The former hostages, taking the stand of witnesses in the US trial of the captives of their alleged Islamic State group, described their brutal treatment in detail.
Eight former IS hostages have so far testified at the trial of El Shafi Elsheikh, who is accused of being a member of the infamous kidnapping and murder cell known as the “Beatles”.
But in a quirk of the case – none of the former IS detainees have been asked in court to formally identify their alleged captives.
That’s because the 33-year-old Elsheikh and other alleged “Beatles” – so-called because of their British accent – worked hard to hide their identities.
Former hostages said that they were often blindfolded and that their captives wore balaclavas with only a slit for the eyes at all times.
“He always tried to defend himself,” said Edouard Elias, a French photographer held captive by IS from June 2013 to April 2014.
“With the other guards I can get some information, but not with them,” Elias said. “I just saw someone had dark skin, that’s it.”
The kidnappers also had a “rule” whenever they entered the cells where prisoners were kept.
“We had to kneel with our faces to the wall and never look at them in the face,” said Italian aid worker Federico Motca.
“We had to cover our faces,” said Frida Sayeed, a former Doctors Without Borders (MSF) activist.
Nicolas Henin, a French journalist, told the court that the hostage-takers apparently believed that “as long as they were masked, they were safe from prosecution.”
“It was probably a stupid idea,” Henin said.
Despite the precautions to be taken, prosecutors are confident they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury that Elsheikh, a former British citizen, was one of the “Beatles”.
Elsheikh and another alleged “beetle,” Alexandra Amon Cote, were captured by Kurdish militia in Syria in January 2018 while attempting to flee to Turkey.
He was handed over to US forces in Iraq and taken to the United States to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder American citizens, and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
Elsheikh is accused of the murders of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kasig, and is suspected of kidnapping about 20 other Westerners.
Cote pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison.
Elsheikh, who pleaded not guilty, is not expected to testify at his trial, but prosecutors are using their own words against him.
Following his capture, Elsheikh gave interviews to several media outlets and prosecutors presented excerpts from those interviews to the jury.
In interviews, Elsheikh admitted to negotiating with the hostages, but claimed that he did nothing more than ask them for information – e.g. email addresses – so that the kidnappers could initiate ransom talks with their families.
Elsheikh also sought to responsibly defend the executioner of another “Beatles” member, Mohamed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John”, who was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015. Was.
The former hostages told a different story – brutal beatings at the hands of the trio “Beatles,” waterboarding, electric shocks and other forms of torture.
“George was into boxing. John kicked a lot. Ringo talked a lot about how he liked wrestling, putting people in headlocks,” Motka said.
“It was like a team,” Elias said.
Saeed, a former MSF worker, said they were “friendly, comfortable with each other.”
“They seemed to be good friends,” she said.
Former hostages have testified that even though they could not see their faces, they could easily recognize the “Beatles”, even by the personal ways they would knock on their cell doors.
In addition to their distinctive British accent, the “Beatles” were also better equipped with expensive pistols and walkie-talkies than other guards.
In court, Elsheikh resembled a college student wearing fashionable civilian clothes and oversized glasses. A long black beard protruded from under his black COVID-19 mask.
During witness testimony, he spent most of his time looking straight ahead.
Elsheikh’s lawyers have occupied the question of identity in defending themselves.
In initial arguments, he acknowledged that he was an IS jihadist, but insisted that he was not one of the “Beatles” and that it was a case of “misidentification”.