Jury deliberates in case of British ISIS militant accused of kidnapping
A jury resumes its deliberations Thursday morning in the case of El Shafee Elsheikh, one of the three British men accused of operating a brutal ISIS hostage-taking scheme that led to the deaths of four Americans.
Collectively known as the "Beatles" for their British accents, Elsheikh and his co-conspirators Mohammad Emwazi and Alexanda Kotey worked together to kidnap and abuse more than two dozen Western hostages, according to prosecutors. He's charged with participating in the plot that led to the deaths of American hostages James Foley, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller and Steven Sotloff.
"This defendant put the terror in terrorism himself," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh said during closing arguments in Alexandria, Virginia, Wednesday.
Foley, Kassig and Sotloff were all beheaded in a series of gruesome ISIS propaganda videos released in 2014. ISIS had claimed Mueller was killed in a 2015 airstrike while she was in Syria, but prosecutors Wednesday said they now believe ISIS killed her after holding her as a slave and sexually abusing her for a year and a half.
Elsheikh is not accused of carrying out the act of killing the hostages himself, but he is charged with participating in the kidnapping and torture that led to the murders of the hostages. Prosecutors say that is enough to secure the conviction.
"These individuals came to Syria to promote peace and enlightenment," Parekh said. "El Shafee Elsheikh responded with the systemic, premeditated and relentless abuse and torture."
Parekh laid out his case tying Elsheikh to the hostage-taking operation by connecting him to the other Beatles.
"The evidence demonstrates that they grew up together, radicalized together, fought as high-ranking ISIS fighters together, held hostages together, tortured and terrorized hostages together," Parekh said.
Elsheikh and Kotey were ultimately captured together and held by Syrian Defense Forces before Britain agreed to extradite them to the U.S. for trial. Kotey has agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Emwazi, known as "Jihadi John" and as the figure who carried out many of the hostage executions, was killed in Syria in 2015.
Defense attorney Nina Ginsberg did not deny Elsheikh had traveled to Syria and joined ISIS or that he knew Emwazi and Kotey. However, she contended that the government did not prove that Elsheikh was one of the three Beatles. The defense claims he is just an ISIS soldier.
"Mr. Elsheikh was never identified in this courtroom by any of the former hostages," Ginsberg said.
But prosecutors say this is because the Beatles always wore masks during their interactions with the hostages.
Over the course of the more than two week trial, the jury heard evidence from dozens of witnesses including former hostages, families of the victims, officials involved in the investigation and a former ISIS fighter.
Danish hostage Daniel Ottosen, the final witness for the prosecution this week, detailed the brutality of the Beatles. He recalled being forced to attend the execution of a Syrian man while he and a group of hostages held messages to their families. Afterward while in the car back to the prison, Ottosen recalled one of the Beatles telling him that he would be next.
Before Ottosen was released in June of 2014, he memorized a message Foley wanted to send to his family. It took Ottosen three weeks to memorize the letter and was able to recite it to Foley's parents. Not long after, Ottosen saw Foley's execution video.
"I remember being happy for James that no one can hurt him anymore," Ottosen said. He then explained he felt awful seeing Steven Sotloff, who was featured at the end of the video, because he had to witness it knowing he would be next.
Ottosen returned to court Wednesday to watch the closing arguments along with a number of the American hostages' family members who have been sitting in the gallery for the duration of the trial.