Islamic State 'Beatle' sentenced to life in prison for U.S. hostage deaths

FILE - In this photo provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office is El Shafee Elsheikh who is in custody at the Alexandria Adult Detention Center, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in Alexandria, Va. The British national was sentenced to life in prison on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022 for his role in an Islamic State hostage-taking scheme. Roughly two dozen Westerners were taken captive a decade ago by a notorious group of masked captors nicknamed "The Beatles" for their British accents. El Shafee Elsheikh received his sentence Friday in an Alexandria, Va. courtroom. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)
El Shafee Elsheikh in a 2020 booking photo. (Alexandria (Va.) Sheriff's Office via Associated Press)

El Shafee Elsheikh, a Briton who was sentenced to life in prison Friday for a leading role in the beheading deaths of American hostages, had a whimsical nickname, “Beatle,” that belied his viciousness.

In fact, he is the most notorious and highest-ranking member of the Islamic State group ever convicted in a U.S. court, prosecutors said at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in

Alexandria, Va.

Elsheikh and his British counterparts Alexanda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi led an Islamic State scheme that took roughly two dozen Westerners hostage a decade ago.

The hostages dubbed their captors the Beatles because of their accents. Always in masks, the Beatles invoked dread among the hostages for the sadism they displayed.

“This prosecution unmasked the barbaric and sadistic ISIS Beatles,” said First Assistant U.S. Atty. Raj Parekh. ISIS is a commonly used acronym for Islamic State.

The life sentence was a foregone conclusion after a jury earlier this year convicted Elsheikh of hostage-taking resulting in death and other crimes.

The convictions carried a mandatory life sentence. The U.S. agreed not to pursue a death sentence as part of a deal that ensured the extradition of Elsheikh and Kotey, who has already been sentenced to life. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike.

The convictions revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

All but Mueller were executed in beheadings that were videotaped and circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi before she was killed.

The four were among 26 hostages who were taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when Islamic State controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Parekh said it was difficult to convey the brutality of Elsheikh’s actions.

“We lack the vocabulary of such pain,” he said, paraphrasing Dante.

Still, victims of Elsheikh and his partners testified at Friday’s hearing and gave voice to what they experienced.

Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen, who was released after a ransom was paid, said the worst moments were the times of silence during and after captivity, when he was alone with his thoughts. He said that when Elsheikh and the others beat him up, it was almost a relief.

“I knew I could only concentrate on my pain, which is much easier than being alone with your thoughts,” he said.

Ottosen, who was close to Foley, memorized a goodbye letter Foley wrote so he could later dictate it to his friend’s parents.

Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said holding Elsheikh accountable at trial sends a message of deterrence to would-be hostage-takers.

“Hatred truly overwhelmed your humanity,” she told Elsheikh on Friday, which was the eighth anniversary of her son’s beheading.

At trial, surviving hostages testified that they dreaded the Beatles’ appearance at the various prisons to which they were constantly shuttled and relocated.

Elsheikh and the others played a key role in the hostage negotiations, getting hostages to email their families with demands for payments.

They routinely beat and tortured their captives, forcing them to fight one another to the point of passing out, threatening them with waterboarding and forcing them to view images of slain hostages.

Elsheikh, 34, did not speak during Friday’s hearing.

His lawyer, Zachary Deubler, said Elsheikh will appeal the conviction.

Elsheikh’s lawyers had argued that his confessions should have been ruled inadmissible because of alleged mistreatment after he was captured in 2018 by Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces.

At Friday’s hearing, Deubler confined his arguments to a request that Elsheikh not be sent to the supermax prison facility in Florence, Colo., where he would face solitary confinement for the rest of his life. Deubler said a designation to Florence is almost a certainty unless the judge recommends otherwise.

Judge T.S. Ellis III declined to make any recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons. “The behavior of this defendant and his co-defendant can only be described as horrific, barbaric, brutal, callous and, of course, criminal,” Ellis said.

Outside court, Mueller’s parents said they are still seeking information about their daughter’s death and hope to recover her remains. Carl Mueller said he could not help but reflect on the disparate outcomes for European hostages, who were released after ransoms were paid, and American hostages, who were killed because the U.S. refuses to pay ransom.

“Hopefully, our government in the future will do like so many others do and get them home, not leave them,” he said.

The Muellers and Diane Foley said they had been able to meet with Kotey, whose guilty plea requires him to speak with interested families. Marsha Mueller

declined to comment on her conversation.

Diane Foley said she met with Kotey three times, which she found helpful.

“I was able to share some of who Jim was, and he was able to share some of why he felt it was a war situation and his excuses,” Foley said. “But he did articulate some remorse, and I was grateful for that.”

Video Journalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.