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The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Islamic State militants from Britain, accusing them of carrying out a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against Western hostages, including four Americans.(Oct. 7)

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WASHINGTON – Two British ISIS militants known as “The Beatles” are facing terrorism charges in the deaths of several hostages, including four Americans, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Officials said Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, whom captives had referred to as the Beatles because of their British accents, and two other co-conspirators were involved in the kidnapping, torturing and killing of American, European and Japanese hostages from 2012 to 2016. The two appeared in a Virginia federal court just outside Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and are being held at the Alexandria Adult Detention Center. 

The men grew up in the United Kingdom, where they became radicalized, authorities said. They left London in 2012 and traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group.

Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up an Islamic State cell dubbed “The Beatles,” speak during an interview with The Associated Press at a security center in Kobani, Syria. (Photo: Hussein Malla, AP)

“Today’s announcement is a reminder of the threat that we continue to face from radical Islamic terrorists,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said. “These terrorists despise the freedoms and way of life we cherish as Americans and are hell-bent to impose their ideologies on a world that continues to reject them.”

The other co-conspirators were Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, who was killed in an airstrike in 2015, and an unnamed British citizen who is incarcerated in Turkey.

Among the American victims were print and video journalist James Foley, who was covering the war in Syria when he was captured; Steven Sotloff, a journalist who covered the Middle East and was reporting on the refugee crisis in Syria; Peter Kassig, a humanitarian aid worker; and Kayla Mueller, also a humanitarian worker. 

ISIS’s media center released videos in 2014 showing the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig.

Victims of Islamic State militant “Jihadi John,” a member of the cell dubbed “The Beatles,” are shown in various handout file pictures and image grabs. Top left to bottom right: Japanese freelance video journalist Kenji Goto, U.S. aid worker Peter “Abdel-Rahman” Kassig, U.S. freelance reporter James Foley, Japanese national Haruna Yukawa, U.S. freelance writer Steven Sotloff, British national Alan Henning and British aid worker David Haines. (Photo: DSK, AFP/Getty Images)

Mueller was sexually abused by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former ISIS leader who was killed during a U.S.-led raid in Syria in 2019. Authorities said Mueller’s family received an email from ISIS fighters in 2015 confirming her death. 

Mueller’s parents lauded President Donald Trump for taking decisive action in killing al-Baghdadi.

Kayla Mueller was abducted Aug. 4, 2013, and she endured rape and torture for 18 months. Her parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, said the Obama administration vowed to do everything it could to investigate her abduction.

“We put all our faith in government, but the government let us down,” said Carl Mueller, who held a picture of his daughter.

But the Muellers recounted how Trump ordered an Army special forces raid in Syria that resulted in al-Baghdadi’s death. The raid was called Task Force 814, after their daughter’s birthday, Aug. 14, and the mission was called Operation Kayla Mueller.

“We are hopeful that the U.S. government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice,” the victims’ families said in a joint statement. “And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law.”

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A friend of Kayla Mueller, the young woman who was taken hostage by ISIS, describes her as “fearless” and “an incredible person.”

Kotey and Elsheikh, who were captured in 2018, had admitted their roles in ransom negotiations for the hostages but denied allegations they tortured and murdered the captives. Kotey admitted extracting “proof of life” information and email addresses from European hostages so ISIS could contact family members with ransom demands. Elsheikh said he was a liaison between the prisoners and the ISIS officials who handled the negotiations. 

According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, Kotey, Elsheikh and Emwazi supervised detention facilities where the captives were held and were involved in torturing the victims. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, said Kotey and Elsheikh coordinated ransom negotiations.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead:President Trump says ISIS leader is dead after U.S.-led raid in Syria

They also allegedly forced European hostages to witness the execution of a Syrian prisoner. Kotey told the captives to kneel at the side of the grave as they held signs pleading for their release, authorities said. Emwazi shot the prisoner while Elsheikh videotaped the death. 

Elsheikh then told one of the European hostages “You’re next,” according to the indictment.

Kotey and Elsheikh were charged with hostage taking resulting in death and other conspiracy charges. They face life imprisonment if convicted. 

“The families of the victims have suffered the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “While their pain may never subside, today, with the announcement of this indictment, we’re beginning to bring them the justice they deserve.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, who has been working with the victims’ families, called the charges “a giant step towards justice.”

“These terrorists have been in legal limbo for years but thankfully that ambiguity is over now,” Shaheen said in a statement. “The families of Americans murdered by ISIS finally have their day in court on the horizon. Through a thorough trial with all evidence presented, the United States has an opportunity to deliver real justice and honor the memories of James, Peter, Steven and Kayla.”

The Justice Department decided not to pursue the death penalty against the men because it needed evidence held by the United Kingdom to prosecute Kotey and Elsheikh, Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel in August.

Britain has traditionally sought assurances that the death penalty would not be sought as a condition of cooperation in cases involving other governments.

Contributing: Devi Shastri, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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