ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh was sentenced to life in prison on Friday for his role in an Islamic State plan that took about two dozen Westerners hostage a decade ago.
Elsheikh’s hostages gave him a somewhat whimsical nickname—he was referred to as a “Beatle,” along with other English-accented kidnappers—but the nickname belied the ferocity of his behavior.
“This persecution has exposed the cruel and sadistic ISIS Beatles,” said US First Assistant Attorney Raj Parekh, noting that Elsheikh and the other Beatles always wore masks when they appeared before their hostages.
He is the most notorious and most senior member of the Islamic State group ever convicted by a US court, prosecutors said Friday during his hearing in the US district court in Alexandria. The life sentence was a foregone conclusion after a jury convicted him earlier this year of hostage-taking resulting in death and other crimes.
The convictions revolved around the deaths of four American hostages: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. Everyone except Mueller was executed in videotaped beheadings circulating online. Mueller was enslaved and raped multiple times by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was assassinated.
They were among 26 hostages captured between 2012 and 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The convictions carried a mandatory life sentence. The US agreed not to pursue the death penalty as part of a deal that secured the extradition of Elsheikh and his friend, Alexanda Kotey, who has already been sentenced to life in prison.
Parekh said it was difficult to convey the cruelty 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 voiced what they’ve been through. Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen, who was released after paying a ransom, said the worst moments were moments of silence during and after his imprisonment when he was alone with his thoughts.
He said it was almost a relief when Elsheikh and the Beatles beat him up.
“Now I knew I could focus on my pain alone, which is much easier than being alone with your thoughts,” he said.
Ottosen was particularly close to Foley and remembered a suicide note Foley wrote to his family so that he could dictate it to Foley’s parents when he was released.
Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said holding Elsheikh accountable at trial sends a message of deterrence to other potential hostage-takers.
“Hate really overwhelmed your humanity,” she told Elsheikh on Friday, the eighth anniversary of James Foley’s beheading.
During the trial, surviving hostages testified that they feared the Beatles appearing in the various prisons to which they were constantly shuttled and moved. Elsheikh and the other Beatles played a key role in the hostage negotiations, with hostages emailing their families requesting payment.
They also routinely beat and torture the hostages, forcing them to fight each other to the point of passing out, threatening them with waterboarding and forcing them to view images of killed hostages.
Elsheikh did not speak at Friday’s hearing. His lawyer, Zachary Deubler, said Elsheikh will appeal his conviction. Elsheikh’s lawyers had argued that his confessions should have been dismissed as inadmissible due to alleged assault after he was captured by Kurdish-led Syrian forces in 2018.
At Friday’s hearing, Deubler limited his arguments to a request not to send Elsheikh to the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where he would spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Deubler said a clue to Florence is almost a certainty unless the judge advises otherwise.
Judge TS Ellis III declined to make any recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons.
“The conduct of this defendant and his co-defendant can only be described as abhorrent, barbaric, brutal, insensitive and, of course, criminal,” Ellis said.
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