ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal jury Thursday convicted a British militant accused of being a member of the brutal Islamic State cell known as the Beatles in the abduction, abuse and deaths of four Americans, a hard-won victory for the families of victims who pressured the government to bring him to justice.
The jury deliberated for a day before finding El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, guilty on four counts of hostage-taking and four counts of conspiracy related to the deaths of three American men and a young woman who were captured during the Islamic State group’s rampage through Syria in 2012 and 2013.
Elsheikh, who faces multiple life sentences, is the most prominent member of the Islamic State group to be brought to trial in the United States. He was captured in Syria by a Kurdish-backed militia in 2018 as he tried to flee to Turkey.
The verdict capped an emotionally charged two-week trial that featured the testimony of 35 witnesses, including 12 former captives who detailed relentless beatings, sexual abuse, waterboarding and killings perpetrated by a cell of three to four radicalized young Britons, nicknamed the Beatles for their accents and sarcastic banter.
“Ten years is a long time to wait, but we finally have justice for these four brave Americans,” said Diane Foley, the mother of a journalist, James Foley, who was beheaded in 2014 by an associate of Elsheikh after being kidnapped in Syria two years earlier.
Marsha Mueller, the mother of Kayla Mueller, an aid worker in her 20s who died under mysterious circumstances in early 2015 after a year and a half in captivity, praised the verdict. But she said it was hard to find peace until her daughter’s body could be recovered in Syria.
“There isn’t really going to be closure,” Marsha Mueller said. “I’m thankful for what the prosecutors have been able to accomplish, but I’m going to keep trying to find Kayla.”
The families of the victims worked for years to secure a conviction, pressuring the Justice Department to overcome logistical, legal and political impediments to bring to a U.S. courtroom Elsheikh and an associate, Alexanda Kotey, who was captured with him in Syria. In August 2020, William Barr, the attorney general at the time, agreed to waive the death penalty against the men in exchange for cooperation from British prosecutors.
The deal was crucial: Britain eventually shared key evidence in the case, including email exchanges between Elsheikh and his family.
Kotey, 38, who was part of the Beatles, pleaded guilty in September to multiple charges, saying that he had played a critical role in the kidnapping and detention of American prisoners. He is expected to be sentenced this month.
Elsheikh, who was born in Sudan and raised in London, sat impassively as each guilty verdict was read, fiddling with a mask that did not quite cover his mid-length beard.
Prosecutors argued that the polite, bespectacled defendant was a central figure in the Islamic State hostage conspiracy, responsible for drafting ransom emails and mistreating prisoners. Among those captives, they say, were Mueller and three American men — Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig — who were later beheaded by one of Elsheikh’s close associates.
Elsheikh did not deny fighting for the Islamic State group, but in rebutting the charges, his court-appointed defense team argued that he was not a member of the Beatles and that his purported involvement in the kidnappings was a case of mistaken identity given that the captors often wore black balaclavas to conceal their identities.
After the verdict had been delivered, Judge T.S. Ellis III, who presided over the trial in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia, said “the central issue” in the case was proving that Elsheikh was, in fact, a Beatle.
Family members of British citizens killed by the Islamic State group, who listened to the proceedings via telephone, celebrated the verdict.
“Today, an eight-year chapter of pain for my family has finally come to an end,” said Mike Haines, whose brother, David Haines, a British aid worker, was killed in 2014.
Mike Haines said he hoped the decision would “act as a warning to anyone else seduced by the false glamour of extremism.”
In his closing remarks Wednesday, Raj Parekh, the first assistant U.S. attorney, asked jurors to pay particular attention to the suffering endured by Mueller. She was not only physically abused like the other American captives but also treated as a slave in the months leading up to her death and sexually assaulted by leaders of the Islamic State group, according to testimony offered in the trial.
Elsheikh has not been directly implicated in the killings, but his participation in — and knowledge about — numerous kidnapping, ransom and murder plots was enough to secure a conviction under the law, prosecutors argued.
The British extremists repeatedly beat the hostages they kept imprisoned in Raqqa, Syria, which the Islamic State group claimed as its capital at the time, according to prosecutors. They subjected their hostages to abuses including waterboarding, mock executions, painful stress positions, food deprivation, chokeholds that caused blackouts, electric shocks and beatings that lasted 20 minutes or longer. They also forced the prisoners to fight one another and to witness killings, court papers said.
During the trial, the government introduced testimony from freed hostages who detailed the sadism of the cell members. But the hostages were often blindfolded and their captors were careful to always wear masks, making definitive physical identification difficult.
The prosecution team relied heavily on Elsheikh’s public comments about his actions. He gave at least seven news interviews after being captured by Kurdish forces and turned over to the U.S. military in 2018, disclosing knowledge of key operational details and his own role in seeking to extract millions of dollars in ransom payments for Western hostages.
In an opinion essay published in The New York Times in 2018, the parents of the four Americans killed in Syria said their children would have wanted their captors to “be tried in our fair and open legal system.”
Now, with the trial complete, their fight for justice has become a battle to keep the memories of their children — journalists and humanitarians who sacrificed personal safety for their work — from being forgotten.
Sotloff’s father, Arthur Sotloff, shrugged when asked if he believed the verdict was a vindication.
“I don’t know,” he said after a long pause. “But I’ll tell you this. I feel Steven’s presence here, right now, in the courtroom.”