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Two British-born militants of the Islamic State were charged on Wednesday with crimes related to the kidnapping, torture, rape and ultimately the brutal killings of four Americans.
Watch Nick Schifrin’s full interview with Diane Foley above.
Prosecutors allege that El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, and Alexanda Kotey, 36, comprised two of the four members of a brutal quartet of jailers and tormentors, dubbed by their captives as “The Beatles” for their British accents. American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig were all captured and killed by the men.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured more than two years ago by U.S.-aligned Kurdish forces in Northeastern Syria, and transferred this week to American custody after a delicate, diplomatic agreement was brokered between U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the United Kingdom. The linchpin of that deal was a U.S. guarantee that the men would not face the death penalty, which is outlawed in the U.K.
Wednesday at the Department of Justice, several top officials, including the FBI Director Christopher Wray, announced the federal indictments. John Demers, assistant attorney general of the National Security Division, said, “Today is a good day, but it is also a solemn one. Many around the world are familiar with the barbaric circumstances of their tragic deaths. But we will not remember these Americans for their deaths. We will remember them for the good and decent lives they lived.”
The brutal legacy these men allegedly helped pave as part of the Islamic State started shortly before Thanksgiving 2012, when Foley, a journalist and videographer, was kidnapped in Northwest Syria. Foley had previously been held by the regime in Libya after covering the revolution there the previous year. Foley’s captivity was kept secret by his family and the Obama administration, as negotiations and demands swirled among the parties for years. Countless other captives, including Kayla Mueller, Kassig and Sotloff, were taken by the Islamic State over the next years, as the group spread its dominance and brutal rule across northern reaches of Syria and Iraq.
In August 2014, as the United States began airstrikes on ISIS targets, Foley was brutally murdered by the ringleader of the so-called “Beatles,” a Briton named Mohammed Emwazzi, who beheaded Foley on camera after the American recited his last words. In short order, Sotloff was murdered and throughout that fall and the early days of 2015, ISIS staged theatrical murders of captives of several nationalities. Emwazzi, dubbed “Jihadi John,” was targeted and killed by a CIA drone later in 2015. A fourth member of this British group, Aine Davis, is currently imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges. His extradition to the U.S. would appear doubtful, amid the deepening disarray in relations between Washington and Ankara. The leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, died during an American Special Operations Forces raid in March 2019, as his self-proclaimed “Caliphate” crumbled after four years of terror, privation, torment, and death, across parts of Syria and Iraq.
Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother and founding president of the foundation that bears her son’s name, talked to the PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin about the trial to come.
“I definitely will see this through. I do feel these men were obviously led astray in a huge way, and that is part of the reason I’m against the death penalty. I think they should have the opportunity to understand their crimes and an opportunity to make amends for all that they’ve inflicted on the world,” Foley said. “I really want to be as engaged as I can. And I’m grateful for that, too.”
Morgan Till is the Senior Producer for Foreign Affairs and Defense (Foreign Editor) at the PBS NewsHour, a position he has held since late 2015. He was for many years the lead foreign affairs producer for the program, traveling frequently to report on war, revolution, natural disasters and overseas politics. During his seven years in that position he reported from – among other places - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Haiti, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and widely throughout Europe.
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