Notorious Islamic State ‘Beatles’ in U.S. custody, but can 11,000 other detainees be held securely?
The ragged band of Western hostages, enduring captivity in the heart of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, somehow summoned the grim humor to nickname the four guards with distinctive English accents who tormented them daily.
They called them “the Beatles.”
Eventually, three Americans among the captives held by the cell in 2014 and 2015, together with several other foreign hostages, would be beheaded in the bleak Syrian desert, with the killings recorded in grotesque Islamic State propaganda videos.
Amid the chaos of the ongoing Turkish incursion into northern Syria, U.S. forces have whisked two of the surviving “Beatles” suspects out of the fighting zone, where their American-allied Kurdish jailers now face the prospect of being overrun by a vastly more powerful Turkish force.
But the fate of 11,000 other Islamic State detainees, about 2,000 of them foreign fighters, has emerged as a major reason for concern as Turkish forces push deeper into Syria. There’s scant expectation that U.S.-backed Kurdish militia fighters, many of whom feel betrayed by President Trump’s abrupt pullback of American forces, will withhold troops from the battlefront to keep guarding the Islamic State prisoners at an archipelago of detention centers.
“This isn’t a surprise. The Kurds told us they couldn’t protect the prisoners or the women in the camps in a Turkish invasion,” said Nabil Boudi, a Paris-based lawyer defending 20 French citizens — fighters as well as women and children — held in the Kurdish-run detention camps.
The two surviving “Beatles” were part of a group of about four dozen detainees who were removed from wartime prisons in northern Syria and taken to more secure locations, U.S. officials said late Wednesday.
The prisoners who were taken away by American forces — as well as many of those left behind — include hardened militants believed to have presided over the worst of the caliphate’s abuses: crucifixions, decapitations, the sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and the terrorizing of entire cities and towns under the extremists’ command, according to Kurdish and American officials.
The Turkish incursion began early Wednesday after Trump, in a phone call Sunday, gave what amounted to a green light to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to move against the Kurdish-dominated militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters “terrorists” aligned with a banned Kurdish faction in Turkey, but they were the principal allies of the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State.
With lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Washington denouncing Trump’s move as abandonment of valued allies, some have focused sharply on the issue of the Islamic State detainees.
“We now face the very real prospect of 10,000 ISIS prisoners rejoining the battlefield,” said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Boudi said he had warned French government officials last year that if Turkey did attack, it could lead to a prison breakout, with some of Islamic State’s foreign adherents seeking a way to sneak back to their countries.
“We’re all watching what is happening over there, but it’s too late,” he said by phone from Paris.
In addition to the detainees, tens of thousands of family members of Islamic State fighters are held in separate camps that are considered incubating grounds for the militant group, with guards barely able to keep order. Islamic State women often engage in dire intimidation and violence against others sheltering in the camps, in some cases including former captives of the group.
The two “Beatles” suspects, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, were part of a four-member British guard team that oversaw a rotating group of more than 20 Western hostages, including journalist James Foley, who was beheaded in August 2014.
The group also executed two other Americans, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig, together with British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, and Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. Another American, Kayla Mueller, died while in Islamic State custody, but the precise cause of death has not been confirmed.
Spanish photojournalist Ricardo Vilanova, who was held with a group of about two dozen foreigners, told the BBC last year that he would never forget the English-speaking guards’ cruelty.
“It was like being under the control of psychopaths and lunatics,” he said. Vilanova was freed from captivity in 2014 after being held for months; his government was believed to have paid a ransom.
The “Beatle” believed to have wielded the knife in sickening execution videos — Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John” — was killed in a drone strike in 2015. Another of the four, Aine Davis, is serving a seven-year jail sentence in Turkey after being convicted of membership in a terrorist organization.
Although Elsheikh and Kotey were stripped of their British citizenship, a court fight has delayed efforts by the Justice Department to bring them to the United States to stand trial in Virginia. The issue holding up their transfer is whether Britain will agree to share evidence with U.S. prosecutors without a guarantee that the two will not face the death penalty, which is abolished in Britain and the rest of the European Union.
