El Shafee Elsheikh hostage-taking trial begins in Virginia

He is in federal court in Alexandria over the deaths of four Americans who covered or supported victims of the Syrian civil war – journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. Prosecutors say he is also involved in the deaths of British, Japanese and Norwegian captives.

Mohamed Emwazi, a member of the cell who was known as “Jihadi John” before being identified, killed several of these prisoners himself, on camera, while taunting Western leaders. He died in a drone strike in 2015. The other three were guarding hostages and handling ransom negotiations. One, Aine Davis, was convicted at trial in Turkey after denying any connection with the Islamic State. Elsheikh and his friend Alexanda Kotey were captured by Kurdish forces in 2018 and handed over to US authorities. Kotey pleaded guilty last year, in exchange for being able to serve part of his sentence in the UK.

“I had no doubt that any failure by these foreign governments to comply with our demands would ultimately result in either the indefinite detention of these foreign captives or their execution,” Kotey said during his plea hearing before the court. federal court in Alexandria.

The Islamic State began taking hostages in Syria in late 2012, as fighters crossed the border from Iraq to take advantage of its neighbor’s civil war. Foley, a 39-year-old teacher-turned-journalist from New Hampshire, was reporting on the dispute with British photographer David Cantlie. Both were freelancers who agreed to work in dangerous territory; both had been kidnapped before and escaped. This time they were taken together, from a taxi towards the Turkish border. According to GQ Magazine, one of their captors was a man they had spoke briefly at a nearby internet cafe – Emwazi, whom they would know as “John”.

Over the next two years, more hostages were taken. Sotloff, a 30-year-old Middle Eastern journalist from Miami, was abducted on his way to Aleppo on the same day in 2013 that human rights activist Mueller, about to turn 25, was kidnapped on leaving a hospital in this city. Peter Kassig, a former army ranger who converted to Islam and changed his name in captivity to Abdul-Rahman, was captured months later on his way to deliver food and medical supplies to refugees in eastern Syria.

At that time, the Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the hostages based on information from European captives who had been released.

Foley was killed first, in a November 2014 video, followed by Sotloff, two British aid workers and Kassig. Cantlie, who appeared in several ISIS propaganda videos, was never found; in 2019 the UK government said he may still be alive. Activists sent Mueller’s family a photograph of his body in 2015; it wasn’t clear when she died.

Emwazi was implicated in the deaths of Foley, Sotloff and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

After her son’s death, Diane Foley became a lawyer to bring the killers to trial in federal court and to get the US government to do better with citizens held hostage overseas.

“This responsibility is essential … if our country ever wishes to deter hostage-taking,” she said in a statement after Kotey’s guilty plea. “Attacks on journalists are at an all-time high and our hostage crisis in the United States is a silent epidemic, of which few people are aware.”

The White House now has a special envoy for hostage affairs, a position that did not exist when the hostages were killed by the Islamic State.

Elsheikh said the killings were planned and carried out by others, Emwazi in particular, at the behest of Islamic State leaders. He is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, but also with taking hostages causing death, conspiracy to commit hostages causing death and conspiracy to criminals in favor of a terrorist group resulting in death. He could be convicted of those charges without being involved in the planning or execution, as long as jurors find he agreed to be in a conspiracy involving the killing of hostages.

Prosecutors plan to play excerpts of media interviews at trial in which Elsheikh says he solicited information from hostages and used it to demand ransoms. In a 2019 interview with The Washington Post, Elsheikh admitted that his behavior towards the hostages “wasn’t always — being older now and understanding religion a lot more — wasn’t always in line or in accord with what I’m saying. ‘incumbent’ as a Muslim. He said he lacked ‘compassion’ and saw the harsh treatment of Westerners as ‘tit for tat’.

Elsheikh also alleges that he was tortured by Kurdish forces into making false statements about his actions.

Prosecutors also plan to call as a witness a Yazidi woman who was detained with Mueller. Unlike the other American victims, Mueller’s death was not filmed and his remains were never located. And they will likely show videos of the dead hostages and messages between their families and the kidnappers.

In an intelligence briefing with Defense Ministry officials presented at an earlier hearing, Elsheikh said he personally contacted the Norwegian and Japanese consulates to negotiate ransoms for three hostages who were eventually executed. .

Elsheikh was born in Sudan and grew up in London with his mother and two brothers. In a 2016 interview with the Post, his mother, Maha Elgizouli, said that for most of his life her son was an ordinary Londoner and a “perfect” child. He spent three years in the Army Cadet Force, an army-supported youth group – an experience he would reference in an interview with the BBC after his capture. He encouraged a local football team and worked as a mechanic.

But as he got older, family friends said, he became angrier. Her brother had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in a deadly dispute; his Canadian wife was barred from entering the UK. He fell under the influence of a radical West London imam. Elsheikh went to Syria in 2012 and his younger brother, Mahmoud, joined him a few years later. Mahmoud was later killed fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq.

“He’s not the son I raised,” Elgizouli said when she learned that Elsheikh was one of the hostage takers.

But she fought to have him tried in Britain rather than the US, a legal battle that led US authorities to agree he would not face the death penalty. Instead, if found guilty, he will face a mandatory life sentence. The trial before U.S. District Judge TS Ellis III is expected to last four weeks.

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