September 22, 2020 In the News

U.S. trial of Foley killers ‘steps closer,’ Shaheen says

Union Leader
By Kevin Landrigan
September 22, 2020

Two ISIS terrorists accused of killing former New Hampshire resident and freelance war correspondent James Foley and three other American hostages are “several steps closer” to trial in a U.S. court, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Tuesday.

British authorities on Tuesday confirmed they gave to U.S. officials evidence widely seen as pivotal to building a case against El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey.

“This is very welcome news and a critical step to ending the legal limbo that has stalled justice for James Foley, Peter Kassig, Steven Sotloff, Kayla Mueller and their families,” said Shaheen, D-N.H. “I’m very grateful for the cooperation between U.S. and U.K. authorities to make this breakthrough.”

The announcement came weeks after Attorney General William Barr guaranteed in writing to British diplomats they if they honored the request for evidence, the U.S. would not seek the death penalty against the two. The suspects were citizens of Great Britain before the killings.

Barr warned Great Britain officials they must decide the matter by Oct. 15 or the two could be tried where they are being held in Iraq, which could lead to their execution.

Shaheen had called Barr’s letter a “very encouraging” development to getting justice for the families of the murdered hostages.

Since the two were caught in Syria and turned over to the U.S. military in 2018, the Trump administration has been stymied in getting access to what is believed to be wiretapping evidence against the suspects.

Last March, the British Supreme Court ruled its government could not turn over the evidence to the U.S. as long as the death penalty remained an option.

A member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, Shaheen led efforts on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Foley family, along with survivors of the other Americans killed by ISIS jihadists.

Both U.S. and British officials have said they believe the pair played a role in 27 killings, which included some British humanitarian aid workers. Foley, 40, was murdered in August 2014.

Kotey and Elsheikh were part of a four-member cell dubbed “the Beatles” by their captives because of their English accents. U.S. officials say they tortured and killed victims, including by beheading, and ISIS released videos of the deaths for propaganda purposes.

Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed Jihadi John after he was seen carrying out beheadings on video, was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2015.

The fourth member of the cell, Aine Lesley Davis, is serving a related 7 1/2-year prison sentence in Turkey.

Removing death penalty

Diane and John Foley of Rochester and other family members of those killed had called for the death penalty to be taken off the table. They argued that carrying out such a punishment would make the pair martyrs and only serve to boost ISIS recruitment efforts.

They also have pressed for the suspects to be tried in a civilian court here, rather than before a military tribunal.

“We are so deeply grateful to the Trump Administration, AG Barr, DOJ, and Senator Shaheen along with Ali Soufan, David Bradley and Attorney Scott Gilmore for their tremendous support,” Diane Foley said.

“The UK’s decision to share evidence on jihadists Kotey and ElSheikh with the U.S. so that they made be tried in US courts is a huge step towards accountability and justice for the kidnapping, torture and murder of our son James, Peter Kassig, Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller, as well as 3 British citizens and thousands of innocent Syrians.”

The U.S. Department of Justice thanked Britain officials for the decision.

“We remain committed to holding these defendants accountable and obtaining justice for the victims of their terrorist activity,” the agency said in a statement.

This move came after Elsheikh’s mother lost a legal challenge in Britain. Her lawyers had argued releasing the evidence would violate the United Kingdom’s Data Protection Act.

The British court ruled it was within the power of that country’s home secretary to make the transfer of evidence.

“I will continue my bipartisan work to make sure that the families of the American ISIS victims see justice served and the rule of law at work,” Shaheen said.

Last year, Shaheen inserted into a defense spending bill the naming of a senior coordinator in the executive branch to work on all ISIS detainee issues. The job has since been filled, and the executive leads all diplomatic planning on the future of these detainees, a Shaheen spokesman said.

Suspects implicated themselves

In 2018, Shaheen traveled to Syria to visit the detention camps that house ISIS terrorists.

Several media outlets reported in July that Kotey and Elsheikh implicated themselves during interviews with British authorities.

According to NBC News, the men admitted they were with Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker from Prescott, Ariz., before her sexual assault, torture and death in 2015.

Elsheikh also implicated himself in the abuse of Foley.

“I didn’t choke Jim,” Elsheikh said, according to NBC.

“If I choked Jim I would say I choked him. I mean, I’ve — I’ve hit him before. I’ve hit most of the prisoners before.”

He also said Foley would let himself become a target for abuse to make certain that hostages were getting enough food.

Both suspects denied they carried out the murders, describing themselves as “liaisons” to the hostages.