ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A jury convicted a British national Thursday for his role in an Islamic State group hostage-taking scheme that took roughly two dozen Westerners captive a decade ago, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, three of whom were beheaded.
The jury deliberated for four hours before finding El Shafee Elsheikh guilty on all counts. Elsheikh stood motionless and gave no visible reaction as the verdict was read. He now faces up to a life sentence in prison.
In convicting Elsheikh, the jury concluded that he was one of the notorious “Beatles,” Islamic State captors nicknamed for their accents and known for their cruelty — torturing and beating prisoners, forcing them to fight each other until they collapsed and even making them sing cruel song parodies. Surviving hostages testified that the Beatles delighted themselves rewriting “Hotel California” as “Hotel Osama” and making them sing the refrain “You will never leave.”
The guilty finding came even though none of the surviving hostages could identify Elsheikh as one of their captors. Although the Beatles had distinctive accents, they always took great care to hide their faces behind masks and ordered hostages to avoid eye contact or risk a beating.
Prosecutors suggested in opening statements that Elsheikh was the Beatle nicknamed “Ringo” but only had to prove that Elshiekh was one of the Beatles because testimony showed that all three were major players in the scheme.
Elsheikh, who was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian defense Forces in 2018, eventually confessed his role in the scheme to interrogators as well as media interviewers, acknowledging that he helped collect email addresses and provided proof of life to the hostages’ families as part of ransom negotiations.
But testimony showed that he and the other Beatles were far more than paper pushers. The surviving hostages, all of whom were European — the American and British hostages were all killed — testified that they dreaded the Beatles’ appearance at the various prisons to which they constantly shuttled and relocated.
Surviving witness Federico Motka recounted a time in the summer of 2013 when he and cellmate David Haines were put in a room with American hostage James Foley and British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “Royal Rumble.” The losers were told they’d be waterboarded. Weak from hunger, two of the four passed out during the hourlong battle.
The convictions on all eight counts in U.S. District Court in Alexandria revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
They were among 26 hostages taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Defense lawyers acknowledged that Elsheikh joined the Islamic State group but said prosecutors failed to prove he was a Beatle. They cited a lack of clarity about which Beatle was which, and back in the trial’s opening statement cited the confusion about whether there were three or four Beatles.
Emwazi, who as known as “Jihadi John” and carried out the executions, was later killed in a drone strike. Kotey and Elsheikh were captured together in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to face trial after the U.S. promised not to seek the death penalty. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence but leaves open the possibility that he could serve out his sentence in the United Kingdom after 15 years in the U.S.