KOBANI, Syria (AP) — Two British militants believed to have belonged to an Islamic State group cell notorious for beheading hostages in Syria said Friday that their home country’s revoking of their citizenship denies them the possibility of a fair trial. One of them said the killings of captives was “a mistake” and could have been avoided.
The men were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up the IS cell nicknamed “The Beatles” by surviving captives because of their English accents. The cell held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and became known for its brutality, torturing its captives and beheading several American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and Syrian soldiers in 2014 and 2015.
The two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, spoke to The Associated Press from at a detention center in northern Syria in their first interview with the media. They were captured in early January in eastern Syria by the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces amid the collapse of IS.
They spoke openly of their membership in the Islamic State group but refused to say what their role was. They called the allegations that they belonged to the “Beatles” cell and were involved in kidnappings and killings “propaganda” — but they refused to address specifics.
Asked about the beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other victims, Kotey said many in IS “would have disagreed” with the killings “on the grounds that there is probably more benefit in them being political prisoners.”
“I didn’t see any benefit. It was something that was regrettable,” he added. He also blamed Western governments for failing to negotiate, noting that some hostages were released for ransoms.
Elsheikh said the killings were a “mistake.” The militants shouldn’t have initially threatened to kill the hostages, he said, because then they had to go ahead with it or else “your credibility may go.”
The leader of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi, was dubbed “Jihadi John” in the British media after he appeared, masked, in a string of videos showing beheadings of the hostages. He was killed in a U.S.-led coalition drone strike in 2015 in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital. Another member, Aine Lesley Davis, was arrested in Turkey and convicted there in 2017, sentenced to seven years in prison.
Elsheikh, whose family came to Britain from Sudan when he was a child, was a mechanic from White City in west London. Kotey, who is of Ghanaian and Greek-Cypriot descent and converted to Islam in his 20s, is from London’s Paddington neighborhood.
Elsheikh traveled to Syria in 2012, initially joining al-Qaida’s branch before moving on to IS, according to the U.S. State Department’s listing of the two men for terrorism sanctions. It said he “earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an (IS) jailer.”
Kotey served as a guard for the execution cell and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding,” the State Department said.
They spoke to the AP at a Kurdish security building in the town of Kobani, where they were brought, initially in handcuffs and face covers that were removed. They appeared to speak openly with no signs of duress and were friendly with SDF security who came in and out of the room.
Kotey was conversational, often cracking jokes — when asked whether IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alive, he joked that some people thought Elvis never died and Tupac Shakur is still alive. Elsheikh was straightlaced and reserved, referring more often to Islamic texts.
They were unrepentant about belonging to IS but were dismissive of the atrocities the group was notorious for during its rule of more nearly three years over much of Syria and Iraq. They compared its executions to death sentences in other countries. Elsheikh said that if IS committed torture that would be a violation of Islamic law, but added that while he’d heard stories of torture “you can’t prove anything.”
They refused to comment whether they had worked as jailors, had ever seen any hostages or knew Emwazi. They depicted the allegations as something created by media and foreign intelligence — “so the world can say this is the bad guy and kill the bad guy,” Elsheikh said.
“No fair trial, when I am ‘the Beatle’ in the media. No fair trial,” he added.
The capture of the two men has sparked a debate over where and how to prosecute them. They said they had been questioned repeatedly by U.S. military officials and the FBI — though Kotey said he’d refused to talk them without a lawyer.
The U.S. has been pressing for the home countries of foreign jihadis in Iraq and Syria to take their nationals for trial. Britain’s defense secretary has said they should not be allowed back into the country. Former captives of the cell and families of its victims have called on Elsheikh and Kotey to be given a fair trial, whether in the United States or Britain, arguing that locking them away in a a facility like Guantanamo Bay would only fuel further radicalism.
Elsheikh and Kotey denounced as “illegal” the British government’s decision in February to strip them of citizenship. The decision was widely reported in British media, though officials have not confirmed or denied it, citing privacy rules. The two men said a British official informed them in detention of the decision.
The revocation exposes them to “rendition and torture,” Elsheikh said. “When you have these two guys who don’t even have any citizenship …if we just disappear one day, where is my mom going to go and say where is my son,” he said.
“I found it strange that they could actually do that, revoke the citizenship of a person,” Kotey said.
“I was born in the UK,” he said. “My mother was born in the UK. I have a daughter there in the UK. … I probably never left the UK more than 3 months” before coming to Syria.
Kotey said the fairest venue for a trial may be the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. “That would be the logical solution.”