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Why 2 Islamic State militants are going on trial in a Virginia courtroom

Two of the most notorious Islamic State militants were charged in a Virginia federal courtroom Wednesday with crimes stemming from the kidnapping and killing of four Americans in Syria. It’s the next step in the pursuit of justice for a case that began with unspeakable horrors. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, about its significance.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, in a Virginia federal courtroom, two of the most notorious ISIS militants were charged with crimes stemming from the kidnappings and killing of four Americans in Syria.

    It's the beginning of a pursuit for justice that began with unspeakable horrors.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a group that symbolized barbarism and brutality, four British-born men were among ISIS' most brutal terrorists and committed the group's most notorious crimes.

    The U.S says the so-called Beatles helped capture, guard, torture, and execute journalists and aid workers on camera. Their ringleader, known as Jihadi John, was killed in a 2015 U.S. airstrike, and two others were captured in 2018 by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters who liberated Northeast Syria.

    Today those two, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, landed in the U.S. and appeared in federal court, charged with four counts each of hostage-taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens outside the U.S., and conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists. Each count carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

    Zach Terwilliger is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern district of Virginia.

  • Zach Terwilliger:

    Ensuring that truth and justice find their way out of this tragic story would mean that the Islamic State will never have the last word.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Among their alleged victims:, American humanitarian workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese citizens Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, and American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley.

  • Diane Foley:

    I feel this is a very important step towards a bit of accountability. If there's no accountability, Nick, terror reigns.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Diane Foley is Jim's mother.

  • Diane Foley:

    Part of Jim's legacy is having the moral courage to pursue the truth, pursue justice for all of us, and to have the moral courage to pursue that no matter how long it takes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2019, U.S. special operations forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who allegedly personally raped and tortured Kayla Mueller.

    Today's announcement was years in the making. The U.S. needed a British court to release British intelligence on the men, which it received only after Attorney General William Barr sent this letter to London promising the U.S. would not pursue the death penalty.

    This summer, in an interview broadcast on NBC News, the two men reversed previous denials and admitted they helped imprison and abuse prisoners.

  • El Shafee Elsheikh:

    I have hit most of the prisoners.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They have maintained they can't get a fair trial, as in this 2018 interview in Kurdish custody with the Associated Press.

  • El Shafee Elsheikh:

    No fair trial when I'm the Beatle in the media, no fair trial, because the jury or the judge or whoever is going to come to a decision has already been influenced. It's too late.

  • Diane Foley:

    These two men have been held now almost 20 months, as long as Jim was.

    But the difference is that they have been housed and fed, have legal counsel, and now will have a fair trial, in contrast to what our citizens went through when they were tortured, raped, starved, and killed without any voice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for more about this case, we turn to Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.

    John Demers, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others have wanted these two men tried in Guantanamo. Why are they being tried instead in Alexandria, Virginia, in a civilian court?

  • John Demers:

    Well, thanks, Nick, for having me on here.

    This is one of the most significant counterterrorism prosecutions that we have done in the past several years here at the department. And in looking at the evidence, in discussing this with our interagency partners, it was clear to us that, in this case, the best option for justice for the families, for the victims and for all Americans was to try these two defendants here in the U.S. in federal court, as we have tried hundreds of defendants in federal court over the years very successfully.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How strong would you describe the government's evidence, and do you anticipate a long trial?

  • John Demers:

    Well, we believe our case is quite strong, or we wouldn't have brought it.

    And getting the evidence for — from the U.K. has helped us strengthen the case, helps us to tell a very full story. And we think we can put that on, together with the evidence that we have, and obtain convictions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You were just talking about the evidence that you have.

    Can you talk about some of that evidence and the witnesses that you may have? Do you have anything that proves what these men did firsthand?

  • John Demers:

    I'm not going to go through all the evidence in a lot of detail here, Nick. Obviously, we have to respect the process at this point.

    But if you look through the indictment, you can see we make very specific allegations about these individuals' radicalization in the U.K., these individuals' travel to Syria, these individuals joining this ISIS cell, and then their participation in the hostage-taking and ultimately the murders of these Americans, British, Japanese individuals in Syria.

    So, yes, we will have evidence of all of that and be able to put that full story on in court at the time of trial.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As you know, they have been giving interviews for years.

    Finally, just a few months ago, they did admit to knowing these prisoners and even abusing some of them. They have maintained, though, they can't get a fair trial because, essentially, they are too notorious.

    Can they get a fair trial?

  • John Demers:

    Sure, they can.

    That's the way our system works. And I trust the courts to ensure that they will get a fair trial. I trust their prosecutors to ensure that as well. We have conducted fair trials of many terrorists, many of them notorious here in the United States. And I think we will do so again here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When I was talking to Diane Foley earlier, she said that she hoped this trial would produce more evidence, this would produce the ability perhaps even to capture other terrorists.

    Do you think that's possible?

  • John Demers:

    Well, this investigation is still open, and it will continue. And so it's possible that we will discover additional evidence and other individuals will come forward.

    Today, we called on other countries that may have evidence also to come forward. And so, we're hopeful that someone will. And I hope that Mrs. Foley is right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you anticipate them pleading guilty?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Demers:

    That, I don't know. I don't know.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If you can try these two members of ISIS, who were born in Britain, in a civilian court, can you try other high-profile terrorists in civilian courts, perhaps even including those who are currently in Guantanamo?

  • John Demers:

    So, we can and we have tried other high-profile terrorists here in civilian court, including in the same court in Alexandria that these two individuals will be tried.

    How — whether we can do that in any given case depends on the facts of that case, the nature of the evidence that we have. So, it's always a very case-specific analysis to make that decision. And, in this case, we were able to conclude that, yes, we could try these two individuals here in Alexandria in federal civilian court, and that that was the best option for pursuing justice for the families and their victims.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And finally, John Demers, in about the 45 seconds or so I have left, for those of us who were living in the Middle East at the time of these murders, for those who have been following ISIS, we all know how extraordinarily impactful these murders were.

    How important is a day like today when it comes to thinking about how influential ISIS once was?

  • John Demers:

    Well, this is a very important day.

    And we can never forget the terror, the horror of these murders and the way they used these murders and the videotapes of these murders that they showed, as well as other grisly executions and deeds, in order to terrorize the population there and to try to strike fear in the hearts of the Europeans and the Americans that were there in theater.

    The bottom line of today's prosecution is, they failed, that, ultimately, the ISIS state is no more, that we were able to capture these individuals even many years later and bring them here to justice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers, thank you very much.

  • John Demers:

    Thanks very much, Nick.

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