Alexandria, Va. – El Shafi Elsheikh was not an ordinary Islamic State infantryman – he was a senior leader who took special pleasure in abusing captive hostages, prosecutors said in a statement at the start of Elsheikh’s terrorism trial on Wednesday.
Ilsheikh, a British national, is accused of playing a leading role in the Islamic State cell that held more than 20 Western hostages between 2012 and 2015, when the terrorist group controlled and was in control of large parts of Iraq and Syria. The height of its power.
Four Americans – journalists James Foley and Steven Sutloff and aid workers Peter Cassig and Kayla Mueller – were among the hostages. Foley, Sutloff and Cassig were beheaded; Horror videos broadcast their executions around the world. Mারller was held captive and repeatedly raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before being assassinated.
Prosecutor John Gibbs said Elsheikh was known by his captives not only for his British accent, but also for his unusual affection for barbarism within a terrorist group known for its brutality.
According to Gibbs, the surviving hostages will testify that Elsheikh and two British compatriots were more likely to beat the daily guards. Even hostages were “beaten away” by British men for ransom after a ransom was paid, Gibbs said. When ElSheikh and friends learned that a European hostage was celebrating his 25th birthday, they confirmed that they had hit exactly 25, Gibbs said.
Gibbs said the three men were “absolutely horrible” for the hostages. If the British came in contact with the hostages, they should have been on their knees, facing the wall, and always avoiding eye contact.
“If any of the hostages looked at any of the three, they would be beaten,” Gibbs said. “Actually, they didn’t have to do anything to beat them.”
The hostages were also subjected to waterboarding and other forms of torture, Gibbs said.
Interestingly, Gibbs only mentions three British nationals – Elsheikh, his longtime friend Alexandra Cote and Mohammed Mwaji, who often played the role of executioners and were known as “jihadi men”. Together, the men were nicknamed “Beatles” by their captives, partly because of their accent and partly because the hostages felt the need to be confidential when talking to each other because they risked punishment for publicly discussing their abductors, Gibbs said.
Of the three, ElSheikh was specifically known as “Ringo,” Gibbs said.
Generally, public discussions centered on the four prisoners known as the Beatles. Fourth, Ain Davis is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.
Mwaji was killed in a drone strike and Kotek was taken prisoner with El Sheikh and brought to Virginia to face trial. Kotey pleaded guilty last year to a plea bargain which called for a life sentence.
Defense attorney Edward McMahon disagreed with the Beatles’ numbers because he argued for his client’s innocence, saying Elsheikh was not a “Beatle” but a typical Islamic State soldier.
McMahon said each of the surviving hostages had different memories of the Beatles and their characteristics and whether there were three or four.
He noted that British speakers were always careful to wear masks, making identification difficult.
McMahon added that Elsheikh’s numerous admissions in media interviews about his role in the hostage-taking project should be ignored. He made the remarks while in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces and feared relocation to Iraq, where he heard rumors that detainees were being briefly executed after a 10-minute trial, the attorney general said. He acknowledged that being a “Beetle” was a way to secure a transfer to Western custody, McMahon said.
In the pre-trial argument, the defendants’ lawyers tried unsuccessfully to throw out Ilsheikh’s confessions to interrogators and journalists, saying they were forced to do so. The judge said the evidence was irresistible that Ilsheikh’s confession had been given freely.
Throughout the opening statement, Elsheich avoided eye contact with the jury and sat straight in Ramrod while Gibbs described the atrocities committed on the hostages.
Gibbs told the judges that he would hear from a number of witnesses who would testify to Elsheich’s crimes, including from prisoners who had spent time with the slain Americans, as well as from family members who had demanded ransom.
The first witness to testify was Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and a professor at Georgetown University who went on the jury through the origins of the Islamic State group as a branch of al Qaeda.
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.