British ‘Beatles’ terror suspects face US court over deaths of Western hostages

Two British suspected terrorists are facing court in the US over allegations of “depraved acts” including the beheading of Western hostages.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are said to have been part of a cell of executioners known as The Beatles because of their British accents, 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 US Justice Department said.

Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, both from west London, are due to appear in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday.

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.

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

Alan Henning
Alan Henning (Family Handout/PA)

Announcing the charges during a press conference, John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told reporters the pair will now come before a court in the US to “face justice for the depraved acts alleged against them in the indictment”.

He said: “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.

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.

David Haines
David Haines (Family Handout/PA)

“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.

“It was a big win for us knowing that the US courts would be taking this forward because we have been waiting years since they were first detained.”

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 eight counts listed in a 24-page indictment, which was unsealed shortly before the announcement, Kotey and Elsheikh 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.

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, but when asked if this was solely because the UK had demanded this guarantee in return for its co-operation, he added: “The decision was to try to keep the option (of seeking the death penalty) open at first but ultimately that didn’t work.”

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