Islamic State

Alleged members of the ‘IS Beatles’ call hostage beheadings a ‘regrettable mistake’

In their first interview with the media, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey said the revoking of their citizenship denies them fair trial

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 5:24am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 5:55am

Two British militants believed to have belonged to an Islamic State group cell notorious for beheading hostages in Syria said on Friday that their home country’s revoking of their citizenship denies them the possibility of a fair trial. 

The two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, spoke at a detention centre in northern Syria in their first interview with the media. 

Asked about the beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other victims, Kotey said many in IS “would have disagreed” with the killings “on the grounds that there is probably more benefit in them being political prisoners.”

“I didn’t see any benefit. It was something that was regrettable,” he added. 

He also blamed Western governments for failing to negotiate, noting that some hostages were released for ransoms.

No fair trial, when I am ‘the Beatle’ in the media. No fair trial
El Shafee Elsheikh

Elsheikh said the killings were a “mistake”. 

The militants should not have initially threatened to kill the hostages, he said, because then they had to go ahead with it or else “your credibility may go”.

The men were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up the IS cell nicknamed “The Beatles” by surviving captives because of their English accents.

The cell held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and became known for its brutality, torturing its captives and beheading several American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and Syrian soldiers in 2014 and 2015.

They were captured in early January in eastern Syria by the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces amid the collapse of IS.

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They spoke openly of their membership in the Islamic State group but refused to say what their role was. 

They called the allegations that they belonged to the “Beatles” cell and were involved in kidnappings and killings “propaganda” – but they refused to address specifics.

Elsheikh, whose family came to Britain from Sudan when he was a child, was a mechanic from White City in west London. 

Kotey, who is of Ghanaian and Greek-Cypriot descent and converted to Islam in his 20s, is from London’s Paddington neighbourhood.

Elsheikh travelled to Syria in 2012, initially joining al-Qaeda’s branch before moving on to IS, according to the US State Department’s listing of the two men for terrorism sanctions.

It said he “earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an (IS) jailer.”

Kotey served as a guard for the execution cell and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding”, the State Department said.

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They spoke to at a Kurdish security building in the town of Kobani, where they were brought, initially in handcuffs and face covers that were removed. 

They appeared to speak openly with no signs of duress.

Kotey was conversational, often cracking jokes – when asked whether IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alive, he joked that some people thought Elvis never died and Tupac Shakur is still alive.

Elsheikh was straightlaced and reserved, referring more often to Islamic texts.

They were unrepentant about belonging to IS but were dismissive of the atrocities the group was notorious for during its rule of more nearly three years over much of Syria and Iraq. 

They compared its executions to death sentences in other countries. 

Elsheikh said that if IS committed torture, it would be a violation of Islamic law – but added that while he had heard stories of torture “you can’t prove anything”.

They depicted the allegations as something created by media and foreign intelligence – “so the world can say this is the bad guy and kill the bad guy”, Elsheikh said.

“No fair trial, when I am ‘the Beatle’ in the media. No fair trial”, he added.

The capture of the two men has sparked a debate over where and how to prosecute them. 

They said they had been questioned repeatedly by US military officials and the FBI – though Kotey said he had refused to talk them without a lawyer.

The US has been pressing for the home countries of foreign jihadis in Iraq and Syria to take their nationals for trial. 

Britain’s defence secretary has said they should not be allowed back into the country.

Former captives of the cell and families of its victims have called on Elsheikh and Kotey to be given a fair trial, whether in the United States or Britain, arguing that locking them away in a facility like Guantanamo Bay would only fuel further radicalism.

Elsheikh and Kotey denounced the British government’s decision in February to strip them of citizenship as “illegal”. 

The decision was widely reported in British media, though officials have not confirmed or denied it, citing privacy rules. 

The two men said a British official informed them in detention of the decision.

The revocation exposes them to “rendition and torture,” Elsheikh said. 

“I found it strange that they could actually do that, revoke the citizenship of a person”, Kotey said.

“I was born in the UK,” he said. “My mother was born in the UK. I have a daughter there in the UK. ... I probably never left the UK more than three months” before coming to Syria.

Kotey said the fairest venue for a trial may be the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. “That would be the logical solution.”