Trial begins for ISIS member accused of killing several Americans

Raised in London, El Shafee Elsheikh is accused of being a member of a group of ISIS militants – dubbed the “Beatles” by their hostages because of their British accents – who, according to court documents, traveled from England to Syria in 2012 and joined the terrorist organization.

Prosecutors say Elsheikh helped take hostages to demand the release of ISIS militants in prison or to collect ransom money. While some were released, many of the hostages were killed by the group on camera for propaganda films.

Elsheikh, the last alleged member of the terror cell on trial, has been charged with hostage-taking that killed four Americans: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. Elsheikh’s co-defendant, Alexanda Kotey, pleaded guilty in September.

Another member of the terror cell, Mohamed Emwazi, who prosecutors say was responsible for many of the beheadings of hostages, was killed in a drone attack in 2015.

During their opening statement, prosecutors outlined the charges against Elsheikh, foreshadowing the evidence they would present to the jury during the three to four week trial, including interviews with Elsheikh in which they say he confessed to being part of the ” Beatles” terror cell, participated in beatings and organized communications with the families of the hostages.

“This is a case involving the detention in Syria of four Americans,” US Attorney General John Gibbs said Tuesday, telling jurors they would hear “horrific testimony” about the treatment of the hostages and their eventual outcome. dead.

Gibbs told the jury that Elsheikh was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2018 and identified after US officials took his fingerprints and ran them through a Justice Department database. During his time in SDF custody, the FBI and media interviewed Elsheikh about his time as an ISIS militant and his role with the hostages.

“He described his role in getting email addresses” to the families, Gibbs said, adding that Elsheikh also said he would participate in hostage-taking.

Prosecutors say the Americans and at least 16 other Western hostages were moved and scattered in at least nine different makeshift prisons across Syria, where they were beaten, tortured and, in some cases, eventually killed.

Gibbs described the brutal beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig – filmed by the terror group – which the government will show the jury footage later in the trial. According to Gibbs, Mueller was taken hostage as a slave to ISIS in August 2013 and raped repeatedly by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before dying in what ISIS believes was a Jordanian airstrike.

In his relatively brief opening statement, Edward MacMahon, one of Elsheikh’s lawyers, told the jury that while the crimes are “heartbreaking and horrific,” Elsheikh was not a member of the “Beatles” terror cell, but a “simple ISIS fighter.” †

The evidence is “inconsistent at best,” MacMahon said, adding that witness statements from other terror cell hostages will have different versions “which Beatle is.” According to MacMahon, Elsheikh traveled to Syria to help those suffering under President Bashar al-Assad and tried to protect himself and his family when he was interviewed by the US government and the media.

Relatives of the victims were in court on Tuesday, including the parents of Foley and Bethany Haines, the daughter of David Haines, a British aid worker killed by the group. Bethany Haines and Foley’s mother, Diane, and several other members of the victim’s families, took notes during the opening statements, sitting quietly and attentively as both sides outlined the upcoming case.

Elsheikh was also in court, wearing a blue button-down shirt and black glasses, with a mask over his mouth and part of his beard.

During the trial, the Justice Department will show the jury ISIS propaganda films, photos of the deceased victims, letters, email correspondence between the victims’ families and ISIS, as well as witnesses who were also hostages of the group to testify. One of the witnesses to testify is a Kurdish woman who was enslaved by ISIS along with Mueller.

TS Ellis, a federal court judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, presides over the trial.

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