ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of a British national charged with taking a leading role in a scheme by the Islamic State group to take Americans and others as hostages for ransom, resulting in the deaths and beheadings of multiple U.S. citizens.
El Shafee Elsheikh is better known as one of “the Beatles," a nickname he and three other Brits were given by their captives because of their accents. He is charged in a federal indictment as a leading participant in “a brutal hostage-taking scheme targeting American and European citizens" from 2012 through 2015, when the Islamic State group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria and engaged in some of its most disturbing conduct.
He is specifically charged with conspiring in the kidnapping and deaths of four Americans - journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were all beheaded. Mueller was tortured and raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
A pool of 100 potential jurors was questioned Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Alexandria about their knowledge of the case and their ability to sit for a trial expected to last three to four weeks. Elshiekh sat quietly with his defense lawyers through the proceedings, wearing a white button-down shirt and his face covered with a mask.
Families of the slain hostages will be at the courthouse throughout the trial and several are expected to testify. Prosecutors have also indicated they plan to call as witnesses Yazidi girls who were held captive alongside Mueller but later escaped.
Elsheikh and a co-defendant, Alexenda Kotey, were captured in Syria in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to stand trial in federal court.
Kotey pleaded guilty last year and is awaiting sentencing. His plea deal calls for a life sentence with the possibility that, after 15 years, he can serve the remainder of his life sentence in the United Kingdom if it is willing to take him.
While Kotey agreed generally to cooperate with investigators as part of his plea bargain, he was granted an exception that he would not be required to testify against Elsheikh.
A third Beatle, Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a 2015 drone strike. The fourth member was sentenced to prison in Turkey.
Elsheikh's lawyers tried to have the charges thrown out before trial, arguing that confessions made by Elsheikh and Kotey were given under duress. But a judge rejected those arguments. He said the evidence shows that confessions made both to government interrogators and to journalists were made freely.
Elsheikh faces a potential life sentence - the government agreed not to seek the death penalty to obtain Elsheikh's extradition.
In 2014 and 2015, the cell held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them. It beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers.
While the majority of charges against Elsheikh revolve around the killing of the four Americans, the indictment also holds him responsible for his role in the beheading deaths of British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning and Japanese citizens Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.
The jury, which will include 12 regular members and six alternates, is expected to hear opening statements Wednesday.