Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, El Shafee Elsheikh was convicted by a jury in Virginia of eight charges of assisting in the kidnappings and deaths of four American journalists and aid workers in Syria. Elsheikh, who was stripped of his British citizenship four year ago, was a member of the notorious group of sadistic ISIS members known as “the Beatles” because of their distinctive London accents. Elsheikh, 33, now faces a life sentence.
Sitting in court during Elsheikh’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia was Diane Foley, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was murdered by ISIS in 2014.
“I’m relieved and incredibly grateful that justice prevailed,” Diane Foley told me after the verdict.
In 2012 James, aged 39, was a freelance photographer covering the war in Syria. While he was traveling to the Turkish border in 2012, he was kidnapped. It has been a decade-long search for some measure of justice for Diane and her family as well as the families of the other American hostages held by ISIS, Steven Sotloff, Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, who were also killed when they were held by the terrorist group.
Diane, who is 72, worked as a family nurse practitioner before becoming a well-known advocate for hostages held around the world through the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which she founded.
Our conversation was lightly edited for clarity. (Disclosure: I used to serve on the board of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for American hostages and journalists in war zones. My wife Tresha Mabile now serves on the board.)
Bergen: What’s your reaction to the verdict?
Foley: Well, I’m relieved and incredibly grateful that justice prevailed. It was not an easy case to prove because members of ISIS were very savvy about their security. They always wore black hoods. They also always made the hostages turn away from them when they came in the cell. They knew how to cover their tracks and protect their identities. So, it was a difficult case to prove, and it really required Scotland Yard as well as the FBI and the best of our prosecuting attorneys to make this happen. It was quite a feat in many ways.
Bergen: Were you surprised that Elsheikh was found guilty on all counts?
Foley: I wasn’t surprised, but I was concerned that it was tough for witnesses to physically identify him because he was always hooded. So, he really protected himself and it was not easy to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was one of the brutal Beatles.
But he really implicated himself thanks to the media interviews he gave before he was in US custody and because of some of the interactions he had with his brother in London.
Bergen: The interviews that he gave was when he was first in custody in the Middle East helped implicate him?
Foley: Yes, Elshikh had done media interviews over the period of 18 months, and so the prosecution was very skillfully able to use his own statements regarding what had happened with the four Americans that ISIS held.
Bergen: What do you think the most damaging statements that he made freely in those interviews were?
Foley: Well, he very freely talked about the fact that he obtained an email address from a hostage. He freely admitted a lot of a lot of what he did. And he was good friends with other ISIS members Alexanda Kotey and Mohamed Emwazi (known as “Jihadi John”). They were friends from London. And then he boasted to his brother in London about some of the horrible, horrible things they did.
Bergen: Did you ever think that they would get inside a US courtroom and be tried?
Foley: Well, we kept hoping. The FBI kept telling us that they were collecting information. Scotland Yard certainly was also doing so, but this really was a team effort with a lot of committed people on both sides of the Atlantic working to make this happen. When the Trump administration’s Attorney General William Barr waived the death penalty, that was a big step because that allowed us to work together with the Brits to really make this happen and get a strong case.
Bergen: Because the Brits would not allow Elshiekh to come to the United States if the death penalty was on the table?
Foley: Yes, plus the Brits wouldn’t be allowed to share their important evidence. Our Department of Justice felt we really needed their implicating evidence too. When Barr took the death penalty off the table, then we were able to secure the British evidence. Our prosecuting team really wanted to prove how into all this violent jihad Elsheikh was, and he was sending information to his older brother in London using some sort of an encrypted app. So, Scotland Yard was able to get those exact texts and even photographs of what he sent to his brother.
Bergen: What was the reaction to the guilty verdicts in the courtroom?
Foley: Well, relief, exhaustion, deep gratitude on my part. The prosecution worked on this for years. So, it’s been a long time coming, and we’re particularly grateful because mercy and justice prevailed. We didn’t use any armed drones or bombs to achieve accountability. We were able to prove in a courtroom beyond a reasonable doubt that Elsheikh was, in fact, guilty. Now, he’ll be able to spend the rest of his life incarcerated and be able to ponder what he did. And who knows, maybe he’ll be remorseful at some point?
Bergen: It is rare for somebody to have been involved in these kidnappings and murders to be prosecuted successfully?
Foley: It is. Impunity is what normally happens, and that’s why this is such a big deal, because without any accountability, this terror continues, right?
Bergen: Are there other points that would be important for CNN’s readers to understand?
Foley: Well, I think the biggest one is that there are 60-plus publicly known cases of US nationals currently in the same situation [that Jim, Steve, Kayla, and Peter were in, and I can’t help but think how many Americans must die before our country prioritizes their return.
This trial was very expensive. And it was a victory for justice, yes, and for accountability, yes, but it didn’t bring our kids home, and we have more than 60 US nationals really counting on our country to find ways to negotiate their freedom.
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Bergen: These detainees are held both by authoritarian regimes and by terrorist groups?
Foley: Yes. But most are held by states at this moment, by the Russians, the Syrians, the Iranians, Venezuela, and China. Because they’re states, it makes it more complicated because negotiations involve much more than ransom or even the exchange of prisoners. There’s often lots of other things other countries want from the United States. So, it makes it incredibly complicated but incredibly important that we get them out as soon as possible because we are finding the longer, they’re held, the more the captors want from our government.