Two high-profile ISIS fighters have been indicted on terrorism charges related to the hostage-taking and deaths of four Americans, the US government announced Wednesday.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were part of an ISIS execution cell dubbed “the Beatles” because of their British accents, made the first court appearance via video in Alexandria, Virginia, Wednesday afternoon.
Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, appeared in dark green prison jumpsuits, handcuffed, and both wore masks at the start of the video proceedings.
Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan read the counts against them and appointed each a federal public defender. Kotey and Elsheikh will appear for a detention hearing Friday morning and an arraignment Friday afternoon.
Kotey and Elsheikh are charged for their involvement in the hostage-taking and murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and American aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller as well as British and Japanese nationals.
According to the indictment, they are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit hostage-taking resulting in death, four counts of hostage-taking resulting in death, one count of conspiracy to murder US citizens outside of the US, one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists – hostage-taking and murder – resulting in death and one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization resulting in death.
If convicted, Kotey and Elsheikh face a maximum penalty of life in prison for each count.
“My message to other terrorists is this — if you harm an American, you will face the same fate as these men. You will face American arms on the battlefield, and if you survive, you will face American justice in an American courtroom with the prospect of many years in an American prison. Either way, you will never live in peace — you will be pursued to the ends of the earth. No matter how long it may take, we will never forget, and we will never quit,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said at a press conference Wednesday.
‘We will remember them for the way they lived their good and decent lives’
In his remarks, Demers called it a “good” but “solemn day.”
“Today we remember the four innocent Americans whose lives were taken by ISIS: James Wright Foley, Steven Joel Sotloff, Peter Edward Kassig, and Kayla Jean Mueller.”
“Many around the world are familiar with the barbaric circumstances of their deaths. But we will not remember these Americans for the way they died. We will remember them for the way they lived their good and decent lives.”
In a joint statement Wednesday released by the Foley Foundation, the families welcomed the news.
“James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved, and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria. Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court,” they said.
“We are hopeful that the U.S. government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice. And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law,” the Foleys, Sotloffs, Kassigs and Muellers said.
‘A brutal hostage-taking scheme’
The 24-page indictment alleges that Kotey and Elsheikh “were leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme targeting American and European citizens, and others, from 2012-2015” and that they “engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against the hostages.”
“From August 2014 through October 2014, ISIS released videos depicting (Mohammed) Emwazi’s barbaric beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning,” a DOJ news release referencing the indictment said. “In November 2014, ISIS released a video depicting the decapitated head of Kassig. In January 2015, ISIS released videos with images of two dead Japanese citizens.” Those Japanese citizens are named in the indictment as Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.
“Between November 2012 and February 2015, Kotey, Elsheikh, Emwazi, and other ISIS fighters committed acts inflicting pain, suffering, cruelty and mistreatment on American, British, and other hostages in captivity,” the news release said.
According to the news release, “Kotey and Elsheikh allegedly coordinated the Western-hostage ransom negotiations conducted by email. Kotey and Elsheikh knew and understood that the release of American and other hostages was conditioned on the transfer of large sums of money or concessions from the United States government, such as the release of Muslim prisoners.”
They also allegedly worked closely with Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, who was a top ISIS commander and chief media spokesperson until his death in US military airstrike in 2016. Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a drone strike in 2015.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured together by the Syrian Democratic Forces as they tried to flee to Turkey in January 2018. They had been held in US custody in Iraq.
They had their British citizenships revoked for being considered a national security threat after joining ISIS in Syria.
‘ISIS will not have the last word’
Attorney General William Barr negotiated with Britain to extradite the pair to the US for prosecution by taking the death penalty off the table as consideration for sentencing.
“These charges are the product of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for our citizens slain by ISIS. Although we cannot bring them back, we can and will seek justice for them, their families, and for all Americans,” Barr said in the DOJ news release.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed their transfer, saying in a tweet Wednesday, “The United States will not rest until these alleged terrorists are held accountable for their crimes and justice is delivered to their victims’ families.”
In a statement Wednesday, Mike Haines, the brother of British aid worker David Haines, said he was “relieved that the fate of these two men is closer to being decided but this is just the beginning.”
“I have faith in the justice system, and can only continue to defy these cowards’ aims to sow hate and division by spreading tolerance and highlighting the dangers and consequences of their barbaric acts,” he said.
US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Zachary Terwilliger noted that at their expected initial court appearance, Kotey and Elsheikh would be informed of the charges against them, “provided with counsel, if they cannot afford it, they will receive medical care and be housed in a sanitary facility and be provided with three meals a day.”
“All coupled with the due process of law, all things denied to James, Kayla, Stephen and Peter and the other British and Japanese victims named in the indictment,” Terwilliger said.
He also read a statement from the families of the American victims during Wednesday’s press conference and said the views of the victim’s families were critical in the case.
“‘They should be brought to America to face our justice system and that is what our children would have wanted,’” Terwilliger read. “’Give them the fair trial that makes our nation great. That would be the best way to honor our children. Ensuring that truth and justice find their way out of this tragic story would mean that the Islamic State will never have the last word.”
“Well, Diane and John, Paula and Ed, Marcia and Carl, and Shirley and Art: It’s now a certainty. ISIS will not have the last word when it comes to your children. You will,” Terwilliger said.
CNN’s Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.