An alleged member of the brutal ISIS assassination squad known as ‘The Beatles’ sent his family pictures of the decapitated heads of Syrian soldiers killed when their army base at Raqqa was overrun, according to US court documents.
Former British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, informed his family of his role in the attack on the 17th Division of the Syrian Army and told them: “There’s many heads, this is just a couple that I took a photo of,” according to US prosecutors. He then sent a family member pictures of the heads.
The claims were included in an indictment published on Wednesday as Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, 36, appeared via videolink in court in the United States accused of four murders connected to their alleged membership of the four-strong group of ISIS executioners.
Wearing prison uniforms, face masks and in handcuffs, the two men listened from an undisclosed location as they were read the eight charges against them, each of which carries a potential life term.
Asked if they had a lawyer, Elsheikh said: “I don’t know. I didn’t have time to consult anyone. I have no money.”
They are due to appear again in court on Friday to decide the next steps for what is likely to be one of the most high-profile terrorism trials in US history.
The case has taken years to come to court after the UK decided it could not guarantee a fair trial for the two men – Britons whose citizenships have since been stripped – but withheld evidence until the US confirmed that it would not seek the death penalty and until the conclusion of a series of court challenges by Elsheikh’s family.
The four-strong group – dubbed The Beatles by the hostages for their British accents –also included Mohammed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John’, who was killed in a 2015 drone strike. The fourth member, Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to seven years in prison in Turkey in 2017.
The 24-page indictment details how the two men standing trial in the US were radicalised in London. They were both arrested at a demonstration outside the US Embassy in London to mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The demonstration was organised by Muslims Against Crusades, set up by the extremist preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed. The group was proscribed by the UK government later that year.
Elsheikh left the UK the following year, four months before Kotey and Emwazi, to join radical Islamist groups, according to the US court documents.
Elsheikh and Kotey were arrested in January 2018 by Syrian Democratic Forces as they attempted to escape Syria for Turkey, as ISIS lost territory amid a series of battlefield defeats.
They were taken to the US from military custody in Iraq but will not face the death penalty under a deal struck with the UK, which supplied evidence against the men. The pair deny the charges.
They are accused of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of Western hostages, including American journalist James Foley.
The indictment says the pair targeted American and European citizens and that involved murders, mock executions, shocks with Tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts.
The charges are a milestone in an 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.
Recordings of the murders were released online in the form of propaganda for a group that at its peak controlled vast areas of Syria and Iraq.
Prosecutors say the two men co-ordinated ransom negotiations over email with the families of captives, telling them the release of their loved ones was conditional on large cash payments.
Assistant Attorney General John Demers 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,” he said.
The pair are charged in connection with the deaths of four American hostages - Mr Foley, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. They are also suspected of involvement in the deaths of Britons Alan Henning and David Haines and other hostages, including two Japanese nationals.
The charges include hostage-taking resulting in death and other terrorism-related counts.
Relatives of the four dead Americans welcomed the prosecution, calling it "the first step in the pursuit of justice” for the horrific crimes.
Mr Foley's mother, Diane, told AFP that she was "praying that justice will be served for them and as well as for our son and the other victims”.
"I think they need an opportunity to come to terms with what they've done to so many innocents," she said. "I never wanted the death penalty."