AG Barr promises to rule out death penalty for ISIS 'Beatles', victims' families say

The decision breaks an impasse with the British government and appears to clear the way for the two former UK residents to be moved to the U.S. criminal justice system.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on July 28, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Pool via Reuters

Attorney General William Barr has promised to formally rule out the death penalty for two notorious ISIS detainees to ensure that the British government can provide evidence against them, relatives of the victims told NBC News after speaking with Barr by phone Thursday.

Barr’s decision breaks an impasse with the British government and appears to clear the way for the two former UK residents — who were part of a group in Syria known as “the Beatles” — to be transferred from U.S. military custody in Iraq to the criminal justice system for trial in the United States.

“We just had a very promising call with the attorney general. He’s going to get the death penalty off the table in the coming days,” said Diane Foley, whose son, journalist James Foley, was beheaded in 2014 by one Beatles member.

Barr’s spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said she could not comment.

Foley and the parents of Steven Sotloff, another U.S. journalist beheaded by ISIS in 2014, said Barr told them he intends to notify British Home Secretary Priti Patel in the coming days, having already spoken to her about his intentions.

The attorney general was very gracious and now that the families are unanimous, he’s willing to move forward,” Foley said. “He’s going to make the request for evidence from the UK Home Secretary. He wants to use the evidence as soon as possible.”

The families now hope the UK will act in a timely manner, they said.

“The ball will be in the UK's court,” said Shirley Sotloff, the mother of Steven. “If we take the death penalty off the table — and we all agree on that — then it’s up to the Brits.“

Art Sotloff, Steven’s father, said Barr appeared eager to prosecute the two former British nationals, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.

“I’m excited that he’s excited about it,” Art Sotloff said, referring to Barr.

“We would like to add how deeply grateful we are for the AG and DOJ," Marsha and Carla Mueller, the parents of another victim, Kayla Mueller, said in a statement. "They have helped us a great deal.”

The Washington Post reported July 31 that Barr was “willing to consider” dropping the death penalty in the case.

A UK court ruled in March that the British government must not turn over evidence if capital punishment was a possibility. The death penalty remains a feature of the U.S. justice system, but it has been abolished in Europe.

A spokesperson for the UK Home Office said in a statement:

“A court injunction currently prevents the transfer of evidence from the UK to the U.S. This injunction will remain in place until the final order is received from the Supreme Court, following the 25 March 2020 judgment. As we are still awaiting the final order, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

The leading Beatle, and the man believed to have wielded the knife in those killings, was Mohammed Emwazi, who was killed by Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA drone in 2015. They were dubbed the Beatles because of their British accents. The fourth Beatle, Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in Turkey in 2017.

In interviews obtained exclusively by NBC News, Kotey and Elsheikh incriminated themselves in the mistreatment of Western hostages in Syria, including Mueller and Foley.

They also for the first time admitted their involvement in the captivity of Mueller, an aid worker who was tortured and sexually abused before her death in 2015.

"She was in a room by herself that no one would go in,” Kotey said

Elsheikh got into more detail, saying, "I took an email from her myself," meaning he got an email address the Islamic State militant group could use to demand ransom from the family. "She was in a large room, it was dark, and she was alone, and … she was very scared."

In one email reviewed by NBC News, ISIS demanded the Muellers pay 5 million euros and threatened that if the demands weren’t met, they would send the family “a picture of Kayla's dead body.”

Captured by Kurdish forces, Kotey and Elsheikh were turned over to U.S. troops and have been in U.S. military custody in Iraq amid questions over how and when they will face justice. U.S. prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have been investigating the case, officials say.

The families of the Americans killed by ISIS have been pushing for the prosecution of two men since they were transferred into U.S. custody last year.

U.S. and British authorities say the Beatles were responsible for 27 killings, including the beheadings of Americans Foley, Sotloff and Peter Kassig, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

Kotey and Elsheikh have denied involvement in the killings and torture, describing themselves in interviews as “liaisons” between the hostages and the guards.