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Life sentence for ISIS ‘Beatle’ who tortured, ransomed U.S. hostages

A jury convicted El Shafee Elsheikh, 34, in April of conspiracy charges in the kidnapping and murder of journalists and humanitarian workers

Diane Foley spoke Aug. 19 after El Shafee Elsheikh, who was convicted of conspiring to kill her son, James, and three others, was sentenced to life in prison. (Video: Reuters)

An Islamic State militant who was one of the ringleaders torturing international hostages, demanding ransom payments from their families and broadcasting videotaped executions to the world was sentenced Friday to life in prison.

U.S. prosecutors said El Shafee Elsheikh was one of the three “ISIS Beatles,” a group of masked terrorists known for their British accents and brutal executions of journalists and humanitarian-relief workers during the Islamic State’s rise in Syria. The Justice Department described Elsheikh as “the most notorious ISIS member to face a jury trial in the United States.”

A jury convicted Elsheikh, now 34, in April of conspiracy charges in the kidnapping and murder of four Americans — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and humanitarian workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as terrorism charges in the deaths of British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning and Japanese citizens Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

Elsheikh was sentenced on the eighth anniversary of Foley’s beheading in an emotional hearing in Alexandria, Va., federal court. The judge and people in the courtroom choked up as a prosecutor read from letters the victims had written for their families, including a letter from Mueller to her family in which she reaffirmed her faith and said she was confident they would meet again.

Alexanda Kotey, another member of the group who was captured with Elsheikh in 2018, pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced this year to life in prison. The third member of the “Beatles,” Mohammed Emwazi, who was the masked executioner on the Islamic State’s chilling propaganda videos, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2015.

At trial, Elsheikh’s defense team denied that he was a member of the “Beatles” or that he had any role in the torture and execution of hostages, calling him a “simple ISIS fighter.” But Elsheikh had given a series of interviews to journalists detailing his role beating prisoners, extracting personal information from them and seeking ransoms from their families.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh of the Eastern District of Virginia, who has prosecuted several Islamic State members brought to the United States, recounted how 35 trial witnesses gave testimony that Elsheikh, Emwazi and Kotey would strike hostages in “the meat of the muscle” to maximize their pain. They waterboarded and starved prisoners, prevented them from using the restroom, and made them stand all night. And they forced hostages to memorize the lyrics to a song called “Hotel Osama,” a parody of “Hotel California” with a play on how the victims would “never leave.”

Mueller was turned over to a senior member of the terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, and sexually abused by the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, witnesses said. The British and U.S. governments refused to pay ransoms for hostages. Foley, Kassig and Sotloff were beheaded on infamous propaganda videos.

“These series of crimes are as grave, as sadistic and as reprehensible as it gets,” Parekh said. “To paraphrase a line in Dante’s Inferno, we lack the vocabulary of such pain.”

Parekh added that “Elsheikh remains defiantly remorseless and unrepentant” and “is the highest-ranking and most notorious ISIS member to have ever faced trial in the United States.”

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III called Elsheikh’s and Kotey’s conduct “horrific, barbaric, brutal, callous — and of course, criminal.”

The judge sentenced Elsheikh, who was born in Sudan, raised in Britain, and later stripped of his British citizenship, to eight concurrent life sentences. Ellis found that Elsheikh knew or could have reasonably foreseen that Mueller would be sexually abused by other members of the Islamic State; that Elsheikh made false statements to the court when he claimed the FBI lured him into speaking to law enforcement without an attorney; and that Elsheikh was a leader in the hostage-taking conspiracy.

Ellis said he could not impose a death sentence on Elsheikh because prosecutors had not requested it. Elsheikh’s mother, who lives in Britain, had sued to prevent the British government from sharing evidence with U.S. prosecutors. The American victims’ families successfully pushed for the Trump administration to forgo seeking the death penalty to secure support for the prosecution from Britain.

Because he agreed to plead guilty, Kotey may petition to serve the rest of his life sentence in Britain after 15 years in a U.S. prison. Elsheikh chose to go to trial and must serve his entire life sentence in the United States.

Defense attorneys called Elsheikh a “model prisoner” since he was taken into U.S. custody and requested that the judge recommend against placing him in the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., where inmates are held in isolation and allowed only one hour of activity per day. The judge declined and said the Federal Bureau of Prisons would decide where to place Elsheikh.

Foley was a teacher-turned-journalist from New Hampshire. Sotloff was an experienced journalist from Florida covering the Middle East. Kassig was a former Army ranger from Indiana who traveled to Syria to set up a volunteer organization. Mueller was a humanitarian-aid worker from Arizona whose remains have not been located. Her parents said after the sentencing they are still searching for her.

“These brave Americans saw the suffering of the Syrian people and decided to help,” Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said after the sentencing.

At the hearing, Diane Foley told Elsheikh, “James would want you to know that you did not win.”

Breaking into tears, she said her son’s example of service and compassion lived on in his family and supporters worldwide.

“James Wright Foley lives on,” she told Elsheikh.