The Justice Department charged two of the Islamic State “Beatles” in connection with the torture and murder of four Americans captured in Syria, it announced Wednesday.
Alexanda Kotay and El Shafee Elshaikh, British nationals who became part of an infamous cohort of British ISIS hostage-takers known as the Beatles, are expected to appear before a judge in the Eastern District of Virginia later on Wednesday.
G. Zachary Terwilliger, the federal prosecutor in the district, said each of the eight counts against Kotay and Elshaikh carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. The Justice Department declined to seek the death penalty in order to receive evidence related to the Beatles from the British government, which stripped both Kotay and Elshaikh of their citizenship and which opposes capital punishment.
“The attorney general decided we should provide the death-penalty assurance to get the British evidence to see if justice could be done expeditiously,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.
ISIS shocked the world with its gruesome executions of the four American captives James Foley, Peter Kassig, Steven Sotloff, and Kayla Mueller. Videos of the beheadings, most performed by a masked man with a British accent later identified as Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, became indelible features of ISIS propaganda. A 2015 U.S. drone strike killed Emwazi, and a fourth Beatle, Aine Davis—referred to in the indictment as Co-Conspirator 1—was convicted in Turkey in 2017.
The indictment stops short of alleging Kotay and Elshaikh killed any U.S., British, or other captives themselves. It instead charges them with culpability in a conspiracy to kidnap, detain, torture, and kill the four Americans. In one instance alleged in the indictment, Emwazi executed a Syrian prisoner while Kotay forced others to witness and “kneel at the side of the grave” as Elshaikh filmed the murder.
“Throughout the captivity of the American hostages and others, Kotay, Elshaikh, and Emwazi supervised detention facilities holding hostages and were responsible for transferring hostages between detention facilities, in addition to engaging in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages,” the indictment alleges.
In an apparent reference to journalist Austin Tice, who is believed to still be in custody in Syria, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau and its partners “are working tirelessly every day to recover all U.S. hostages held abroad.” Wray thanked the families of Foley, Sotloff, Kassig, and Mueller for forcing the U.S. government to restructure its hostage-rescue efforts.
Addressing the families of the victims, Terwilliger said, “ISIS will not have the last word when it comes to your children. You will.”