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US tells UK it will not seek death penalty for ISIS members known as the 'Beatles'

Posted August 19, 2020 7:12 p.m. EDT

— The Trump administration has informed the UK that it will not seek the death penalty for two of the high-profile ISIS members known as "the Beatles," in an effort to convince Britain to provide critical evidence that can be used to prosecute the operatives in US courts.

"On behalf of the US Department of Justice, I am writing to provide an assurance that if the United Kingdom grants our mutual legal assistance request, the United States will not seek the death penalty in any prosecutions it might bring against Alexanda Kotey or El Shafee Elsheikh, and if imposed, the death penalty will not be carried out," Attorney General William Barr wrote in a letter to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The ISIS members -- originally a group of four men -- were called the Beatles due to their British accents and are believed to be responsible for several high-profile executions of hostages, some of which they videotaped.

They were part of an ISIS execution cell that has been accused by the State Department of "holding captive and beheading approximately two dozen hostages," including James Foley, American journalist Steven Sotloff and American aid worker Peter Kassig.

Captured in Syria

In 2015, one of the Beatles was killed and another was arrested and eventually put on trial in Turkey. Kotey and Elsheikh were captured in Syria in 2018. The United Kingdom stripped all the men of citizenship as far back as 2015, and it now refuses to put Kotey and Elsheikh on trial, citing the legal complications of repatriating former citizens.

The US has largely resisted taking custody of non-US citizens who fought for ISIS. If Barr succeeds in bringing Kotey and Elsheikh to trial in American courts, it would be the first time the US prosecutes non-US citizens for fighting for the terrorist organization.

The two ISIS members are being held by the US military in Iraq, where they were among several high-profile ISIS prisoners transferred to US military custody after Turkey launched a military incursion into northern Syria in 2019, raising concern about the security of the prisons operated by America's local Syrian allies.

Barr's letter said that if the UK government does not provide the US with the information and evidence needed to aid the ISIS members' prosecution by October 15, then "it should be clearly understood that the United States will move forward with plans to transfer Kotey and Elsheikh to Iraq for prosecution in the Iraqi justice system."

Many ISIS members who have been tried in Iraqi courts have been sentenced to death.

'Exceptionally cruel'

The UK had moved earlier to share the information needed to prosecute the pair without assurances that the US would not seek the death penalty. That effort was blocked following a challenge mounted in a UK court.

Kotey has been accused by the US State Department of having "likely engaged in the group's executions and exceptionally cruel torture" of Western journalists and aid worker hostages.

Elsheikh "was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions," according to the State Department.

In an interview with CNN in July, both men confessed their parts in the ransoming of Western hostages. Elsheikh also offered an unprecedented apology for his actions with the group.

Another member of the execution cell, nicknamed Jihadi John, was killed in a US airstrike in 2015.

Family members of American citizens killed by ISIS penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post last month calling on the Trump administration to use American courts to prosecute ISIS fighters being held by the US military in the region.

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