Alexandria, Virginia — El Shafee Elsheikhone of three British men accused of masterminding a brutal Islamic State hostage-taking scheme, was sentenced on Friday to eight life terms after being found guilty in April for his role in the plot that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
The eight life sentences, one for each count, must be served concurrently. There is no parole in the federal system. Elsheikh, the highest-ranking ISIS fighter to face a jury trial in the United States, plans to appeal; his attorney says it will likely be due to an ineffective attorney.
Elsheikh was found guilty of eight counts, including four counts of hostage taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
Known collectively as “The Beatles” for their British accents, Elsheikh and his co-conspirators Mohammed Emwazi and Alexanda Kotey worked together to kidnap and abuse more than two dozen Western hostages, prosecutors say. He was convicted of participating in the plot that led to the death of American hostages James Foley, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller and Steven Sotloff.
First Assistant US Attorney Raj Parekh reminded the court of the horrors suffered by the hostages. “To paraphrase a line from Dante’s Inferno, ‘we lack the vocabulary of such pain,'” he said.
“This systematic brutality included mock executions, waterboarding, sustained beatings, stress positions, orders to fight and other shocking acts of violence as the victims were also starved and forced to live in squalid conditions. This also included sadistic mind games, such as forcing the hostages to memorize the words of ‘Hotel Osama'”, as testified by former hostages Nicholas Henin, Edouard Elias and Daniel Rye Ottosen during the court case.
He recounted the “Royal Rumble”, when the Beatles placed the hostages in a cell and forced them into a fight, threatening the losers with waterboarding.
“They were malnourished and the Beatles did a sportscaster-style play-by-play as they punched each other and passed out,” Parekh said.
Family members were able to address the court and the accused during impact statements at sentencing on Friday.
Diane Foley, who noted that Friday marks the eighth anniversary of the murder of her son, James Foley, by ISIS, addressed her remarks to Elsheikh: “El Shafee, you will spend the rest of your life in prison for your actions horrible. But you, too, lost – your freedom, your citizenship and your family contacts. We all lost.”
“Love is so much stronger than hate,” she told him. “I pity you for having chosen hatred and for having succumbed to a false theology because Islam is truly a religion of mercy and peace.”
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Jessica Aber, exposed the Beatles’ crimes “with families not only horribly losing their loved ones, but losing them on the international stage in front of a shocked audience.”
“Without the commitment of the families,” she continued in a tweeted video statement“This case would never have made it to our courthouse. We wouldn’t have the result we have today.”
After the hostages were released or killed, Elsheikh continued to serve in the hierarchy and higher echelons of ISIS until his capture in January 2018.
Foley, Kassig and Sotloff were all beheaded in a series of gruesome ISIS propaganda videos and images released in 2014. ISIS had claimed Mueller was killed in an airstrike in 2015 while that she was in Syria, but at trial prosecutors said ISIS operatives actually killed her after holding her captive and sexually abusing her for a year and a half.
Elsheikh was accused of participating in the kidnapping and torture that led to the murder of the hostages.
Elsheikh and Kotey were eventually captured together and held by the Syrian Defense Forces before Britain agreed to extradite them to the United States for trial. Kotey pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John” and as a figure who carried out numerous hostage executions, was killed in Syria in 2015.
Aine Davis, suspected by some countries of being a fourth member of the ISIS “Beatles”, was charged with terrorism-related offenses in the UK earlier this month after he was deported from Turkey, according to British authorities. He was convicted in Turkey in 2017 of being a member of the Islamic State and had served a prison sentence there. U.S. prosecutors did not name Davis as a co-conspirator or “Beatle” during Elsheikh’s trial.