How Four West London Boys Became the ISIS 'Beatles'
The story of the four British men infamous for torturing and beheading prisoners in Syria.
From left to right: Aine Davis, Alexanda Kotey, El Shafee Elsheikh, Mohammed Emwazi. Illustration: Dan Evans
They were British, all four of them. It was undeniable. They kept their faces hidden and talked about their hatred of the West, but the unmistakable accents meant the Raqqa prison captives knew one thing about their ISIS jailers. They were British, so they called them "the Beatles".
The hostages were not to know it, but their jailers had much more in common than the way they spoke. The four grew up within a few miles of each other in west London, walking the same streets in and around Ladbroke Grove, mixing mosque attendance with football and video games.
All four would become enraptured by extremist ideas in their twenties. Having failed to find a satisfying role in adult life in London or to reconcile their Muslim and British identities, each headed for an almighty battle overseas – one that would end all possibility of building an ordinary life back home. In Syria, they would turn to brutality and mayhem. The US government has stated that the group were responsible for beatings, mock executions and the beheading of more than 27 people.
So just how did four British boys come to wage violence so despicable their nation would disown them? And what can their stories tell us about the fatal steps people take on the road to radicalisation?
The four identities of the notorious ISIS cell were finally disclosed earlier this month when American officials revealed US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had seized the last two members of "the Beatles" still at large: 34-year-old Alexanda Kotey and 29-year-old El Shafee Elsheikh.
Aine Davis, a previously identified member, remains in a Turkish jail. The 34-year-old was convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation and handed a sentence of seven-and-a-half years in November of 2015. Mohammad Emwazi, the member better known as "Jihadi John", was killed the same month, wiped out in a US drone strike at the age of 27.
Alexanda Kotey, who was not raised as Muslim, appears to have been the most outwardly devout and zealous about his religion. Raised in Shepherd's Bush by his Greek-Cypriot mother, having lost his Ghanaian father when he very young, he was a big fan of Queen’s Park Rangers, and neighbours remember him playing football in the garden with his older brother.
At some point in his teens or early twenties, Kotey converted to Islam. The mix of newfound religion and a simplified politics that viewed Muslims as global victims of oppression at the hands of non-believers would prove intoxicating. Before long, Kotey was a key influencer of other, younger Muslims, sharing his us-versus-them worldview from his own street stall not far from the Al-Manaar mosque, near Westbourne Park station.
"He would meet people in the social atmosphere of the mosque, make friendships over innocuous things like football and the gym, and then [he would] suck them into [his] orbit," according to an acquaintance.
Emwazi and Davis also attended the Al-Manaar mosque, leading to some lazy descriptions of it as the place they were radicalised. The huge mosque acts as a focal point for a wide cross-section of the Muslim community in west London – 3,000 people attend every week; it is not the sort of place an intimate clique would be schooled in jihad.
The mosque has been at pains to distance itself from the actions of individuals who may have come and gone there. "We do not profile worshippers on the basis of their ethnicity or the sort of ideas that they might have in their minds," says a spokesman. "This is something that we would not be able to know of or control."
Like Kotey, El Shafee Elsheikh loved football and Queens Park Rangers. He too was raised by a single mother, originally from Sudan, and grew up in White City, not far from QPR's Loftus Road stadium.
Elsheikh's mother has previously explained how he changed very suddenly, in 2011, as he began listening to CDs of sermons by Hani al-Sibai, a radical Egyptian cleric who lived in west London, and who remains on UN, US and EU sanctions lists for suspected support of al-Qaeda.
Yet, there are good reasons to believe Elsheikh's radicalisation did not happen overnight. Disappointments accumulated. He had married in Canada in 2010, but his wife had not been able to obtain a visa to come to the UK. He was unable to move on from his job at a local garage, despite studying engineering at college. And his older brother was imprisoned for gun possession following a gang feud.
"Radicalisation can seem to happen rapidly – it can seem that way even to the family members, but the underlying psychological crises tend to take a much longer time to develop," explains Dr Afzal Ashraf, at expert in terrorism and extremist ideology at The University of Nottingham. "Frustrations build over a long period, then suddenly you find a group offering a black and white worldview that makes sense of everything for you."
Mohammed Emwazi is also believed to have been influenced by the fierce lectures of Hani al-Sibai, and would come to embrace a crude form of political Islam without any prolonged period of religious study.
Raised by Kuwaiti immigrants in different homes around North Kensington, a pupil at Quintin Kynaston Academy, he was not known to be particularly devout as a teenager. A Manchester United fan who loved rap music and wore baseball caps, he told school friends how much he hated Tony Blair and George Bush. Teachers helped him with his anger management issues.
Emwazi became friendly with Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr, two slightly older guys from North Kensington who went to fight with the Islamist group al-Shabaab in Somalia. They would be killed in drone strikes there in 2012.
"Emwazi came out of a bigger network of young Islamists in that west London area," explains Raffaello Pantucci, author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. "Al-Berjwai and Sakr were very prominent among people going back and forth to Somalia, and Emwazi was hanging out in that circle. There was overlap of petty gangsters and people who drifted into jihadism."
