A member of a notorious cell of four British Islamic State group members who tortured Western hostages has pleaded guilty in a US federal courtroom filled with family members of the group’s American victims, some of whom were beheaded for propaganda videos seen around the world.
Alexanda Kotey (37) was part of an Islamic State group cell of four Britons called “the Beatles” – a nickname given by their victims because of their accents – and known for their extreme brutality.
The group kidnapped and abused more than two dozen hostages, including US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014, both of whom were beheaded in propaganda videos. Another two Americans were also killed: Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
As families of all four victims sat silently in the courtroom on Thursday, Kotey recounted calmly and without emotion his crimes and his involvement in the hostage-taking schemes. He said he knew what would happen to the hostages if their governments did not fulfil ransom demands that he had emailed to the families.
Failure to comply, he said, “would ultimately result in either indefinite detention of those foreign captives or their execution”. He pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death and conspiracy to murder US citizens outside the United States. As part of the plea deal, if Kotey fulfills his co-operation requirements, he could be sent to Britain after 15 years to complete the remainder of a mandatory life sentence.
The British government would have to agree to accept Kotey, who would also have to plead guilty to British crimes. He will also meet with the hostage families if they want to speak with him, under the agreement.
Kotey was captured in Syria by a Kurdish-backed militia in 2018, along with El Shafee Elsheikh as they tried to flee to Turkey. Elsheikh (33) has pleaded not guilty and has not struck a plea deal with prosecutors. Should Elsheikh decide to take his chances at trial, Kotey’s plea agreement does not require that he testify against him.
The Trump administration engaged in a lengthy debate over what to do with the two men, weighing options including turning them over to the Iraqis or taking them to the wartime prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The families of the dead hostages mounted a powerful public campaign to persuade the Trump administration to bring the pair to the United States to face federal prosecution, weathering years of frustrations as the US justice department figured out how to proceed.
Last year, after William Barr, the attorney general at the time, cleared the way for the British government to provide valuable evidence for the prosecution, the two men were brought to Virginia to face charges before a civilian court.
The families declined to speak during the hearing, which was held on the seventh anniversary of Sotloff’s death. They intend to speak at Kotey’s sentencing hearing in March. After the hearing, Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, thanked the justice department and the FBI, adding, “This accountability is essential for anyone who kidnaps or unjustly detains Americans abroad, if our country wishes to ever deter hostage taking.”
Diane Foley, the mother of murdered Islanic State hostage James Foley, speaks alongside the parents of another Islamic State hostage, Kayla Mueller, following the guilty pleas by Alexanda Kotey in a Virginia court on Thursday. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
The guilty plea also marks a victory for the US attorney’s office in Alexandria, which began investigating the kidnapping of Foley in November 2012. Prosecutors in the office pushed the case forward despite enormous bureaucratic hurdles while fighting off attempts by counterparts in Manhattan to take over the high-profile matter.
In a statement, Raj Parekh, one of the prosecutors and now the acting US attorney, described the Americans killed as “pillars of courage and kindness on the front lines of a perilous conflict”.
“They risked their lives to shine a light on the darkest corners of the globe and to help others most in need,” he said. He added that the treatment Kotey received in the United States stood in “stark contrast to the cruelty, inhumanity and indiscriminate violence touted by the terrorist organisation he espoused”.
Prosecutors said Kotey participated in the US prisoners’ “seizure, detention and hostage negotiations” and also took part in hostage operations involving “British, Italian, Danish and German nationals, among others”.
The hostages were abused badly in Syria. They were subjected to waterboarding, mock executions, painful stress positions, food deprivation, beatings with sticks, chokeholds causing blackouts and electric shocks. Their jailers forced the hostages to fight each other and to witness murders, the justice department has previously said.
In some cases, hostages were released after ransoms were paid. The US hostages met gruesome deaths that rattled the Obama administration and forced the government to revamp the way it dealt with the families of hostages. According to prosecutors, Kotey said the violence was part of “controlling” the hostages.
Another member of the cell – Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John – was killed in an air strike in 2015 in Syria. Emwazi was believed to have killed Foley and Sotloff, as well as Kassig, an aid worker. Kotey said he travelled to Syria in August 2012 with Emwazi and first joined an al-Qaeda offshoot, the Al-Nusra Front, before switching to the Islamic State group, also known as Isis.
The fourth British member of the group, Aine Davis, has been imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges. Kotey’s co-operation would be an important part of any effort to prosecute Davis if Turkey agreed to extradite him to the United States or Britain.
Kotey said he was not present when the Americans were beheaded on video but was aware beforehand that the Islamic State group intended to kill them. When he begins providing information to the Americans, the British and other foreign governments, it is not clear if he will be able to provide any reliable details about where the Americans were buried or what happened to Mueller, a young woman from Arizona who was imprisoned with the other Americans and hostages.
Kayla Mueller (26), an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Arizona, who was killed in 2015 while in Islamic State custody. Photograph: Mueller family via Reuters
Kotey’s defence lawyer, Sabrina P Shroff, declined to comment. Prosecutors say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the slain Islamic State group leader, turned Mueller into a sex slave. In early February 2015, the Islamic State group announced that Mueller had died in an air strike and sent the Mueller family pictures of her lifeless body. She was moved from location to location in the final months of her life.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times