The two men, Alexanda Amon Kotey, 36, and El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, were transferred on Wednesday to the U.S. from Iraq where they were held in U.S. military custody for more than two years as U.S. and British authorities squabbled over their case. The two were captured by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria in 2018 as they tried to flee Syria for Turkey.
Attorney General William Barr cleared the way for their transfer after assuring British authorities in August that the U.S. would not seek the death penalty against the two men and the British Supreme Court ruled that British authorities could share information about the suspects with U.S. prosecutors
The arrival of Kotey and Elsheikh, both former British citizens, marks a turning point in the years-long quest by U.S. authorities to bring to justice IS members whose brutal murders of U.S. citizens, captured in propaganda videos, continue to haunt many Americans.
“These charges are the product of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for our citizens slain by ISIS,” Barr said in a statement, using another acronym for Islamic State (IS). “Although we cannot bring them back, we can and will seek justice for them, their families, and for all Americans.”
The families of the group’s four American victims – journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller – welcomed the development.
“Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court,” the families said in a statement.
An eight-count indictment unsealed Wednesday describes the two men as “leading participants” in the cell that targeted American, European and Japanese hostages in Syria from 2012 to 2014.
Their alleged ringleader, Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born Briton dubbed “Jihadi John,” was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Syria in November 2015. Emwazi was seen in several Islamic State propaganda videos personally beheading American, European and Japanese hostages. A fourth member of the cell was subsequently arrested in Turkey where he was tried and convicted on terrorism charges.
Kotey and Elsheikh are expected to make their initial appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, later Wednesday. They are both charged with eight counts, including conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death and conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens abroad. If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
According to the indictment, Kotey and Elsheikh, who moved to Syria in 2012, worked closely with chief IS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani and repeatedly met with him about their group’s hostage-taking scheme. Al-Adnani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2016.
Along with Emwazi and others, the two men allegedly abducted Foley and an unidentified British citizen in November 2012, according to the indictment. Sotloff and Mueller were kidnapped in August 2013, followed by Kassig who was captured two months later.
Throughout their captivity, Kotey, Elsheikh and Emwazi supervised IS detention facilities and were responsible for their transfer while “engaging in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence,” according to the indictment.
Later the two men emailed the American hostages’ families to negotiate their release, demanding large sums of money or the release of “Muslim prisoners,” according to the indictment. In May and June 2014, Mueller’s family received emails demanding the release of Afia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist in a U.S. prison for the attempted murder of Americans in Afghanistan, and $5.8 million in exchange for Mueller’s release.
When no ransom was paid, IS proceeded with executing the three men, all captured on video and distributed online as part of the group’s propaganda campaign.
On Aug. 19, 2014, IS released a video showing Emwazi beheading Foley. Two weeks later, another video was released showing Sotloff’s beheading. The Kassig execution surfaced later in 2014. The following February, Mueller’s family received an email from IS militants confirming her death.
U.S. prosecutors say Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former IS leader, sexually assaulted Mueller while she was in IS custody. Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. special forces operation in October 2019. The operation was named after Mueller’s birthday.
“Today, we remember the victims, Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller, and their families who are forever affected by these senseless acts of violence,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “These families have suffered with the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers; today’s charges demonstrate the FBI’s dedication and commitment to giving them the justice they deserve.”