Two of the remaining members of the British ISIS cell known as “the Beatles” have confessed their part in the ransoming of Western hostages in a rare interview that showed them broken and pleading for news of their fate. One of the fighters also offered an unprecedented apology for his actions with the group.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh have been held in northern Syria by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for more than a year, and they recently consented to speak to CNN through a cameraman in their jail and a correspondent by remote video link from London.
Their comments come amid a raft of activity by foreign governments and the SDF to resolve the destination of hundreds of Western ISIS fighters held in overcrowded Syrian prisons, including the transfer of a dozen French fighters to Iraq where they were sentenced to death in May.
A visibly drained Elsheikh said: “I consider my role in this whole scenario, this whole episode as one of my mistakes that I would like to apologize for. [To] everybody involved and everybody who was affected, directly or indirectly.”
Kotey – whose year mostly in solitary confinement appears to have removed the arrogance he displayed when interviewed by CNN a year ago – declined to offer an apology. But he admitted taking email addresses from European hostages and assisting in the ransom negotiations that followed with relatives and friends.
“I was a fighter,” Kotey said. “Extracting from them email addresses for communications. For example, if it was a proof of life question, something that only they would be able to answer.” Asked why he agreed to this task, he replied: “It just so happened that way.”
Elsheikh said he was involved in the same activities, “initially just liaising between the foreigner prisoners and the people dealing with their negotiations process.” He confirmed that this involved negotiating ransoms.
Some European hostages were released after negotiations, but several Western aid workers and journalists went on to be executed gruesomely, allegedly by Kotey and Elsheikh’s friend, and fellow “Beatle,” Mohammed Emwazi. He was otherwise known as Jihadi John and was killed by a drone strike in November 2015.
The pair currently being held in Syria are accused of torturing the hostages they kept in their care. The US State Department has accused Kotey, 35, originally from Ladbroke Grove in London, of having “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture” of their Western journalist and aid worker hostages. Elsheikh “was said to have earned a reputation for water-boarding, mock executions, and crucifixions,” according to the State Department.
The men denied involvement in the murders and physical abuse of hostages, saying they had been transferred to another unit before the violence began. Several former hostages however, have said they were tortured by masked British-accented men matching their descriptions.
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a Spanish photographer imprisoned by the group for about six months before his release in 2014, told CNN: “I was tortured in an ISIS jail by masked men with British accents. Many other of my fellow prisoners were too, and some didn’t survive captivity. We would want that they see justice for what they did.”
‘The truth has to come out’
Kotey and Elsheikh’s confessions, partial or full, come as their fates remain unclear, despite dozens of other ISIS members being sent to their home countries for trial. The United Kingdom stripped them of citizenship as far back as 2015, and now refuses to put them on trial, citing the legal complications of repatriating former citizens.
The SDF are not equipped to stage complex trials in northern Syria. This leaves the pair in limbo, potentially facing the death penalty in Iraq, or in the United States, whose citizens they are accused of imprisoning and torturing.
The pair accepted their confessions might expedite their fate, but sought, as Kotey said, “closure.”
Elsheikh said: “If anything, I think that a confession will maybe hasten our extradition or rendition to the United States, I don’t think this is something that will prevent me going to the United States at all. I don’t see how that would be possible. I just want this period to be over. I know what needs to be done. The truth has to come out.”
Kotey admitted that he helped organize a failed London-based ISIS assassination plot in 2016, remotely from Syria. He claimed not to have known the target and then later learned it had been a Kuwaiti Shia cleric living in London in exile. The plot was actually intended to kill British soldiers or police, a UK trial later heard. “I was responsible for his acquisition of a firearm,” Kotey said. “As far as the details of any plot … I had no involvement in that.”
Both men expressed their preference to be tried in a British court, however remote that possibility, suggesting these initial confessions might be intended to convince prosecutors seeking to put them on trial that the case against them is now straightforward.
While American ISIS members have been sent back to the US, not all European nations have organized the same repatriation.
A dozen French ISIS men have been sent from northern Syria to Iraq, where they have stood trial and been sentenced to death in the past two weeks.
In May, Reuters reported that US forces assisted in the transfer of suspected ISIS members from Syria to Iraq.
Responding to these claims, Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson told CNN: “US forces have taken custody of a small number of ISIS fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces for transfer to the Government of Iraq.” He did not provide nationalities or further details.
Swift and brutal justice
These trials, in a small Baghdad courtroom where cameras are not allowed, are often swift and have resulted in a death sentence for all bar one of 13 French detainees in the last month.
The swift and brutal justice exposes the delicate line between the deterrent value of leaving foreign ISIS fighters in the hands of the legal system of the countries they sought to fragment, and the need for their home nations to be seen to prosecute their own extremists under the value system ISIS sought to undermine.
A CNN reporter attended four recent Baghdad trials where, following the arguments, the judge usually spent about 10 minutes deliberating before ruling for death by hanging.
On Sunday June 2, Fadhil Mohammad Abdullah Tariq appeared in a yellow prison suit. The judge asked him about confessions he made in January to Iraqi intelligence, and he asked for an Arabic translator. He admitted both military and administrative duties in the Omar Bin al-Khattab battalion, and that he was sought on a minor drugs charge in France, dating back to 2011. After a 10-minute deliberation, the judge sentenced him to death.
Next up was Vaina Djamal Abdul-Qader, a psychology graduate who joined ISIS in 2013. He said he was twice wounded, once in the hip due to a mistake by another fighter, and the second time during bombing in Idlib. He said he worked away from the front line assisting ISIS widows, and married two Syrian women. Abdul-Qader’s lawyer said he had not met his client before the trial, and 10 minutes after adjournment the judge announced death by hanging.
The next day French-Algerian Murad Mohammad Mustafa was also sentenced to death, along with Bilal Abdul-Fattah. Abdul-Fattah said he drove from Paris to Syria to escape racism in France, and was exempted from military service because of his asthma.
He said he tried to leave ISIS and hand himself over to French intelligence before his arrest by the SDF. The judge also deliberated for 10 minutes before sentencing him to death.
Mohammed Hassan contributed to this story from northern Syria; Aqeel Najm contributed to this report from Baghdad.