A jihadist who quit Britain to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria was fighting on behalf of the world’s “suffering Muslims”, his lawyers have told a US court.
El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is alleged to have been part of a group of four militants – nicknamed the “IS Beatles” on account of their English accents – who kidnapped and murdered Westerns including aid workers and journalists. The former British national has denied being part of the infamous jihadist cell.
But prosecutors told the Virginia court that Elsheikh was a killer dubbed Jihadi George who was part of a “brutal hostage-taking scheme” in which the “utterly terrifying” captors “seemed to enjoy” taking part in “unrelenting and unpredictable” torture of detainees.
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Elsheikh was born in Sudan but grew up in Shepherd’s Bush in west London after coming to Britain with his parents and two brothers in the early 1990s. According to The Telegraph, he supported Queen’s Park Rangers and “dreamt of signing for the football club and playing at nearby Loftus Road in the famous blue-and-white hooped strip”.
But after converting to radical Islamism, his ambitions changed drastically. Elsheikh’s mother, Maha Elgizouli, told BuzzFeed that her “perfect” son was influenced by the sermons of Hani al-Sibai, an Islamist preacher who described the London bombings as a “great victory”.
Elsheikh travelled to Syria in 2012 and “joined al-Qaeda before signing up with IS”, the BBC reported. He was captured in January 2018 by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), “as they overran the last pieces of IS-controlled territory”.
After being identified through fingerprints, he was stripped of his British citizenship later that year.
Elsheikh was arrested alongside Alexanda Kotey, nicknamed Jihadi Ringo. After being jailed in Syria, the two jihadists were “turned over to US forces in Iraq and flown to Virginia in October 2020 to face charges”, The Guardian said.
Kotey pleaded guilty last November in a US court to multiple charges relating to the murder of four American hostages. Under a deal struck by his lawyers, he faces a minimum sentence of life without parole, but will be eligible to be transferred to the UK after 15 years to face further possible charges.
The third so-called IS Beatle, Aine Davis (Jihadi Paul), was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison after being convicted of terrorism in Turkey in 2017. Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John), died while fighting with IS in 2015.
‘Penchant for brutality’
Elsheikh was not part of the “cell” responsible for kidnapping and torture of hostages, but rather a low-ranking IS “foot soldier”, his lawyer Edward MacMahon told a jury this week at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
In his opening statement on Wednesday, MacMahon said that the surviving hostages had differing recollections about each of the “Beatles” group, as well as whether there were three or four men involved.
But surviving captives claim that Elsheikh was known for “his unusual penchant for brutality even within a terrorist group known for its cruelty”, Sky News reported.
Prosecutor John Gibbs told the court that Elsheikh had “played a central role” and that prisoners had described “the three British men who held them” – alleged to be Elsheikh, Kotey and Emwazi – as “utterly terrifying”.
“The abuse was unrelenting and unpredictable. They seemed to enjoy beating the hostages,” said Gibbs, who told the court that a European captive was beaten 25 times in one day after the group discovered that it was his 25th birthday.
“If a hostage looked at any of the three men, they would be beaten. In fact, they did not have to do anything to be beaten,” Gibbs added, outlining the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
Elsheikh is facing charges including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder, and faces life imprisonment if convicted. The trial is expected to last for a month.
The “long-awaited” trial of Elsheikh “promises to pull back the curtain on the inner workings of the most brutal terrorist group in modern history”, said The Telegraph’s US correspondent Josie Ensor.
“There is no dispute of the gravity of the allegations,” defence lawyer MacMahon told the court. “What is in dispute is whether Elsheikh bears legal responsibility. I submit he was not a member of the Beatles and was not involved in their kidnap and torture schemes.”
According to ITV News’ US correspondent Emma Murphy, “in interviews in Syria after he was hauled from the battlefield” by the defence forces, Elsheikh “made no secret of his involvement in moving IS detainees from place to place”.
He reportedly presented himself as a “proud fighter who would repeatedly tell of his role in one of the worst hostage taking and killing episodes in recent history”.
“There was no apparent shame, more an apparent arrogance,” Murphy added.
The mother of a victim of the IS group told reporters outside the Virginia courthouse this week that the trial has “been a long time coming”.
“It’s been years and it’s very important that anyone involved in hostage taking be held accountable,” said Diane Foley, whose journalist son James Foley was beheaded in a video shared online worldwide by jihadist groups. “It’s very important. And it’s also important that he has a fair trial.”
The James W. Foley Foundation, which advocates on behalf of hostages, also welcomed the trial. “Too often captors of US nationals evade arrest and indictment, and therefore never face justice,” the organisation said.
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