U.S. partner forces in Syria are holding two suspected Islamic State militants believed to be the remaining members of a cell that held and in some cases executed Western hostages, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated group that is the United States’ main military partner in Syria, captured the two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, in early January in eastern Syria, two U.S. officials said.
The men, who grew up in Britain before traveling to Syria to fight with Islamist militants, are suspected “in the detention, exploitation and execution of Western detainees,” said one official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive counterterrorism operations.
The capture of the men, believed to be part of a militant cell known as the “Beatles” because of their British accents, was first reported by the New York Times.
The two men are believed to have links to Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton known as “Jihadi John.” Emwazi became the most well-known figure in the militant unit, which handled foreign detainees for the Islamic State, after the group released gruesome videos showing him beheading Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff and other prisoners.
The executions helped pull the United States into the conflict in Syria, where the Islamic State had grown powerful amid the country’s long civil war.
Emwazi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2015, while a fourth member of the cell, Aine Davis, was detained in Turkey.
The U.S. official described Kotey and Elsheikh as “guards or interpreters” for that cell.
Elsheikh, who grew up in west London after his family emigrated from Sudan, was described as having had a normal adolescence. He is believed to have been radicalized in his 20s.
Kotey, who has a Ghanaian and Greek Cypriot background, also grew up in west London. He converted to Islam in his early 20s.
Former hostages describe severe mistreatment, beatings and mock executions at the hands of their jailers, especially the Britons.
Officials said the men remain in the custody of the SDF, which, with U.S. air support, has taken control of vast areas of northern and eastern Syria from the Islamic State. The prisoners have been questioned by U.S. officials.
Their detention raises new questions about the Trump administration’s strategy for handling militants captured on the battlefield.
While the Obama administration sought to try overseas terrorism suspects in federal courts, the Trump administration has expressed openness to sending them to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Late last month, President Trump signed an executive order affirming his intent to keep the prison open indefinitely and signaling that it could receive new detainees for the first time in a decade.
Many U.S. officials say renewed detentions could open the U.S. government to legal challenges without providing a swift judicial outcome. A military court process for other Guantanamo detainees has been stuck in pretrial proceedings for years.
U.S. officials are discussing the future of the men with “partner nations,” the official said but declined to provide details.