‘A private of Isis’: British jihadist denies being a member of infamous Beatles terror cell as landmark US trial begins

Lawyers for El Shafee Elsheikh, a British jihadist on trial in US federal court for his role in the kidnapping and murder of four Americans while a member of Isis, have denied being a member of the infamous terror cell of the “Beatles” and claimed a case of mistaken identity at the start of his trial.

During opening statements at the trial in Alexandria, Virginia, Edward MacMahon described his client as a “mere soldier of Isis”, and claimed that the evidence would show that Elsheikh was not a member of the so-called ” Beatles” from Isis, a name given to a group of four British Isis fighters by Western hostages.

Mr MacMahon said the evidence presented by the prosecution would be “beyond heartbreaking and gruesome”, but claimed it “will not prove that he is a member of the Beatles, or that he was involved in the kidnapping and murder” of four Americans. .

Elsheikh, 33, is accused of being part of a cell that carried out a massive hostage extortion scheme, which ultimately led to the brutal murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. The indictment also holds him responsible for the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

The court heard that Elsheikh formed a cell known as the “Beatles” with alleged co-conspirators Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, an Isis executioner known by his nickname “Jihadi John”. The group is accused of being involved in more than 20 kidnappings between 2012 and 2015.

Elshiekh is the most high-profile member of Isis to face trial, and the proceedings could shed light on the terror group’s inner workings. It is expected to last four weeks and the jury will hear testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including some former captives of the group.

Elsheikh wore a blue striped shirt and glasses in the courtroom. His beard was long and his hair cut short and gelled at the top. He sometimes took notes during the proceedings but did not turn to look at the court. The parents of the four American victims sat a few feet behind him, often comforting each other when details of their children’s captivity were read or displayed on the screen.

In the prosecution’s opening statement, attorney John Gibbs said evidence would show Elsheikh was a key member of a massive hostage-taking scheme run by Isis. He said they would present witnesses who would identify Elsheikh as a member of the “Beatles”, who were the jailers of these hostages, as well as their torturers.

Mr Gibbs said Elsheikh went to Syria “not as an aid worker or a journalist”, like his victims, “but as a fighter”. After traveling to Syria in 2013, he joined an affiliate of al-Qaeda, before swearing allegiance to Islamic State and fighting in at least one battle, he said.

The court heard that Elsheikh, Kotey and Emwazi all fought together as ISIS operatives to capture the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Syrian army, after which Elsheikh sent gruesome images of beheaded Syrian soldiers to his brother through the Telegram messaging app.

The group would later become the jailers of Isis, guarding Western hostages and processing ransom demands, according to the prosecution. Mr Gibbs said they shared a ‘common purpose in the detention and mistreatment’ of these hostages.

Some hostages who were later released testified that the group appeared to be “enjoying and content” with the physical abuse inflicted on inmates under their watch, Mr Gibbs said. They were described as “totally terrifying”, he added, and regularly beat them for no reason with kicks, punches and clubs. The abuse was described as “relentless and unpredictable” and included stressful positions, waterboarding and threats of murder.

Mr Gibbs said Elsheikh’s own words would be presented as evidence against him – statements he made in interviews with the FBI, the Ministry of Defense and in numerous media interviews after his death. captured by Kurdish-led forces in Syria in 2018.

In these media interviews, Elsheikh admitted to being an ISIS fighter and supervising Western hostages, and that he was responsible for collecting email addresses from them in order to issue requests for ransom. He also admitted to beating prisoners and being present when a Syrian hostage was shot in front of other detainees. Mr Gibbs said the jury would see correspondence between the Isis kidnappers and the families of the hostages, in which they made gruesome threats and demanded millions of dollars.

Mr MacMahon, for the defence, said his client gave statements while in captivity because he feared for his life and evidence of what he told reporters would be inconsistent. He also noted that witnesses said the British speakers who tormented them were careful to always wear masks, which made identification difficult.

El Shafee Elsheikh admits to being a member of Isis but says he was not one of the ‘Beatles’ responsible for torturing and killing hostages

Elsheikh was born in Sudan and grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, London. He went to Syria in 2012, when he joined an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. Later, he and his friend Alexanda Kotey will swear allegiance to Isis and join Emwazi and Davis.

Emwazi was perhaps the most infamous of the group and was considered the ringleader. Known as “Jihadi John”, he carried out the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning – acts that Isis filmed and broadcast in propaganda videos.

Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2018 as they fled the former IS capital of Raqqa dressed as civilians. They were held in Syria until October 2020, when they were finally taken to the United States for trial.

Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Meuller and Kassig, and is expected to be sentenced next month. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey of terrorism and imprisoned for seven and a half years in 2017.

The court heard that when Elsheikh was first captured, he posed as a Yemeni who spoke no English. When officers from the US Department of Defense used biometrics to identify him, he became outspoken and started speaking English.

After opening statements, the prosecution presented testimony from Bruce Hoffman, an Isis expert and senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Hoffman gave a broad overview of the worst crimes committed by Isis, from the treatment of prisoners to the mass enslavement of Yazidi women.

The prosecution released clips from ISIS propaganda videos, some of which showed James Foley, David Haines and Alan Henning before their deaths. At such times, their families turned for comfort in the courtroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.