WASHINGTON — Two Islamic State militants from Britain were brought to the United States on Wednesday to face charges in a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against four Americans and others captured and held hostage in Syria, the Justice Department said.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men dubbed “the Beatles” by the hostages they held captive because of their British accents. They are expected to make their first appearance in the afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment that accuses them of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of Western hostages, including American journalist James Foley of New Hampshire.
The charges are a milestone in a years-long effort by U.S. authorities to bring to justice members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria. The men’s arrival in the U.S. sets the stage for arguably the most sensational terrorism trial since the 2014 criminal case against the suspected ringleader of a deadly attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The case underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to prosecuting militants captured overseas, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who 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,” Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said at a news conference announcing the charges.
Videos of the killings, released online in the form of Islamic State propaganda, stunned the U.S. government for their unflinching violence. The recordings routinely showed prisoners in orange jumpsuits on their knees beside a captor dressed in black whose native English drove home the global reach of a group that at its peak occupied vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.
The defendants are charged in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — Foley, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as British and Japanese nationals who had been captured.
The indictment describes Kotey and Elsheikh, both of whom prosecutors say radicalized in London and set off for Syria in 2012, as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme targeting American and European citizens” from 2012 through 2015. It accuses them of working closely with a chief spokesperson for IS who reported directly to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. military airstrike last year.
In July 2014, according to the indictment, Elsheikh described to a family member his participation in an Islamic State attack on the Syrian Army. He sent the family member photos of decapitated heads and said in a voice message, “There’s many heads, this is just a couple that I took a photo of.”
While the 24-page indictment describes Kotey and Elsheikh as coordinators of ransom negotiations conducted by email, it does not spell out their specific roles in any of the executions and other deaths.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia G. Zachary Terwilliger, whose office will prosecute the case, said under U.S. law Elsheikh and Kotey can “be held liable for the foreseeable acts of their co-conspirators.”
Relatives of the four slain Americans praised the Justice Department for transferring the men to the U.S. for trial, saying, “Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court.”
Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in American military custody after being captured in Syria one year earlier by the U.S.-based Syrian Democratic Forces. The Justice Department has long wanted to put them on trial, but those efforts were complicated by wrangling over whether Britain, which does not have the death penalty, would share evidence that could be used in a death penalty prosecution.
Attorney General William Barr broke the diplomatic standoff earlier this year when he promised the men would not face the death penalty. That prompted British authorities to share evidence that U.S. prosecutors deemed crucial for obtaining convictions.
In interviews while in detention, the two men admitted they helped collect email addresses from Mueller that could be used to send out ransom demands. Mueller was killed in 2015 after 18 months in ISIS captivity.
The State Department, and the new Justice Department indictment, described their conduct in terms not nearly so benign.
The State Department declared Elsheikh and Kotey as specially designated global terrorists in 2017 and accused them of holding captive and beheading approximately two dozen hostages.
Specifically, the State Department said Elsheikh “was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions while serving as an ISIS jailer.”
Kotey, according to the State Department, acted as an Islamic State recruiter and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding.”
In a statement, relatives of Mueller, Foley, Sotloff and Kassig said the transfer “will be the first step in the pursuit of justice for the alleged horrific human rights crimes against these four young Americans.”
“We are hopeful that the U.S. government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice. And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law,” the statement said.
The other two Beatles included the most infamous member of the group, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” who was killed in a 2015 drone strike. Emwazi appeared and spoke in the video of Foley’s execution. The fourth member, Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to seven years in prison in Turkey in 2017.
Eric Tucker and Matthew Barakat, The Associated Press