Islamic State Militant Sentenced to 8 Life Terms in Killing of U.S. Hostages

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a key member of an Islamic State cell known as the Beatles to eight concurrent life terms without parole in the abduction, abuse and deaths of four Americans in Syria, ending a wrenching effort by their families to bring the militants to justice.

In April, a jury found El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, guilty on four counts of hostage-taking and four counts of conspiracy after a two-week trial. Former captives detailed relentless beatings, sexual abuse, waterboarding and killings by three young Britons, who were nicknamed the Beatles for their accents and their incessant banter.

The relatives of the four Americans — the journalists James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff as well as the aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig — watched intently, linking arms and grasping hands, as Judge Thomas S. Ellis III of Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia imposed three life terms at the request of lawyers with the Justice Department.

“It is a hollow victory,” said Diane Foley, Mr. Foley’s mother, adding that the sentence was handed down on the eighth anniversary of her son’s beheading. “Our families have lost our loved ones forever.”

Judge Ellis, noting the gradual decline in interest in the case over the years, urged reporters covering the hearing and the country at large “to not forget what happened here.”

That Mr. Elsheikh, who remained polite, relaxed and largely impassive in his court appearances, already knew he would be spending the rest of his days behind bars was a foregone conclusion before the sentencing on Friday. He was slated to serve five life sentences under mandatory federal guidelines.

But the prosecutors viewed every additional year as vital, given the brutality of the crimes. In a graphic 22-page sentencing memo presented to the court, the lead prosecutor in the case, Raj Parekh, requested the maximum penalty allowed by law. Mr. Elsheikh’s punishment should reflect the militant cell’s involvement in many other offenses committed during the Islamic State’s rampage through Syria in 2012 and 2013, he said.

“The ISIS Beatles engaged in the systematic torture and abuse of their victims, ultimately resulting in the horrific deaths of at least eight American, British and Japanese citizens, among others, including gruesome executions that were videotaped and broadcast globally,” wrote Mr. Parekh, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The families of the victims worked for years to secure a conviction, pressuring the Justice Department to bring Mr. Elsheikh and an associate, Alexanda Kotey, to justice on American soil. In August 2020, William P. Barr, then the attorney general, agreed to waive the death penalty against the men in exchange for cooperation from British prosecutors.

Mr. Elsheikh never denied fighting for the Islamic State, but in their rebuttal, his court-appointed defense lawyers contended that he was not a member of the Beatles. His supposed involvement in the kidnappings was a result of mistaken identity given that the captors often wore black balaclavas to conceal their identities, they said.

Mr. Elsheikh has not been directly implicated in the killings, but his participation in — and knowledge about — numerous kidnapping, ransom and murder plots was enough to secure a conviction under the law, prosecutors argued.

The British extremists repeatedly beat the hostages they kept imprisoned in Raqqa, Syria, which the Islamic State claimed as its capital at the time, according to prosecutors. They subjected their prisoners to abuses such as waterboarding, mock executions, painful stress positions, food deprivation, chokeholds that caused blackouts, electric shocks and beatings that lasted 20 minutes or longer. They also forced the prisoners to fight one another and to witness killings, court papers said.

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