ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A jury convicted a British national Thursday for his role in an Islamic State group hostage-taking scheme that took roughly two dozen Westerners captive a decade ago, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, three of whom were beheaded.
In convicting El Shafee Elsheikh, the jury concluded that he was one of the notorious “Beatles,” Islamic State captors nicknamed for their accents and known for their cruelty — torturing and beating prisoners, forcing them to fight each other until they collapsed and even making them sing cruel song parodies. Surviving hostages testified that the Beatles delighted themselves rewriting “Hotel California” as “Hotel Osama” and making them sing the refrain “You will never leave.”
The guilty finding came even though none of the surviving hostages could identify Elsheikh as one of their captors. Although the Beatles had distinctive accents, they always took great care to hide their faces behind masks and ordered hostages to avoid eye contact or risk a beating.
Prosecutors suggested in opening statements that Elsheikh was the Beatle nicknamed “Ringo” but only had to prove that Elsheikh was one of the Beatles because testimony showed that all three were major players in the scheme.
Elsheikh, who was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian defense Forces in 2018, eventually confessed his role in the scheme to interrogators as well as media interviewers, acknowledging that he helped collect email addresses and provided proof of life to the hostages’ families as part of ransom negotiations.
But testimony showed that he and the other Beatles were far more than paper pushers. The surviving hostages, all of whom were European — the American and British hostages were all killed — testified that they dreaded the Beatles’ appearance at the various prisons to which they constantly shuttled and relocated.
Surviving witness Federico Motka recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when he and cellmate David Haines were put in a room with American hostage James Foley and British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “Royal Rumble.” The losers were told they’d be waterboarded. Weak from hunger, two of the four passed out during the hourlong battle.
The jury deliberated for four hours before finding Elsheikh guilty on all counts. Elsheikh stood motionless and gave no visible reaction as the verdict was read. He now faces up to a life sentence in prison.
Several victims’ family members, who were present throughout throughout the three-week trial, fought back tears as the guilty counts were read.
“Praise God! I’m so thankful,” said Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, after the verdicts came in. “I’m so proud of the American justice system. El Shafee Elsheikh was treated with a great deal of mercy. He had four attorneys. … Hopefully we were able to turn this into justice, not revenge.”
She contrasted what she said was the stellar work of the prosecution with what she said was the inaction of government to bring Foley and the other Americans home when they were hostages.
“When we really needed to bring the full force of the government to bear to bring them home, that failed,” she said. “They were abandoned.”
She said she hopes the case brings attention to the more than 60 Americans who are being held hostage or wrongly detained around the world.
The convictions on all eight counts in U.S. District Court in Alexandria revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
They were among 26 hostages taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Defense lawyers acknowledged that Elsheikh joined the Islamic State group but said prosecutors failed to prove he was a Beatle. They cited a lack of clarity about which Beatle was which, and back in the trial’s opening statement cited the confusion about whether there were three or four Beatles.
Prosecutors said there were three — Elsheikh and his friends Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, who all knew each other in England before joining the Islamic State.
Emwazi, who as known as “Jihadi John” and carried out the executions, was later killed in a drone strike. Kotey and Elsheikh were captured together in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to face trial after the U.S. promised not to seek the death penalty. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence but leaves open the possibility that he could serve out his sentence in the United Kingdom after 15 years in the U.S.
Kotey will be formally sentenced April 29. Elsheikh will be sentenced Aug. 12. But on Thursday the judge in the two cases, T.S. Ellis III, ordered that Elsheikh appear at Kotey’s hearing as well so that he will hear victim impact testimony that will presented ahead of Kotey’s sentencing.