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One of Islamic State’s ‘Beatles’ pleads guilty to role in beheading of U.S. hostages

Islamic State fighters Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh
Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh were allegedly members of a cell of Islamic State fighters who beheaded American hostages.
(Hussein Malla / Associated Press)

A British national admitted Thursday evening in a U.S. federal courtroom that he played a leadership role in an Islamic State scheme to torture, hold for ransom and eventually behead American hostages.

Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, pleaded guilty to all eight counts against him at a plea hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., near Washington. The charges include hostage-taking resulting in death and providing material support to Islamic State from 2012 through 2015.

He admitted guilt in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — journalist James Foley, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as European and Japanese nationals who also were held captive.

Kotey is one of four Islamic State members who were dubbed “the Beatles” by their captives because of their British accents. He and another man, El Shafee Elsheikh, were brought to the U.S. last year to face charges after the U.S. assured Britain that neither man would face the death penalty.

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Elsheikh is scheduled to go on trial in January. A third member of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a 2015 drone strike. The fourth member is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.

The plea deal sets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole. After 15 years, though, he would be eligible to be transferred to Britain to face any possible charges there.

Two British militants believed to have been part of an Islamic State group cell notorious for beheading hostages in Syria were unapologetic in their first interview since their capture, denouncing the U.S. and Britain as “hypocrites” who will not give them a fair trial.

In the plea deal, Kotey acknowledged that life imprisonment was an appropriate sentence in Britain as well. If he were to receive a sentence of less than life there, the deal would require him still to serve out the U.S. life sentence either in Britain, if it is willing, or back in the U.S.

The deal also requires him to cooperate with authorities and answer questions about his time with Islamic State. He would not, though, be required to testify at Elsheikh’s trial.

The deal also requires him to meet with victims’ families if they request it.

Kotey gave a somewhat detailed account of his time in Islamic State when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis asked him to explain in his own words what he had done.

John Foley felt a complicated set of emotions when he viewed the now infamous video of his son, the journalist James Wright Foley, being executed by Islamic State 18 months ago.

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He said that he traveled to Syria to “engage in a military fight against the Syrian forces of [President] Bashar Assad” and that he eventually pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi.

“I accept I will be perceived as a radical who holds extremist views,” he said.

He acknowledged that he had participated in “capture-and-detain operations” to kidnap Foley and other Western hostages and that he led efforts to extract ransoms.

He described the acts of violence that were inflicted on the hostages as a necessary part of keeping them in line and persuading Western governments to pay ransom.

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Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old humanitarian worker, died in Islamic State captivity in 2015. Her grieving family still seeks answers.

In the years after the hostages had been killed, he said he filled multiple roles within Islamic State, including as a sniper and as director of a special forces training camp.

Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said at Thursday’s hearing that Kotey, Elsheikh and Emwazi were all friends at a young age in London, where they became radicalized.

In a statement, Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is also a member of the prosecution team on the Kotey and Elsheikh cases, said the case has always been focused on the victims and their families.

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“Their resilience, courage and perseverance have ensured that terror will never have the last word. The justice, fairness and humanity that this defendant received in the United States stand in stark contrast to the cruelty, inhumanity and indiscriminate violence touted by the terrorist organization he espoused,” Parekh said.

Mueller also was raped by Islamic State’s leader, Baghdadi, according to the indictment. Baghdadi was killed by U.S. forces in Syria in 2019.

Kotey and Elsheikh were captured in Syria in 2018 by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces while trying to escape to Turkey.

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Family members of all four victims attended Thursday’s hearing and stood outside the courthouse afterward with prosecutors. They will have an opportunity to speak at Kotey’s formal sentencing March 4.

Foley’s mother, Diane, said she was grateful for the conviction and praised prosecutors for obtaining a detailed account of Kotey’s culpability.

“This accountability is essential if our country wants to discourage hostage-taking,” she said. She also called on the U.S. to prioritize the return of all Americans being held abroad.


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