Kotey and Elsheikh each face 14 charges, all of which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The United States on Wednesday announced federal charges against two British-born ISIS fighters for their role in the gruesome beheadings of American hostages in 2014.
Known as “the Beatles” because of their British accents, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were flown Wednesday to the United States from Iraq, where they have been held in U.S. military custody since late last year. They will appear in federal court in Virginia on Wednesday afternoon.
Kotey and Elsheikh each face 14 charges, all of which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Among the charges are a single count of conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death, four counts of hostage taking resulting in death, and one count of conspiracy to to murder U.S. citizens outside of the United States.
The charges come after British courts cleared the way for the U.K. to share intelligence with the United States needed to successfully prosecute the two men, resolving a source of friction between the United States and the U.K. that had stymied transatlantic negotiators since the capture of the men in 2018. Great Britain had previously revoked the men’s citizenship and the United States, which has had custody of the men since late 2019, was willing to try the two men in its own courts.
But until recently, the United States had insisted that American prosecutors must be free to seek the death penalty if it were to try the two men in the United States. Britain abolished the death penalty in 1969 and British courts had blocked the government from cooperating in the case.
In August, Attorney General Bill Barr formally promised that the Justice Department would not pursue the death penalty in August and the U.K. court ruled Britain could share the evidence with the United States on Aug. 26.
“The decision at first of the department was to leave open the possibility to seek the death penalty,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Demers said in a press conference Wednesday morning. “The attorney general decided that we should provide the death penalty assurance in order to get the British evidence and see that justice could be done more expeditiously than if we had to continue to litigate this issue in the courts in the United Kingdom.”
“When we have American victims, we are very willing to do these cases,” Demers added.
Asked specifically how useful the British evidence was in building the case against the two men, Demers said, “We decided that if we were going to do this case, we were going to tell the fullest story we could of what these defendants did and we were going to put on the strongest case possible. With the British evidence, I think we can do that very well.”
Kotey and Elsheikh were part of an infamous cell of Islamic State fighters in Syria who horrified the world with graphic videos of public beheadings used for ISIS propaganda in 2014. Among those killed by the group was James Foley, an American journalist who was beheaded in August of that year, and three other Americans: journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
The group also included Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” who was killed in an American drone stroke in 2015. A fourth member, Aine Lesley Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges.
Although Emwazi wielded the knife in the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and others, Kotey and Elshiekh were involved in numerous group meetings related to the hostage-taking scheme and “committed various acts inflicting pain, suffering, cruelty and mistreatment” on American hostages in captivity, according to the indictment. The indictment alleges that between 2012 and 2015, Kotey, Elsheikh, Emwazi and other fighters forced prisoners to witness murders, conducted mock executions, shocked the hostages with an electric taser, forced hostages to fight one another, subjected them to beatings that lasted up to 20 minutes, forced hostages to endure stress positions, such as standing for an entire day and night, waterboarded hostages, and withheld food and bathroom access to hostages.
From November 2013 to February 2015, Kotey and Elsheikh coordinated the Western-hostage ransom negotiations by email, according to the indictment.
The families of the American victims had opposed the death penalty for the two men, in part because they argued that it would turn the accused into martyrs, a propaganda coup for the Islamic State. They were also concerned that a U.S. insistence on the death penalty would allow the two men to get away with a lighter punishment elsewhere — or prevent American prosecutors from gaining access to the information they need to build an airtight case.
“Today is a good day but it is also a solemn one,” Demers said. “Today we remember the four innocent Americans whose lives were taken by ISIS.”