ISIS ‘Beatle’ convicted in beheadings trial

British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh found guilty for his role in an ISIS hostage-taking scheme in which two dozen westerners were held captive

El Shafee Elsheikh was found guilty of all charges in the deaths of four American hostages in Syria. AFP

A jury has convicted a British citizen for his role in an ISIS group hostage-taking scheme that took about two dozen westerners captive a decade ago.

It resulted in the deaths of four Americans, three of whom were beheaded.

The jury deliberated for four hours on Thursday before finding El Shafee Elsheikh guilty on all counts.

He stood motionless and gave no visible reaction as the verdict was read, and now faces up to a life sentence in prison.

In convicting Elsheikh, the jury concluded he was one of the notorious “Beatles”, ISIS captors nicknamed for their accents and known for their cruelty – torturing and beating prisoners, forcing them to fight each other until they collapsed and even making them sing cruel song parodies. Surviving hostages testified that the Beatles delighted themselves in rewriting Hotel California as Hotel Osama and making them sing the refrain “You will never leave”.

None of the surviving hostages could identify Elsheikh as one of their captors. Although the Beatles had distinctive accents, they always took great care to hide their faces behind masks and ordered hostages to avoid eye contact or risk a beating.

Prosecutors suggested in opening statements that Elsheikh was the Beatle nicknamed “Ringo” but had only to prove that Elsheikh was one of the Beatles because testimony showed all three were major players in the plot.

Elsheikh was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces in 2018.

He eventually confessed his role in the scheme to interrogators as well as media interviewers, acknowledging he had helped to collect email addresses and provided proof of life to the hostages’ families as part of ransom negotiations.

But testimony showed that he and the other Beatles were far more than paper pushers. The surviving hostages, all of whom were European – the American and British hostages were all killed – testified that they dreaded the Beatles’ appearance at the various prisons among which they were shuttled.

Surviving witness Federico Motka recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when he and cellmate David Haines were put in a room with American hostage James Foley and British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “Royal Rumble”. The losers were told they would be waterboarded. Weak from hunger, two of the four passed out during the hour-long battle.

El Shafee Elsheikh in US federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. Reuters

The convictions on all eight counts in US District Court in Alexandria revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi before she was killed.

They were among 26 hostages taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when ISIS controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Defence lawyers acknowledged that Elsheikh joined ISIS but said prosecutors had failed to prove he was a “Beatle”. They cited a lack of clarity about which person was which, and back in the trial’s opening statement cited the confusion about whether there were three or four in the group.

Prosecutors said there were three – Elsheikh and his friends Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi – who knew one another in England before joining ISIS.

Emwazi, who was known as “Jihadi John” and carried out the executions, was killed in a drone strike.

Kotey and Elsheikh were captured together in 2018. They were brought to Virginia in 2020 to face trial after the US promised not to seek the death penalty.

Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence but leaves open the possibility that he could serve out his sentence in the UK after 15 years in the US.

Updated: April 15, 2022, 3:32 AM