s.

In 2012, he left for Syria where the US claims he was involved in beheadings and known for administering ‘exceptionally cruel torture methods’, including electronic shocks.

He is also accused of acting as an ISIS recruiter who convinced a number of other British extremists to join the terror group.

Kotey was captured in Syria while trying to escape to Turkey in 2018 and was held in a US military center in Iraq.

The British Government wanted him tried in the US, where officials believe there is a more realistic chance of prosecution than in the UK. 

He was extradited last year and was charged with a number of terror offences.

El Shafee Elsheikh

El Shafee Elsheikh – George  

Born in Sudan, Elsheikh, 33, grew up in West London and is the final member of the four British terrorists who fled to join ISIS.

He has been linked to the killings of a number of hostages after heading to Syria to join the extremist group.

He was captured along with Kotey when they tried to flee to Turkey in 2018 and has since been transported to the US where he now faces charges relating to terrorism and beheading Western hostages.


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