In 2009, while still only 21 years old, Emwazi travelled to Tanzania, claiming he wanted to go on safari. MI5 agents questioned him there, accusing him of attempting to reach Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab. He then spent some time moving between Kuwait and London before immigration officials prevented him from returning to Kuwait. In early 2013, he managed to leave the country, telling his parents he was going to Turkey to help refugees.
Aine Davis grew up in Hammersmith with his mum, his father absent from home – but little else is known about his childhood. As a young adult he gathered a string of convictions as a drug dealer before being sent to jail in 2006 for firearm possession. He is believed to have converted to Islam either in prison or soon after his release.
If Davis was the most experienced criminal in "the Beatles", he may – perversely – have headed to Syria to stay on the straight and narrow. His wife, Amal El-Wahabi, suggested at her 2014 trial (she was convicted of trying to move money to Davis in Syria) that leaving London was supposed to be good for his "body and soul". But he would fly out of the UK in 2013 for something far more disturbing than drug dealing.
The four men would take different paths to Syria and the northern city of Raqqa. Kotey is only known to have travelled there at some point after ditching an aid convoy trip to Gaza in 2009. Elsheikh is believed to have gone to Syria sometime in 2012 and initially joined al-Qaeda's affiliate before moving over to ISIS. Emwazi and Davis got to Syria in 2013, the year ISIS – initially established in Iraq – began claiming serious territorial victories inside the country.
Is it possible that any of them travelled with non-violent intentions, driven only by the idea of helping the victims of Bashar al-Assad’s regime?
"If you went in 2011 and 2012, I can probably believe you might have started off believing you were Che Guevara, doing good and saving the oppressed," says Rafaello. "But when the cause becomes establishing a caliphate with ISIS, and you'll stop at nothing for that cause, then it’s obviously become a very different thing."
At any rate, the four Londoners stayed and thrived. Much has been written about the culture of martyrdom among jihadists, the willingness to seek out death, but Dr Afzal Ashraf thinks we have underestimated how thrilled many young Islamists were to be on a team that was winning. "These guys were attracted to a credible promise of success," he says. "The spectacular success of ISIS when they were gaining ground meant people living with a grievance narrative were excited to be part of something that seemed to be succeeding."
While some foreign recruits would become disillusioned about being used as frontline fodder by ISIS's mainly-Iraqi commanders, the four Londoners found a key role in Raqqa. They were tasked with guarding western hostages in a place the captives called "The Quarry".
"They might not have been useful fighters, not having much battlefield experience, but they would have been a natural unit able to work together," says Pantucci. "Being English speakers, what better way to get a message across to the English-speaking world? They became useful for propaganda purposes."
The group did more than simply hold people in place. Surviving hostages have described their aptitude for tormenting them. Javier Espinosa refers to their "psychopathic" character. The Spanish journalist has recalled how Emwazi whispered in detail what would happen if he was to slit Espinosa’s throat: "The first hit will sever your veins. The blood mixes with your saliva."
Danish hostage Daniel Rye Ottosen has described how the British jailers played games with them, making them sing songs about Kenneth Bigley, the al-Qaeda hostage beheaded in Iraq. "They were not told to go in and beat us up… but they did it because they wanted to, they enjoyed it."
In his memoir, Ottosen describes "George" as the one who gave the orders, and as the one who was also the most unpredictable. "Ringo" did the filming when it was needed. But it would be "Jihadi John" who would assume the starring role, becoming infamous around the world.
In August of 2014, ISIS released a video showing a figure dressed in black: Emwazi, beheading the US photojournalist James Foley. In September, he featured in another video – the beheading of US journalist Steven Sotloff. More murders followed: the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, the US aid worker Peter Kassig and Japanese journalists Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
The US government says the cell beheaded 27 captives in all. The group’s victims are believed to include Syrian fighters seized on the battlefield.
With Emwazi now dead, it remains unclear which of the three living Londoners was "George", which was "Ringo" and which was "Paul". The French journalist Nicolas Henin, a surviving hostage, tells me he cannot clarify their identifies. He cites the legal process that might still lie ahead for Kotey and Elsheikh. Although the UK has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship, American and British officials are still discussing where they will be held and how they will face trial. Yesterday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd hinted that they could be returned to the UK, despite Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson previously saying, "I don’t think they should ever set foot in this country again. They turned their back on Britain, our values and everything we stand for – they are the worst of the worst."
Even now, with everything we know, it is strangely tempting to believe at least one of the group had some sense of decency, that not all four were equally and entirely wicked. But there is little evidence of decency to cling to. The US State Department says Kotey "likely engaged in the group's executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods". Elsheikh "earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions".
We can dismiss the four as outliers, as deviants, but their journey into darkness was not entirely freakish. The security services believe 800 British citizens ran away to join ISIS. Potentially, there are lessons to be learned from all 800 stories.
We have to better understand why so many second generation and third generation Muslims feel so unsure of their place, and why this debased, politicised Islam offers such clarity and purpose.
Ultimately, Britain will have to come up with more compelling counter-narratives if it wants to make the story of the London jihadists a footnote in history, rather than a sign of things to come.