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ISIS "Beatles" who beheaded James Foley and Steven Sotloff could face a U.S. trial

The U.K. doesn't want to bring them back home for fear they'd radicalize others in prison

by Tim Hume
Feb 9 2018, 12:00pm

The fate of two British members of a notorious ISIS execution cell whose capture was reported Thursday is unclear, but experts say there’s no rush to bring them back to the U.K. to face justice.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Londoners Alexanda Kotey, 34, and El Shafee Elsheikh, 29, had been captured by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in early January.

The pair had been the two remaining members still at large of a brutal ISIS cell, nicknamed “the Beatles” on account of their British accents, whose gruesome murders of Western hostages featured heavily in ISIS propaganda.

U.S. officials say the group beheaded at least 27 hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and tortured many more. The alleged ringleader of the group, Mohammed Emwazi, was killed by a drone strike in Raqqa in 2015, while the fourth member, Aine Davis, has been jailed on terror charges in Turkey.

U.S. forces in Syria have been given access to the men, confirming their identities through biometric data and subjecting them to military interrogation. The Times reported that the interrogations had yielded valuable intelligence, and that U.S. officials had hoped to keep the men’s capture secret to give them time to pursue leads and launch raids on ISIS targets.

Experts contacted by VICE News say it’s unclear where the men are ultimately likely to face justice. But Britain is unlikely to be clamoring for their return.

“The U.K. is not really interested in bringing foreign fighters back here,” said Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at London’s Chatham House.

“If you look at the EU countries in general, they’re all trying to keep the problem as far away as possible,” he said. France, for example, explicitly says it is in favor of its citizens being tried where they are caught, as long as they are given a fair trial.

A major concern was that any ISIS militants who were jailed on their return would go on to radicalize others in the prison system, who would then go on to pose a terror threat.

“There’s not been a system in place to effectively prevent them from just radicalizing others in prison,” he said.

Michael Stephens, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, agreed, saying that British authorities would be happy to let the jihadists remain in Kurdish custody.

“If they’re in custody in Syria, then there’s no great urgency to get them home, as long as they’re being held in humane conditions. The priorities are people returning, or still operating on the battlefield.”

He pointed to the example of Jack Letts, a British-Canadian citizen and alleged ISIS fighter who is also being held by Syrian Kurds. Letts has been requesting assistance to return from Syria, saying he is prepared to face trial for any crime he is accused of, and Kurdish officials have said this can happen once they receive an official government request from Britain.

But no such request has been forthcoming. Instead, the British authorities have held to the line that it can’t intervene in the cases of people who go to fight in Syria, and Letts’ parents have been charged with funding terrorism for attempting to send him money.

Some British government ministers have suggested that the only way to deal with the issue of foreign fighters is to kill them on the battlefield. There’s also the possibility that Kotey and Elsheikh may have been stripped of their British citizenship under powers available to the government, enabling the government to effectively wash its hands of them.

The British government has remained tight-lipped on the case, with a spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office saying: “We do not comment on individual cases or ongoing investigations.”

Instead, it’s likely the men, both of whom are classified as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the U.S. State Department, could find their way into U.S. hands. In this case the men could face trial in a federal court for the murder of U.S. citizens, or face lengthy detentions in Guantanamo Bay, which President Donald Trump announced last month he was keeping open by executive order.

The latter outcome would not be welcomed by some of the group’s victims. Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who spent 10 months as prisoner of cell, told the BBC that he was happy about the capture of Kotey and Elsheikh, but wanted to see them face proper justice, or it would only fuel jihadist grievances.

“For them, they were doing it for revenge, against all the grievances they can argue against the Western world, which are largely fantasized,” he said. “I will be extremely frustrated if they were not offered a fair trial, and I don't think the local authorities in northern Syria or detention in Guantanamo Bay would be justice.”

But others who have lost loved ones to the men are less concerned with how they are dealt with. Bethany Haines, whose British aid worker father David Haines was killed by the group, told ITV: “No punishment is enough for these barbarians, and in my opinion they should be sentenced to a slow painful death.”