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US trial begins for Islamic State 'Beatles' member El Shafee Elsheikh

Former British citizen is to stand trial on charges including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder
A courtroom sketch shows El Shafee Elsheikh appearing via video link at the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.
A courtroom sketch shows El Shafee Elsheikh appearing via video link at the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia (Reuters/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Fairfax, Virginia

The US criminal trial for a former British citizen believed to be a member of an Islamic State (IS) cell nicknamed "The Beatles", which beheaded hostages in Syria and Iraq began in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday.

El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, will stand trial on charges including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder.

In addition to standing accused of the deaths of four Americans who were reporting on or supporting victims of the Syrian war, prosecutors say he is also implicated in the deaths of British, Japanese and Norwegian captives.

Elsheikh is allegedly one of four IS militants belonging to the execution squad nicknamed the "Beatles" due to their British accents.

The cell garnered international attention after releasing videos of the murders of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, among others.

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Jury selection began on Tuesday, and the court case is expected to last four weeks.

Several former hostages of the "Beatles" are expected to testify in the case, and some family members of the victims are also planning to attend the trial in northern Virginia.

"This has been a long time coming," said Diane Foley, whose son James, a freelance journalist, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and murdered two years later.

"Accountability is essential if we're ever going to stop hostage-taking," Foley told AFP.

Also present at the trial will be Bethany Haines, 24, whose father, David, a British aid worker, was also murdered by IS.

If Elsheikh is convicted, Haines and others would have an opportunity to present victim impact statements before the judge hands down his sentence.

Haines told the Sunday Times that she would plead with Elsheikh "to do the right thing" and reveal where the remains of her father and other hostages can be found.

"Don't do it for me," she said she will tell him. "Do it for my son, so that he can finally say goodbye to his grandad."

Fighting the charges

Elsheikh and the other IS members were allegedly involved in the abductions of at least 27 people in Syria from 2012 to 2015.

Mohammed Emwazi, known as "Jihadi John," was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey.

Elsheikh and the fourth person, former British national Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, were captured by a Kurdish militia in Syria in January 2018.

They were turned over to US forces in Iraq, stripped of their British citizenship, and flown to Virginia in October 2020.

Kotey pleaded guilty and is facing life in prison while Elsheikh chose to fight the charges.

Elsheikh has sought to minimise his own role in the abductions and killings, having said that they were planned and carried out by others, Emwazi in particular, at the behest of IS leadership.

In 2019, Elsheikh admitted that his behaviour toward the hostages "was not always in line, or in tone with, what is incumbent on me" as a Muslim.

He told the Washington Post that he lacked "compassion" and saw the harsh treatment of westerners as "tit for tat".

If convicted, he will face a mandatory life sentence in prison, rather than the death penalty, after a deal was made with British authorities to allow the trial to take place in the US.

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