AFP — Jury selection begins on Tuesday in the trial of an alleged member of the notorious Islamic State (IS) kidnap-and-murder cell known as the “Beatles.”
El Shafee Elsheikh is accused of involvement in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and relief workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
Elsheikh, 33, and another former British national, Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria while trying to escape to Turkey.
They were turned over to US forces in Iraq and flown to the United States in October 2020 to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison. Under his plea agreement, Kotey will serve 15 years in jail in the United States and then be extradited to Britain to face further charges.
Elsheikh opted to fight the charges and his trial begins on Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
US District Judge T.S. Ellis has said he expects jury selection to last one day with opening arguments scheduled to begin on Wednesday and the trial expected to last three to four weeks.
Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member jihadist cell, dubbed the “Beatles” by their captives due to their British accents, was allegedly involved in the abductions of at least 27 people in Syria from 2012 to 2015.
The hostages, some of whom were released after their governments paid ransoms, were from at least 15 countries, including the United States, Denmark, France, Japan, Norway and Spain.
The “Beatles” allegedly tortured and killed their victims, including by beheading, and IS released videos of the brutal murders for propaganda purposes.
Ringleader Mohamed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while the fourth “Beatle,” Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted on terrorism charges.
Kotey, known as “Ringo” by the hostages, and Elsheikh, dubbed “George,” allegedly supervised detention facilities for hostages and coordinated ransom negotiations conducted by email, according to the US authorities.
The pair were also accused of engaging in a “prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages,” which included water-boarding, electric shocks and mock executions.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a Spanish photographer held captive for six months in 2014, told AFP that “torture and murder were daily occurrences” in an atmosphere of “sadism.”
Several former European hostages are expected to testify at the trial along with a Yazidi woman detained with Mueller, who was abducted in Syria in 2013 while working with the Danish Refugee Council.
A US special forces raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria in 2019 was code-named Task Force 8-14 in reference to Mueller’s birthday.
Mueller’s parents say she was tortured before being handed over to Baghdadi, who allegedly raped her repeatedly before killing her.
According to the indictment, Elsheikh was born in Sudan and moved to Britain when he was a child.