A member of an Islamic State group that beheaded American hostages in Iraq and Syria, nicknamed “the Beatles” for their British accents, has been found guilty in a US court of terrorism offences.
A jury found El Shafee Elsheikh, a 33-year-old former British citizen, guilty on all eight counts following a trial in Alexandria, Virginia.
The jury deliberated for four hours before reaching its verdict in the most significant prosecution of an Islamic State member in the US. Elsheikh stood motionless and gave no visible reaction as the verdict was read. He now faces up to a life sentence in prison.
Elsheikh was charged with hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens –journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller – and supporting a terrorist organization.
The two-week trial heard how the group forced their captives to fight each other until they collapsed and made them sing cruel song parodies. Surviving hostages testified that they delighted themselves rewriting “Hotel California” as “Hotel Osama” and making them sing the refrain “You will never leave”.
The guilty finding came even though none of the surviving hostages could identify Elsheikh as one of their captors. Although the Beatles had distinctive accents – survivors identified them as “John,” “George” and “Ringo” – they always took great care to hide their faces behind masks and ordered hostages to avoid eye contact or risk a beating.
Prosecutors suggested in opening statements that Elsheikh was the man nicknamed “Ringo” but only had to prove that Elshiekh was one of the Beatles because testimony showed that all three were major players in the scheme.
During close arguments on Wednesday, first assistant US attorney Raj Parekh told jurors: “The Beatles were the lifeblood of the hostage conspiracy.”
Elsheikh, who was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian defense forces in 2018, eventually confessed his role in the scheme to interrogators as well as media interviewers, acknowledging that he helped collect email addresses and provided proof of life to the hostages’ families as part of ransom negotiations.
But testimony showed that he and the other Beatles were far more than paper pushers. The surviving hostages said that they dreaded the men’s appearance at the various prisons to which they were constantly shuttled and relocated.
Surviving witness Federico Motka recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when he and cellmate David Haines were put in a room with American hostage James Foley and British hostage John Cantlie and forced to fight in what they called a “Royal Rumble”. The losers were told they’d be waterboarded. Weak from hunger, two of the four passed out during the hourlong battle.
The convictions on all eight counts in US district court in Alexandria revolved around the deaths of four American hostages. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
They were among 26 hostages taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Defense lawyers acknowledged that Elsheikh joined the Islamic State group but said prosecutors failed to prove he was a Beatle. They cited a lack of clarity about which Beatle was which, and in the trial’s opening statement cited the confusion about whether there were three or four Beatles.
Prosecutors said there were three: Elsheikh and his friends Alexenda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, who all knew each other in Britain before joining the Islamic State.
Emwazi, who was known as “Jihadi John” and carried out the executions, was later killed in a drone strike. Kotey and Elsheikh were captured together in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to face trial after the US promised not to seek the death penalty.
Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence but leaves open the possibility that he could serve out his sentence in the UK after 15 years in the US. Britain stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their UK citizenship.
The court heard harrowing testimony from survivors and their families. Kassig’s father, Ed, took the witness stand and read a May 2014 letter written by his late son in captivity. It said: “Dad, I’m paralyzed here. I’m afraid to fight back. Part of me still has hope. Part of me is sure I’m going to die.”
Kassig – an aid worker taken hostage in Syria in 2013 – wrote that his captors tried to convince the hostages that they had been abandoned by their families and their countries for refusing to meet the Islamic State’s demands.
“But of course we know you are doing everything you can and more. Don’t worry, Dad, if I do go down I won’t go thinking anything but what I know to be true, that you and Mom love me more than the moon!”
Kassig added: “If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can take some refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”