Who are ‘The Beatles’ Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, and why are they being tried in the USA?

The so-called Islamic State does not fill headlines in the way they used to but now as ‘fighters’ within the caliphate are being charged, two of the most notorious members are now facing charges in the US despite being raised and born in Britain.

Alexanda Kotey (R) and El Shafee Elsheikh (L) nicknamed ‘Jihadi Ringo’ and ‘Jihadi George’ photographed upon arrest in Syria. The two now face criminal charges and life in prison in the United States. Copyright: Sky News ©

“A Message to America” fills the screen of a video uploaded to YouTube on August 19, 2014. It features the uncomfortable sight for many across the world, especially journalists. A man is being led into a desert area, clad in an orange jumpsuit by a hooded masked figure wielding a large knife. It’s an image that entered the zeitgeist of the 2010s, that of incoming murder by a ruthless terrorist organisation that has gripped the world in fear.

The masked figure stands with his knife pointed to the camera, blaming then President of the United States Barack Obama for the actions he is about to commit. However, what’s noticeable in the video, is not only it’s horrific nature, but what many assumed to be a foreign terror group consisting of members from Syria and Iraq, seemed to be being represented by a man with a thick London accent. This figure would later become known in the press as ‘Jihadi John.’

Born Muhammad Jassim Abdulkarim Olayan al-Dhafir, later Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, the eldest of a reported five children before relocating with his family to Queen’s Park, London. Educated at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in St John’s Wood, north London, Emwazi would later be described as a ‘reasonably hardworking’ pupil, and later after completing a degree in computing from the University of Westminster in 2009 was painted as “the best employee we ever had” by a Kuwaiti employer.

After returning to the UK for a short stay after being told he cannot return to Kuwait as his visa has been denied, Emwazi later entered Syria to join the so-called Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or simply ISIS/IS.

Islamic State claims to be the legitimate ruler of all Sunni Muslims worldwide, began its origins in al-Quadea and widely assumed to have begun as a splinter group for those with a more violent ideology. Its goal is to implement Sharia Law, rules rooted in eighth-century Islam, to establish a society that mirrors the region’s ancient past. These goals involve the group committing vast horrific human rights violations, including committed torture, mass rapes, forced marriages, extreme acts of ethnic cleansing (particularly of the Yazidis a small ethnic group that do not follow Islam and inhabit the mountains of northwestern Iraq), mass murder, genocide, robbery, extortion, smuggling, slavery, kidnappings, and the use of child soldiers.

Emwazi’s thick English accent led the terror suspect to be branded ‘Jihadi John’ and his fellow cohorts, the group who kidnapped and imprisoned journalists like James Foley, also helmed from Britain, leading the group to be infamously nicknamed ‘The Beatles’ after the music group of the same name.

“The Beatles” consisted of the following four men —

Despite where they were born, all men were raised and spent their early years in London, where they would be radicalised and leave to join the Islamic State. All of them took hostages, most famously James ‘Jim’ Foley, an American freelance journalist, who’s on-camera beheading brought the group’s notoriety to public light and Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was reportedly killed 2015. James and others were kept in cramped small cells in Western Raqqa, Syria. Each of ‘The Beatles’ had their responsibility and survivors have noted that some showed more compassion than others. Mueller was kept separate from the others.

After the hostage videos and intense media coverage as to who ‘Jihadi John’ was, it was reported that Emwazi had been killed in a US drone strike. According to the BBC, US Col Steve Warren said that an attack in Raqqa had hit the intended target (Emwazi), but it would take time to “formally declare that we have had success”. At the time, UK PM David Cameron said targeting Emwazi was “the right thing to do.” In November 2015, ABC News reported that “One official said the jihadist, Mohammed Emwazi, was thought to be hit as he left a building in Raqqa, Syria, and entered a vehicle. The official called it a “flawless” and “clean hit” with no collateral damage and that Emwazi basically “evaporated.”

In January 2016, ISIS’ online magazine Dabiq contained an obituary for Emwazi, confirming his death.

Aine Lesley Davis or “Paul” was arrested in Turkey in 2017, and convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation and jailed for seven-and-a-half years at a court in Silivri, Turkey. During reported proceedings, Davis told the BBC that he was innocent and had travelled to Syria “because there was oppression in my country”.

Victims of “The Beatles” — Top row: James Foley, Alan Henning, Steven Stoloff. Botton row: David Haines, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yuka, Kenji Goto. The cell was involved in each of their deaths some of which were taped and uploaded to social media, including YouTube.

Following the death of Emwazi and incarcerated Davis, this left two of The Beatles open to prosecution. After the erosion of IS territory in Iraq and Syria, following the Battle of Mosul in 2017, many involved the caliphate desperately tried to flee incoming Kurdish forces who were rounding up members of the group. It was reported that Kotey and Elsheikh were captured fleeing an ISIS dominated area in 2017. The two were later taken to into US custody, whilst the world decided who was responsible for charging the two men for their crimes.

Kotey and Elsheikh were British raised and held British citizenship (later stripped), so the responsibility fell on the UK to bring the men to justice. However, many Americans felt the two, who were involved in America’s most famous casualty of IS, James Foley, should be brought to justice in the USA. Kotey and Elsheikh resisted the desire for both to be brought to trial in the States, given the latter’s harsher prison and criminal justice system. In an interview with the BBC, Elsheikh said “What makes the British government want a British citizen to be tried in America? Like what’s behind it?” In the meantime, Britain’s High Court rejected a request by the mother of either Kotey and Elsheikh to block the transfer of information to the United States.

As a negotiation broke out between the States and the UK regarding the fates of “Ringo” and “George” there was heavy speculation the two would be brought to Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The camp, which was established by US President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002 during the War on Terror, has faced accusations of human rights violations of its own. Previous Muslim inmates have previously filed complaints that torture, sexual degradation, forced drugging, and religious persecution was routinely being committed by U.S. forces at Guantánamo Bay. President Obama vowed to close the facility during his presidency, but recent reports have claimed that President Trump wishes to send those convicted of terror crimes to the prison following an election promise in his 2016 election campaign in which he said he wanted to make use of it to imprison “bad dudes.”

Following the formal announcement that the two men would face charges in the US, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that she was “Pleased to say that the further evidence to support the prosecution of Kotey & El Sheikh has now finally been transferred to the US. I sincerely hope that justice for the victims and their families will now be served.”

This was followed by FBI Director Christopher Wray telling a press conference: “We mourn not only our American victims but also the British victims David Haines and Alan Henning, and victims of all nations who suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of Isis.”

Kotey and Elsheikh face the following charges —

  • Conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death
  • Hostage taking resulting in death
  • Conspiracy to murder United States citizens outside of the United States
  • Conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists — hostage taking and murder — resulting in death
  • Conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation resulting in death

Each of these charges alone carry a life sentence.

One sticking point in the transfer of responsibility of ‘The Beatles’ was the UK condition that the two would not face the death penalty. The US later made clear the two would not be executed if found guilty.

On October 7th 2020, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were charged with the above-listed crimes, transferred to US custody and appeared via video link from prison at a hearing in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Their trial continues and both are expected to face life in prison.

El Shafee Elsheikh (L) and Alexanda Kotey (R) as they were charged in US court. Copyright EPA ©

Kurtis Reid is a freelance journalist living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Follow me on Twitter here.

I’m a freelance journalist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland writing about issues in Northern Ireland on an international level. Twitter @kurtisreid_

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store