The case is being argued in Britain’s Supreme Court, which is expected to rule in coming weeks.
James Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said in an interview she hopes that her son’s tormentors will face justice.
“I do not seek the death penalty at all -- I just would like for them to be held accountable in a criminal court, and to be held in prison for the rest of their lives,” she said of Elsheikh and Kotey.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Elsheikh and Kotey were taken to an American base in Iraq that had been used as a holding area for a small number of Islamic State detainees. But the Turkish incursion in effect forced the hands of U.S. officials who have been reluctant to assume responsibility for any of the detainees.
The surviving “Beatles” topped the list of Islamic State detainees in whom U.S. authorities were interested because of their alleged direct role in harming Americans. But there are a number of other high-profile prisoners among the approximately four dozen others taken into U.S. custody.
The problem has been a long time in the making. The Islamic State members held in Kurdish-run prisons hail from dozens of countries, but almost none has been accepted by their homelands for trial and prosecution. That is in part because many European countries fear that the rigorous evidentiary requirements of their judicial systems could result in short sentences or no conviction at all, even for those implicated in heinous crimes.
Instead, some countries had been in effect paying the Kurdish enclave’s government millions of dollars per fighter, as well as weapons support, to hold their citizens, Boudi said.
The Islamic State prisoner issue is tied into larger fears of a revival by the group, which at its peak controlled huge swaths of Iraq and Syria. Its territorial defeat, in which Kurdish fighters were instrumental, was hailed by Trump as a victory, even amid warnings that remnants could easily regroup and pose a potent threat.
For Islamic State supporters, the detainees have become a cause celebre. Last month, Islamic State’s still-at-large leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, released an audio speech exhorting the group’s supporters to attack the Kurdish-run camps and free those imprisoned.
The Kurdish-held Islamic State fighters include about 9,000 members from Syria and Iraq. About 2,000 others are thought to be from elsewhere, including many from Western Europe.
France this year arranged for nine of its citizens to be prosecuted in Iraq. But it was a controversial solution, especially when Iraqi judges handed down the death penalty, which had been proscribed in France since 1981. Scores of French lawyers published an open letter to the president saying such a move would leave an “indelible stain” on the government.
The Trump administration has considered sending Elsheikh and Kotey to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for what could be indefinite detention without trial. Human rights advocates have long condemned that practice, and once at the base, it would be difficult to transfer the men to U.S. soil to be tried before a civilian court.
Some of the lawyers for those remaining behind hope Turkey will take over the prisons and force European countries to take back their citizens. Since 2014, Turkey has a convention with several European Union nations stipulating it send those suspected of Islamic State links to their home countries, said Boudi. It has since deported tens of thousands of people, Turkey’s government says.
But momentous though the issue might be, the securing of Islamic State prisoners has taken on a slapdash air amid the current incursion. After Trump’s decision to in effect open the door to a Turkish military operation, the president tweeted — without offering any foundation for that belief — that he expected Turkey to take full responsibility for Islamic State captives.
Then, in a seemingly offhand comment that horrified some close U.S. allies, he told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that if Islamic State prisoners managed to slip free amid the fighting, “they’ll be escaping to Europe.”
Nearly all the detention camps’ locations, including the sprawling Al Hol camp, which holds about 70,000 Islamic State family members, fall beyond the 20-mile buffer zone that is the Turkish operation’s theoretical goal.
Trump telegraphed the removal of the most “high-value” Islamic State detainees, but did not address the question of those held in facilities now rendered more insecure by the Kurds’ predicament.
“We are taking some of the most dangerous ISIS fighters out,” Trump said. “We are taking them out and putting them in different locations, where it’s secure.... We have a certain number of ISIS fighters that are particularly bad, and we wanted to make sure that nothing happened with them in respect to getting out.”
By Thursday, the president was boasting that the surviving “Beatles” would be held in a secure area away from the fighting, although his tweet misspelled the name of the group for which they were named.
“In case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, the United States has already taken the 2 ISIS militants tied to beheadings in Syria, known as the Beetles, out of that country and into a secure location controlled by the U.S.,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are the worst of the worst!”
Bulos reported from Amman and King from Washington.
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