Americans held captive in Syria were subjected to physical abuse that was “unrelenting and unpredictable” before they were murdered, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday during opening statements at the trial of a British man accused of helping the Islamic State terrorist group torture and murder them.
El Shafee Elsheikh is one of four British nationals accused of taking part in the kidnappings of international hostages, including U.S. aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig and U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
One of the British men was killed in an American military air strike in Syria and another is imprisoned in Turkey. The fourth, Alexanda Amon Kotey, was brought with Elsheikh to the U.S. in 2020 to face federal charges. Kotey pleaded guilty last September and is facing life in prison. He was not required to testify at Elsheikh’s trial.
Court documents said that throughout the captivity of the American hostages and others, Kotey and Elsheikh supervised detention facilities holding the hostages and were responsible for transferring them between facilities. The men engaged “in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages,” the filings say.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gibbs told jurors Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, that Elsheikh “played a central role in a brutal hostage-taking scheme.”
Mueller was tortured and sexually abused before her death in 2015. Elsheikh and Kotey admitted their involvement in holding her captive in an interview obtained exclusively by NBC News, which aired in 2020. They also admitted beating Foley.
Defense attorney Edward MacMahon said those statements were made under duress because both men feared they would be killed if they simply admitted to being ISIS soldiers. “There were many motivations” for them to make their statements, he said.
He said the facts in the case are “heartbreaking and horrific,” but that the evidence is inconsistent and fails to show that Elsheikh bears any responsibility. Former hostages who are expected to testify during the trial have given different accounts of who the four captors were, he said.
The four British men were nicknamed the Beatles because of their accents. U.S. officials said they were led by Mohammed Emwazi, who was believed to have murdered Foley in a beheading recorded on video. Emwazi was killed by Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA drone in 2015.
American and British authorities allege the men were responsible for 27 killings, including the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and Kassig, as well as of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
In the interviews obtained by NBC News, Kotey and Elsheikh gave new details about Mueller’s time in captivity. “I took an email from her myself,” Elsheikh, referring to getting an email address the Islamic State militant group could use to demand ransom from the family.
“She was in a large room, it was dark and she was alone, and … she was very scared,” Elsheikh said in the interview.
Family members of the victims are attending the trial, and some are expected to testify. Other expected witnesses include detainees held at some of the Syrian facilities who managed to escape.
If convicted, Elsheikh faces a potential sentence of life in prison. The Justice Department agreed not to seek the death penalty in order to have him extradited to Virginia to stand trial.