British jihadist denies membership of ISIS Beatles terror cell in landmark US trial

31 March 2022, 14:49 | Updated: 31 March 2022, 14:59

'Crazy' jihadist accused of being in 'ISIS Beatles' put victims through 'unrelenting' torture. Picture: Alexandria Sheriff's Office

By Liam Gould

An ex-British ISIS jihadist El Shafee Elsheikh is on trial in the US as he is accused of the kidnap, torture and murder of four Americans in Syria.

Mr Elsheikh denies being a member of the 'ISIS Beatles' - a cell of four British-born jihadists who were said to be involved in the murders of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and relief workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

The court in Virginia heard that the accused played a key role in keeping over 20 Western hostages in Syria from 2012 to 2015.

They also heard the horrifying accounts that he was responsible for "unrelenting and unpredictable" torture. This included "going away beatings", and beating one captive 25 times after learning it was his 25th birthday.

Mr Elsheikh has denied any role in the kidnap or murder of the four Americans and claims he was "just a simple fighter" for ISIS.

The 33-year old - known as 'Jihadi George' and 'Jihadi Ringo' - has been charged with conspiracy to murder, lethal hostage-taking, and fighting for a terrorist organisation as he is said to have operated in Iraq and Syria during the peak of ISIS control in the region.

The trial begun on Wednesday and is expected to last three weeks.

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He has been accused of being one of the 'ISIS Beatles', a cell of four men named by the hostages after the band due to their British accents and citizenship.

Mr Elsheikh is one of two of the accused group that will be prosecuted in the US along with Alexanda Kotey. Aine Lesley Davis was convicted and jailed in Turkey. British citizen Mohammed Emwazi - known as 'Jihadi John' - who wielded the knife in the beheading videos was killed in a drone strike in 2015.

Prosecutor John Gibbs said Mr Elsheikh was known for his British accent and particular brutality toward ISIS hostages.

"All [the hostages] experienced brutal mistreatment at the hands of the British men they called the Beatles" and Mr Elsheikh "seemed to get satisfaction from physically abusing the hostages."

He added: "All said the three British men who held them were utterly terrifying. The abuse was unrelenting and unpredictable."

The hostages were said to have been forced to fight each-other, water-boarded and regularly beaten.

The prosecution went on to say there was often no explanation to the violence. "If a hostage looked at any of the three men, they would be beaten," Gibbs said.

"In fact, they did not have to do anything to be beaten."

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The court was shown the ISIS propaganda videos that included the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Also described was the experience of relief worker Kayla Mueller, who was torture and repeatedly raped by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.

The families of the four American victims were present in the courtroom. Bethany Haines, the daughter of Briton David Haines who was beheaded by the terrorist cell, was also in attendance at the trial.

Despite not being prosecuted for her father's murder due to a lack of jurisdiction, Ms Haines wanted to see her father's alleged killer.

In a joint statement, the families of Foley, Kassig, Mueller and Sotloff said: "James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved, and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria.

"Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a US court."

Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who spent three months as an ISIS hostage, said Mr Elsheikh was the "most crazy one" and "the one who was leading the others."

Defense attorney Edward MacMahon argued that there was "no doubt" Mr Elsheikh was in Syria fighting for ISIS, but was "a foot soldier". He claimed there was no evidence he was a member of the 'ISIS Beatles.'

Mr MacMahon said there were discrepancies over whether there were three or four men responsible.

"The former hostages will give you different versions of whom the Beatles were, you will hear very, very different stories."

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Mr Elsheikh had confessed to being a member of the Syrian cell previously, but his defence team claimed these should be disregarded as it was said out of fear of execution in Iraq.

He and Alexanda Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria and handed over to US authorities. They were later flown to Virginia in 2020 to face trial.

Mr Kotey previously pleaded guilty to charges in 2021 and faces life in prison. Mr Elsheikh faces an unconditional sentence of life imprisonment.

The trial continues.