British terror suspects face US court accused over hostage deaths

Two British terror suspects have appeared in a US court charged over the beheadings of Western hostages.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are accused of being involved in a “brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of four American citizens, as well as British and Japanese nationals, in Syria.

The pair, who grew up in London and are said to have been part of a cell of executioners known as The Beatles because of their British accents, appeared via video link from prison at a hearing in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday.

At one point during the hearing, a handcuffed Elsheikh, who wore a green T-shirt and a blue surgical mask, asked whether he was under arrest and was informed by the magistrate that he was.

When asked if he wanted to hire his own lawyer or have one appointed, the 32-year-old said: “I don’t know. I haven’t had time to consult.”

Kotey, 36, also asked about his status, saying: “I’m just waiting to be briefed on what’s going on. This is all kind of foreign to me.”

A detention hearing and arraignment were scheduled for Friday but the lawyer appointed to represent the pair said he might ask for a delay to allow time to go over the charges with the defendants.

The eight-count indictment against the men was announced earlier by the US justice department at a press briefing ahead of the court hearing, with John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, telling reporters the pair would “face justice for the depraved acts alleged against them in the indictment”.

The cell, said to be made up of ringleader Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John, Aine Davis, Kotey and Elsheikh, is allegedly responsible for the killings of a number of Western captives, including Britons Alan Henning and David Haines.

Alan Henning
Alan Henning

Many of the deaths were filmed and beamed around the world in graphic detail by so-called Islamic State.

Mr Demers told the earlier briefing: “The defendants are charged with terrorism offences related to hostage-taking and killing of four Americans, as well as citizens of Great Britain and Japan.”

Former aircraft engineer and humanitarian Mr Haines, 44, from Perth in Scotland, was beheaded in Syria in 2014 after being held prisoner for 18 months.

David Haines
David Haines

Cab driver-turned-aid worker Mr Henning, 47, from Lancashire, was also beheaded in 2014 after being captured by extremists in Syria.

Mr Haines’s brother Mike told the PA news agency: “The pain we experienced as families was excruciating when we lost our loved ones, and the last three years have been a long, horrible waiting game.

“I, like the other families, am relieved that the fate of these two men is closer to being decided but this is just the beginning.”

Listing details from the charging document, G Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told reporters: “These alleged terrorists both grew up in the United Kingdom where they became radicalised.

“Their role within the Isis terrorist organisation was that of being part of a brutal hostage-taking scheme by which American, European and Asian citizens were taken hostage from approximately 2012 to 2015.

“The brutal acts of beheading were captured by the Isis media propaganda machine and disseminated to achieve their aims of Jihad.”

As part of the conspiracy “their vicious acts and those of co-conspirators” are alleged to include forced witnessing of murders, mock executions, shocks via electric taser and beatings among other brutal acts, he said.

Under American law, the pair may be held liable for the “foreseeable acts of their co-conspirators” that took place during the course of the conspiracy – including facilitating hostage taking, ransom demands, abuse and the murder of Americans, Europeans and Asian citizens to “further their terrorist agenda and that of Isis”, reporters were told.

If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Mr Terwilliger added: “Kotey and Elsheikh are presumed innocent unless, and until, proven otherwise.”

According to the 24-page indictment they are each charged with:

– Conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death

– Four counts of hostage taking resulting in death (relating to American victims James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig)

– Conspiracy to murder United States citizens outside of the United States

– Conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists – hostage taking and murder – resulting in death

– Conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation resulting in death.

Emwazi was killed in a US air strike in 2015 while Davis was later jailed in Turkey.

Kotey and Elsheikh were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2018 and transferred to the custody of the US military in Iraq in October 2019, remaining in American custody ever since.

The indictment released by the US justice department said the pair had taken part in and been arrested during a demonstration outside the US embassy in London in 2011 in support of the 9/11 attacks. They travelled to Syria the following year.

Last month, a High Court ruling allowed the UK to share case information with US authorities, which the families of the British alleged victims described as a “huge result”.

Mr Demers confirmed the death penalty would not be pursued in the case.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said they were “pleased that the process of delivering justice for the victims and their families has begun in the US following the transfer of UK evidence”.