ISIS Trial Opens in US

The prosecution of former British national El Shafee Elsheikh, an alleged member of an Islamic State cell nicknamed “the Beatles, is expected to last three or four weeks.

By Erin Viner

The 33-year-old suspect is standing trial at a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, on charges that include lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder.

Authorities in the United States say Elsheikh was one of four Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists who operated in Iraq and Syria, and were nicknamed by their captives as “the Beatles” due to their British accents.

The cell garnered international attention after releasing videos between 2012 and 2015 of the atrocious beheadings of their victims, including US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

Prosecutor John Gibbs told jurors during his opening statement that 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,” Gibbs said, although he told the jury members they would be permitted to view beheading videos and other heinous photographic evidence during their deliberations.

The defendant’s defense attorney Edward MacMahon made a brief statement to the jury, saying he would not minimize the violence hostages endured but would raise doubt over his client’s complicity in those acts.

The so-called “Beatles” all shared similar British accents and characteristics, said the lawyer, adding that discrepancies in the testimony of released hostages means Elsheikh cannot be conclusively identified as a member of the terrorist cell.

“It was horrific and senseless. None of that is in dispute,” 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 is overseeing the trial, which will include testimony from released hostages.

Elsheikh, and fellow ‘ISIS Beatle’ Alexanda Kotey were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while trying to flee the collapsed Islamic State in early 2018, transferred the following year to U.S. military custody in Iraq, until being handed over to the FBI and flown to the United States for prosecution.

Elsheikh, referred to by the hostages as “Jihadi George,” was born in Sudan, but later immigrated to the United Kingdom. Kotey, known as “Jihadi Ringo,’ was born in the UK to a Ghanaian father and Greek Cypriot mother. The British government withdrew citizenship from both men due to their involvement with the Islamic State.

Kotey is due to be sentenced next month after he pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the Foley, Sotloff, Kassig and Mueller murders.

The charges carry a potential death sentence, but US prosecutors informed UK officials that they will not seek the execution of either terrorist.

The other two ISIS members included “Jihadi John,” whose real name was Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait of Iraqi descent. He died in 2015 during targeted joint-US/UK drone strikes in Raqqa, Syria.

“Paul,” Aine Davis, is a British convert to Islam who prayed at the same London mosque as Emwazi. Davis was arrested after fleeing to Turkey in 2015, where he was convicted of terror offenses in 2017 and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.