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An Islamic State member is sentenced to life in prison in the deaths of hostages

El Shafee Elsheikh has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of four U.S. hostages captured by the Islamic State.
Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP, File
El Shafee Elsheikh has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of four U.S. hostages captured by the Islamic State.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — British national El Shafee Elsheikh was sentenced to life in prison Friday for his role in an Islamic State scheme that took roughly two dozen Westerners hostage a decade ago.

Elsheikh's hostages gave him a somewhat whimsical nickname — he was dubbed a "Beatle" along with other English-accented captors — but the moniker belied the viciousness of his conduct.

"This prosecution unmasked the vicious and sadistic ISIS Beatles," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh, noting that Elsheikh and the other Beatles always wore masks when they appeared in front of their hostages.

He is the most notorious and highest-ranking member of the Islamic State group to ever be convicted in a U.S. court, prosecutors said Friday at his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The life sentence was a foregone conclusion after a jury convicted him of hostage taking resulting in death and other crimes earlier this year.

The convictions revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller. All but Mueller were executed in videotaped beheadings circulated online. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.

They were among 26 hostages taken captive between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

The convictions carried a mandatory life sentence. The U.S. agreed not to pursue death sentence as part of a deal that ensured extradition of Elsheikh and his friend, Alexanda Kotey, who has already been sentenced to life.

Parekh said it was difficult to convey the brutality of Elsheikh's actions. "We lack the vocabulary of such pain," he said, paraphrasing Dante's Inferno.

Still, victims of Elsheikh and the Beatles testified at Friday's hearing and gave voice to what they experienced. Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen, who was released after paying a ransom, said the worst moments were times of silence during and after captivity when he was alone with his thoughts.

He said when Elsheikh and the Beatles beat him up, it was almost a relief.

"Now I knew I could only concentrate on my pain, which is much easier than being alone with your thoughts," he said.

Ottosen was particularly close to Foley, and memorized a goodbye letter that Foley wrote to his family so he could dictate it to Foley's parents when he was released.

Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, speaks to members of the media after the sentencing of El Shafee Elsheikh at the U.S. District Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Friday.
Andrew Harnik / AP
/
AP
Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, speaks to members of the media after the sentencing of El Shafee Elsheikh at the U.S. District Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Friday.

Foley's mother, Diane Foley, said holding Elsheikh accountable at trial sends a message of deterrence to other would-be hostage takers.

"Hatred truly overwhelmed your humanity," she told Elsheikh on Friday, which was the eighth anniversary of James Foley's beheading.

At trial, surviving hostages testified that they dreaded the Beatles' appearance at the various prisons to which they were constantly shuttled and relocated. Elsheikh and the other Beatles played a key role in the hostage negotiations, getting hostages to email their families with demands for payments.

They also routinely beat and tortured the hostages, forcing them to fight each other to the point of passing out, threatening them with waterboarding and forcing them view images of slain hostages.

Elsheikh did not speak during Friday's hearing. His lawyer, Zachary Deubler, said Elsheikh will appeal his conviction. Elsheikh's lawyers had argued that his confessions should have been ruled inadmissible because of alleged mistreatment after he was captured by Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces in 2018.

At Friday's hearing, Deubler confined his arguments to a request that Elsheikh not be sent to the supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado, where he would face solitary confinement for the rest of his life. Deubler said a designation to Florence is almost a certainty unless the judge recommends otherwise.

Judge T.S. Ellis III declined to make any recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons.

"The behavior of this defendant and his co-defendant can only be described as horrific, barbaric, brutal, callous and, of course, criminal," Ellis said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press