US prosecutors accuse alleged ISIS 'Beatle' of 'brutal hostage-taking'

El Shafee Elsheikh is facing charges of consipracy to commit murder in federal court

El Shafee Elsheikh, one of two alleged Islamic State militants known as the 'Beatles' facing trial on U.S. criminal charges for their alleged involvement in beheadings of American hostages in Syria, is shown on a screen during a virtual hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., October 7, 2020 in this courtroom sketch. Bill Hennessy via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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A former British national accused of engaging in "brutal hostage-taking" as an alleged member of an ISIS cell nicknamed "the Beatles" appeared in a US federal court on Wednesday for the start of his criminal trial.

El Shafee Elsheikh is standing trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, on charges including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder.

US authorities have said Mr Elsheikh was one of four ISIS militants belonging to the cell, which operated in Iraq and Syria, and whose member were nicknamed "the Beatles" for their British accents.

The cell garnered international attention after releasing videos of the murders of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, among other victims, in 2012 through 2015.

In a brief opening statement at Mr Elsheikh's trial, his defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, told jurors that he would not minimize the violence hostages endured but rather cast doubt on Mr Elsheikh's legal responsibility for those acts.

"It was horrific and senseless. None of that is in dispute," Mr MacMahon said. "What is in dispute — and what you must decide — is whether Mr Elsheikh bears any legal responsibility."

US District Judge T.S. Ellis will oversee the trial, which is expected to last three or four weeks and will include testimony from released hostages.

In his opening statement to jurors, prosecutor John Gibbs said Mr Elsheikh "played a role in a brutal hostage-taking scheme" that included gruesome acts of torture.

"We do not intend to display the most graphic evidence publicly," Mr Gibbs said, adding that jurors would be able to view beheading videos and other horrific photographic evidence during their deliberations.

Mr MacMahon said during his remarks that the "Beatles" all shared similar British accents and characteristics, and discrepancies in the testimony of released hostages means Mr Elsheikh cannot be conclusively identified as a member of the terrorist cell.

Mr Elsheikh and another member of the cell, Alexanda Kotey, were held in Iraq by the US military before being flown to the US to face trial.

Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen who oversaw the executions, died in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the group's fourth member, was convicted in Turkey on terrorism charges and jailed.

Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the murders of Foley, Kassig, Sotloff, and Mueller. He will be sentenced next month.

Kotey and Mr Elsheikh were citizens of the UK, but the British government withdrew their citizenship.

The charges against Mr Elsheikh carry a potential death sentence, but US prosecutors have advised British officials that they will not seek the death penalty against Mr Elsheikh or Kotey.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 5:14 AM