The Justice Department unsealed charges Wednesday against two British members of the Islamic State who were part of a cell that killed four Americans, including aid worker Kayla Mueller in 2015.
Alexanda Kotey, 36, and El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, who belonged to an ISIS cell known as “The Beatles” because of members’ British accents, each faces eight terrorism offenses related to hostage-taking resulting in death.
They were scheduled to make their first court appearance in Alexandria, Virginia, late Wednesday afternoon. Both defendants face life in prison if convicted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the indictment moments after the Justice Department announcement.
“We welcome the transfer of the ISIS ‘Beatles’ to the United States to stand trial in a court of law,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted. “The United States will not rest until these alleged terrorists are held accountable for their crimes and justice is delivered to their victims’ families.”
The announcement marks a significant step in the nearly five-year legal battle to bring them to justice. It also sets the stage for perhaps the biggest terrorism trial since 2014’s case against the mastermind behind the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
“Many around the world are familiar with the barbaric circumstances of their tragic deaths,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said of the victims at a press conference announcing the charges. “But we will not remember these Americans for their deaths. We will remember them for the good and decent lives they lived.”
Mr. Elsheikh and Mr. Kotey have been held in U.S. military custody since 2019, while the Justice Department negotiated with its British counterparts to put them on trial. The two were captured in Syria in 2018 by Syrian troops.
The department has accused them of holding hostage and beheading more than two dozen hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Stoloff and U.S. aid workers Peter Kassig and Mueller.
The pair “were leading participants in a brutal hostage-killing scheme targeting American and European citizens, and others, from 2012 to 2015,” prosecutors wrote, accusing the two of “a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against the hostage.”
Court documents detail the brutal torture of the hostages, including forcing them to witness murders, mock executions, electric taser shocks, waterboards and threats of beatings.
Prosecutors said the men vowed to release the hostages only if the U.S. government agreed to release Muslim prisoners or if their families paid large ransoms.
For example, Mr. Foley’s family was asked to pay 100 million euros and the defendants demanded 5 million euros from Mueller’s parents.
The defendants have reportedly been involved in the death of more than 27 hostages, including individuals from Japan and Europe. However, the pair are charged only in relation to the deaths of the four Americans.
Earlier this year, Mr. Elsheikh and Mr. Kotey admitted their involvement in the kidnapping of Mueller, who was tortured and sexually abused before her murder in Syria.
“Today, we remember the victims, Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller, and their families who are forever affected by these senseless acts of violence,” said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. “These families have suffered with the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers.”
Mr. Kotey and Mr. Elsheikh are the only two members of the Islamic State cell to face justice. One of the members was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2015, and another member of the cell was captured in Turkey that year. He is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
In August 2014, after the Obama administration began conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, the cell retaliated by posting a graphic video online showing Mr. Foley’s murder.
The cell released a second video less than a month later showing the killing of Mr. Sotloff, while Mr. Kassig was killed a few months later.
The videos were among the most graphic and violent videos posted by the Islamic State.
A fourth American, Mueller, was held hostage by the cell and repeatedly raped by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Mr. Elsheikh and Mr. Kotey had previously denied meeting Mueller, but later recanted in interview tapes obtained by NBC News.
“She was in a large room, it was dark, and she was alone, and she was very scared,” Mr. Elsheikh said in the tape.
Yet the two remained in legal limbo until August when Attorney General William Barr agreed not to pursue the death penalty if the United Kingdom turned over information on the pair.
The United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled this year that it was unlawful for Britain to share information with Washington unless U.S. officials gave assurances they would not pursue the death penalty.
Mr. Barr said at the time he was willing to abandon the death penalty because U.S. prosecutors needed “important evidence” in the possession of U.K. authorities.
At the press conference Wednesday, Mr. Demers said the evidence turned over from the U.K. allowed American prosecutors to “put on the strongest case possible.”
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