For the first time a member of the ISIS “Beatles” group — 33-year-old El Shafee Elsheikh, also known as Jihadi George — has been tried in a US courtroom on charges of hostage-taking and conspiracy to murder. He denied the accusations.
Four Britons left their home to join ISIS in Syria and were nicknamed “The Beatles” by their captives because of their British accents.
Prosecutors said Elsheikh was “absolutely terrifying” and the abuse perpetrated on detainees was “relentless and unpredictable”.
The case being tried in Virginia focused on his alleged role in the murder of four Americans: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.
He is also held responsible for the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
Elsheikh was born in Sudan and raised in Shepherd’s Bush, west London – he is the most senior ISIS figure to face the US justice system to date.
ISIS members were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2018 and handed over to US authorities. The leader of the gang, Jihadi John, was killed in Syria in 2015 by a US drone strike.
A third Beatle, Alexanda Kotey, pleaded guilty to the murders of journalists and aid workers. He will be sentenced next month. The last member of the group, Aine Lesley Davis, was convicted on terrorism charges in Turkey in 2017.
Prosecutor John Gibbs told the court that Elsheikh “played a central role in the brutal hostage scheme”.
He said: “In a so called ‘desert’ prison, 26 Western hostages are being held. You will hear from some of them. All told the three British men holding them were absolutely terrifying. The abuse was unrelenting and unpredictable. They seem to enjoy beating the hostages.”
Diane Foley, mother of journalist James Foley who was beheaded by Jihadi John, told the Independent: “It took a lot of time to get these people here and I hope it will send a message. I know it’s just one step, but for me it’s is a big step.”
Defense attorney Edward MacMahon told the jury that the “Beatles” all had the same British accent and characteristics, so differences in the testimonies of the freed hostages meant Elsheikh could not be conclusively identified as a member of a terrorist cell.
Mr MacMahon said any confessions made to the media in captivity were made under pressure because Elsheikh feared he would be hanged in Iraq for claiming to be an ISIS fighter.
The parents of the four American victims and the daughter of a British aid worker were seated a few meters from the accused. The Independent reported that they appeared emotional when details of their son’s or daughter’s detention were revealed to the court.