Two of the most notorious ISIS detainees in a Kurdish prison have been moved out of fear they might escape during Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, half of the infamous British cell of ISIS executioners known by the Western captives as “The Beatles,” had been taken from a Kurdish prison into U.S. custody, President Trump announced on Thursday.
“In case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, the United States has already taken the 2 ISIS militants tied to beheadings in Syria, known as the Beetles, out of that country and into a secure location controlled by the U.S,” he tweeted. “They are the worst of the worst!”
Elsheikh and Kotey, who have reportedly been moved to Iraq, allegedly belonged to an ISIS cell that beheaded seven American, British and Japanese prisoners and a group of Syrian soldiers, filming the killings for ISIS propaganda. They’ve been stripped of their British citizenship and could face the death penalty if found guilty in a U.S. court.
Trump’s announcement came after Turkey launched its ground and air offensive into Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria Wednesday, sparking an exodus of thousands of Kurdish civilians who fled the border region. Fighting was heaviest around the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, with at least 16 Kurds killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Thursday.
Turkey’s Ministry of Defense said the operation had achieved its targets to date. “Operation continues successfully as planned," it tweeted Thursday morning.
Trump has faced a fierce backlash for effectively greenlighting the Turkish invasion. Critics slammed the move as a shameless betrayal of the Kurds, a key ground partner in the fight against ISIS, which also raised serious concerns that the estimated 80,000 ISIS fighters and their families in Kurdish custody could break free amid the renewed conflict.
Trump, who has repeatedly urged European nations to repatriate and prosecute imprisoned ISIS fighters, initially said the continued detention of the ISIS detainees would be Turkey’s responsibility.
But on Wednesday, he acknowledged they could go free amid the invasion, and appeared to wash his hands of the situation.
Asked at a press conference if he was concerned about ISIS fighters fleeing Kurdish custody, Trump said: “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That's where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Wednesday that one of the prisons where ISIS detainees were being held was hit by a Turkish air strike, while the Guardian reported that ISIS women in the sprawling Al-Hawl camp were hopeful that ISIS sleeper cells would launch an attack to break them out in the coming days. The terror group has repeatedly broken its members out of jails in the past.
Speaking to the press Wednesday, Trump also downplayed the U.S. relationship with the Kurds, who have played a key role in defeating ISIS on the ground, losing 11,000 soldiers in the fight.
“The Kurds are fighting for their land,” he said. “They didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example... But they were there to help us with their land, and that’s a different thing.”
He added: “With all of that being said we like the Kurds.”
Cover: In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)