A member of the British Islamic State terrorist group dubbed “the Beatles” pleaded guilty in a U.S. courtroom Thursday to helping the militant group torture and murder captives in Syria, including four Americans.
The man, Alexanda Kotey, pleaded guilty to all charges in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. authorities said he and another British member of the group, El Shafee Elsheikh, were involved in the kidnappings of international hostages, including U.S. aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig and U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Kotey and Elsheikh were each charged with hostage-taking resulting in death, conspiracy to commit murder against U.S. citizens abroad and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Prosecutors have said both men could face life in prison.
Judge T.S. Ellis III asked Kotey to approach the podium and remove his mask. When the judge asked Kotey whether he pleaded guilty to counts one through eight, Kotey said, "Yes." He said he was aware that the minimum sentence he faces is life without parole.
As part of his plea agreement, Kotey must meet with the family members of the murdered hostages. After he has served 15 years in the U.S., the U.K. will be allowed to try him. Even if he gets a lesser sentence in a British court, his agreement requires him to spend his life behind bars.
Family members of all four Americans who were in court to hear Kotey’s plea declined the judge’s offer to speak.
In a statement after the hearing, Diane Foley, mother of James, noted that the guilty plea came on the anniversary of Sotloff's death. She expressed gratitude “to all involved in apprehending Alexanda Kotey, investigating his brutal crimes against humanity, and making the strong case for his direct culpability" in the death of her son as well as the deaths of Mueller, Sotloff, Kassig and "and countless other innocents.”
“This accountability is essential … if our country wishes to ever deter hostage taking," said Foley. "I would like to use this moment to beseech our government to prioritize the return of all U.S. nationals kidnapped or wrongfully detained abroad. Attacks on journalists are at an all-time high and our U.S. hostage crisis is a silent epidemic, which few are aware of.”
Kotey and Elsheikh were part of a group of four British men led by Mohammed Emwazi, who is believed to have beheaded Foley and Sotloff on video. The four men were linked to more than two dozen murders.
Emwazi — who was dubbed “Jihadi John” — was killed by Hellfire missiles fired from a CIA drone in 2015.
Some of the hostages who managed to escape the Islamic State terrorist group, commonly known as ISIS, said they named the four men "the Beatles" because of their British accents. The fourth “Beatle,” Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to serve 7½ years in a Turkish prison in 2017.
Captured by Kurdish forces in 2018, Kotey and Elsheikh were turned over to the U.S. military in 2019.
The transfer was delayed by legal proceedings in the U.K. British authorities said they were barred from turning evidence over to the U.S. that was obtained by their investigators.
A U.K. judge lifted the ban on sharing information after the U.S. promised to take the death penalty off the table, paving the way for prosecution in the U.S. The men were held in Iraq for months until they were flown to Virginia to face federal charges in October.
According to the indictment, Kotey and Elsheikh were “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” from 2012 to 2015 and “engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages.”
Prosecutors for the Eastern District of Virginia said the men inflicted pain, suffering and cruelty, including forced witnessing of murders, mock executions and shocks with an electrical device.
In court Thursday, Kotey confirmed that he had made a verbal pledge of allegiance to ISIS.
Kotey and Elsheikh pleaded not guilty to the terrorism-related charges in October. Kotey changed his plea to guilty Thursday. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment. An attorney for Elsheikh, who did not change his plea, declined to comment.
U.S. and British authorities said the group was responsible for 27 killings, including the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and Kassig and the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
U.S. officials said that while she was in captivity, Mueller, the U.S. aid worker, was taken to live with a senior ISIS official and was raped by the former ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi killed himself with a suicide vest as he was being chased last fall by U.S. commandos during a raid in northwest Syria.
Kotey and Elsheikh admit role in Mueller captivity
Mueller is believed to have died in 2015 in what ISIS said was a Jordanian airstrike. How she was killed has never been confirmed.
In a 2018 interview with the BBC while in the custody of Kurdish officials, Kotey and Elsheikh denied ever having met Mueller.
“Who?” Elsheikh responded when asked whether he had ever met her.
Kotey added, “We didn’t meet any foreign non-Muslims.”
But in interviews obtained exclusively by NBC News, the two men for the first time admitted their involvement in the captivity of Mueller.
Kotey said, “She was in a room by herself that no one would go in.”
Elsheikh went 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 an email reviewed by NBC News, ISIS demanded that the Mueller family pay 5 million euros and threatened that if the demands were not met, it would send the family “a picture of Kayla’s dead body.”
Kotey and Elsheikh also admitted to beating captives in the interviews obtained by NBC News.
“I never denied that they was ever hit,” Kotey said. As an example, he talked about striking a Danish captive in the chest to make a mark that would be visible in a photo that would be sent to his family.
Elsheikh also implicated himself in the abuse of Foley, the U.S. journalist.
“I didn’t choke Jim,” he said. “If I choked Jim I would say I choked him. I mean, I’ve — I’ve hit him before. I’ve hit most of the prisoners before.”