Two of the most wanted fighters from the British ISIS cell called “the Beatles” have called some of the group’s actions “regrettable,” and insisted that their legal rights are respected wherever they’re brought to trial.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with CNN, which they consented to, from inside a detention facility in northern Syria where they are being held by US-backed Syrian Kurds.
The pair gained notoriety for being part of a British-accented group of ISIS fighters, fronted by Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, who for a time regularly appeared in macabre videos from Syria showing him beheading several Western hostages.
The executions, widely disseminated online, caused outrage and horror in the West, transforming public perceptions of the terror threat posed by ISIS.
The pair are among dozens of foreign-born ISIS fighters held in the region now seemingly caught amid a diplomatic wrangle, with their countries of origin either equivocating or point blank refusing to sanction their return to stand trial, leaving the Syrian Kurds with an uncomfortable burden.
Inside the facility, the pair seemed relaxed and comfortable as they sipped Pepsi and debated for 90 minutes whether they wanted to speak, before talking on camera for 54 minutes, often directly addressing the legal limbo they now find themselves in.
According to British media, the pair have been stripped of their UK citizenship, further exacerbating the issue of where – if anywhere, given the legal hurdles – to bring them to trial.
The US State Department accuses Kotey, 34, originally from Ladbroke Grove in London, of having “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture” of their Western journalist and aid worker hostages.
Elsheikh “was said to have earned a reputation for water-boarding, mock executions, and crucifixions,” according to the State Department.
The pair joked about the United Kingdom or US potentially choosing to try them under Sharia law, or “hang, draw and quarter” them, while constantly referring to the rights afforded them under US and UK legal systems.
“l am not a democratic person, but I am being subjected to democratic law. So it is only right for those who claim to uphold this to fully uphold it,” Elsheikh said.
Confronted by CNN with the fact several of their former hostages and alleged victims had said they recognized their faces and voices from previous interviews, Elsheikh declined to comment on what he said would be a legal matter. “It’s just an accusation, legally speaking. You know, if Britain said ‘we are going to deal with you by barbaric law, or with law from the medieval ages,’ then hang, draw and quarter me. But that’s not the case. I’m just merely pointing that out.” Kotey offered a similarly veiled denial, and refused to be drawn on specific allegations.
Displaying a mix of contempt and joviality, Kotey added: “The American administration or British government – if they decided they wanted to be champions of the sharia and apply Islamic law upon myself and Shaf [Elsheikh], then by all means. If not, then they should adhere to that which they claim to be champions of.”
Asked where he would prefer to be tried, Kotey said: “Definitely, familiarity is the easier option. My experience is that British judges are quite fair and just.” He added: “I miss fish and chips and pickled egg.”
Elsheikh appeared angry at the potential loss of his UK citizenship – specifically at how little information or consent he had in the process – which the British government has yet to officially announce or comment on. “It does not necessarily upset me, but I think it would would be a very black day for international law.”
A spokesperson for the UK Home Office refused to comment on the citizenship of the pair when approached by CNN Monday.
Speculation has grown as to what eventual solution will bring the ISIS prisoners to trial and where those convicted can be incarcerated, with the US emerging as one possible option.
Elsheikh twice expressed his approval of the US Department of Defense interrogators who he said have been talking to him, calling them “fair actors.”
He added: “If you were to be taken back to the USA, you would be dealing with the likes of the FBI and people of that sort who are definitely not … I don’t have the same to say about them.”
Elsheikh on several occasions referred to the traumatic scenes he said he had witnessed in Syria since arriving in Aleppo in 2012.
Both men suggested the violence of the regime against Syrian civilians was a motive for their eventual role in ISIS. Yet Kotey often appeared unaffected by the seriousness of the accusations made against him.
Asked what keeps him awake at night he paused, smiled and said: “There are these lice in my clothes in the place I’m sleeping. No, I want to talk about while I was in the Islamic State the kinds of things that keep you up at night is the sound of the F-16 jets flying the sky. And some Syrian neighbor with his kids crying.”
Elsheikh also spoke of the death of children by what he said was Coalition bombardment.
Mock executions, murder
Between 2014 and 2015 the group, fronted by the masked black-clad Mohammed Emwazi or Jihadi John, participated in a string of brutal ISIS propaganda videos, in which they demanded millions in dollars in ransom to spare the lives of foreign hostages, many of them journalists and aid workers. Few of the ransoms were met, and instead the hostages were beheaded.
Reflecting in their involvement in the murders, the pair, at times, appeared uneasy with some of ISIS’ methods.
Elsheikh said he “came to Syria and I had standards and principles. I didn’t come here because of a love of death, or witnessing death, or seeing destruction.”
He said some principles were compatible with being in ISIS, others not. “Every person who is a member of any community will have some discrepancies with opinions, actions.”
Kotey said he regretted some of the extreme elements of ISIS’ execution videos, and their effect on the victims’ families. “Definitely it would be damaging and it’s regrettable that families had to see that,” he said.
However, Elsheikh defiantly referred to the man believed to behind many of the most notorious beheadings, Emwazi, as his “friend.”
Asked to describe Emwazi, who was killed in a drone strike in November 2015, he said: “Obviously I know that people in the Western world aren’t going to want to hear this, but truth has to be said. He was one of the most loyal friends I’ve had, trustworthy, honest, upstanding.”
He admitted being surprised when he saw video of Emwazi beheading hostages, and declined to answer whether he approved of the act.
After the interview was finished, guards put handcuffs and masks on the prisoners. As the pair was led away, Elsheikh turned his head and said: “Make me look good.”