U.S. to take cus­tody of 2 Britons linked to ISIS killing of Amer­i­cans

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA, SOUAD MEKHENNET, RACHEL WEINER AND MISSY RYAN

The U.S. mil­i­tary is tak­ing cus­tody of sev­eral dozen high-value Is­lamic State de­tainees, in­clud­ing two British men ac­cused of in­volve­ment in the mil­i­tant group’s sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions of Amer­i­can and other West­ern hostages. The ac­tion is de­signed to pre­vent their es­cape or re­lease from camps in Syria, where they have been guarded by Kur­dish forces now un­der threat from Tur­key’s in­cur­sion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

The move, a rare in­stance in which the United States has taken di­rect re­spon­si­bil­ity for Is­lamic State pris­on­ers in Iraq and Syria, comes as U.S. of­fi­cials scram­ble to en­sure that Ankara’s un­fold­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion does not per­mit the Is­lamic State to re­gain strength.

The roughly 40 in­di­vid­u­als be­ing taken into U.S. cus­tody, all con­sid­ered im­por­tant Is­lamic State fig­ures, pre­vi­ously had been held in a con­stel­la­tion of small pris­ons in north­east Syria run by Syr­ian Kur­dish forces who have been the Pen­tagon’s pri­mary part­ner against the Is­lamic State in Syria. The Kurds are now pulling guards from those fa­cil­i­ties to con­front the un­fold­ing Turk­ish as­sault.

The British pair — part of a

group of four British mil­i­tants dubbed the “Bea­tles” by their hostages — were be­ing de­tained with the goal of putting them on trial in the United States, said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial, who like oth­ers spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive mat­ter.

Two of­fi­cials said the men — Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee El­sheikh — had been taken to Iraq. It was not clear whether any other high-value de­tainees would also be brought there.

“We are tak­ing some of the most dan­ger­ous ISIS fight­ers out,” Pres­i­dent Trump said at the White House on Wed­nes­day, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “We are tak­ing them out and putting them in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, where it’s se­cure. ... We have a cer­tain num­ber of ISIS fight­ers that are par­tic­u­larly bad, and we wanted to make sure that noth­ing hap­pened with them in re­spect to get­ting out.”

A crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion in the United States rests on the abil­ity to ob­tain ev­i­dence from British author­i­ties — a mat­ter be­ing lit­i­gated in the Supreme Court of the United King­dom. In re­cent days, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr asked Trump to make se­cur­ing the de­ten­tion of the two men a “pri­or­ity” so they could be even­tu­ally prose­cuted in the United States, and the pres­i­dent “im­me­di­ately agreed,” ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

The British men are ac­cused of in­volve­ment in the be­head­ing of Amer­i­cans James Fo­ley, Steven Sot­loff and Peter Kas­sig, as well as other West­ern hostages.

The Turk­ish at­tack on Kur­dish forces raised con­cerns about the abil­ity of the Kurds to main­tain control over thou­sands of Is­lamic State de­tainees and tens of thou­sands of women and chil­dren housed in sep­a­rate camps, some of which are mil­i­tant sup­port­ers.

“This is like a vic­tory for the ISIS fight­ers. I just think it’s ap­palling,” said Diane Fo­ley, James Fo­ley’s mother. “It’s an ab­di­ca­tion of our re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure safety for our own cit­i­zens and al­lies.”

Of­fi­cials have said that the U.S. mil­i­tary had or­ders not to in­ter­vene if the Kurds abandoned de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties to press all of their troops into the fight with Tur­key. That po­si­tion ap­pears to be chang­ing now as the mil­i­tary takes cus­tody of a small por­tion of those de­tainees, sug­gest­ing the Pen­tagon is re­vis­ing its plans amid a fast-mov­ing sit­u­a­tion.

“We now face the very real prospect of 10,000 ISIS pris­on­ers re­join­ing the bat­tle­field,” Sen. Jeanne Sha­heen (D.-N.H.) said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day.

Mo­hammed Emwazi, the man who killed Fo­ley, Sot­loff, Kas­sig and other hostages in 2014, was killed in a drone strike the fol­low­ing year. A fourth Amer­i­can, Kayla Mueller, was killed while be­ing held hostage by the Is­lamic State, but the ex­act cause of her death was not con­firmed.

Kotey and El­sheikh had been in cus­tody of the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces. Their po­ten­tial trans­fer to the United States for trial has been de­layed by El­sheikh’s mother, Maha El­gi­zouli, who has chal­lenged the British govern­ment’s de­ci­sion not to pros­e­cute her son in Bri­tain. She also has sued the British govern­ment to block any ev­i­dence-shar­ing with U.S. pros­e­cu­tors with­out le­gal as­sur­ance that her son will not be ex­e­cuted.

“Mrs. El­gi­zouli is solely con­cerned to pro­tect her son from the death penalty,” at­tor­ney Ed­ward Fitzger­ald said in a July hear­ing be­fore the Supreme Court of the United King­dom. “She rec­og­nizes that they should face jus­tice. . . . But she sub­mits that they should face jus­tice in this coun­try.”

British author­i­ties for years have said they would pre­fer to see the two charged in the United States.

Pros­e­cu­tors in the United States would seek to con­vict Kotey and El­sheikh as con­spir­a­tors in hostage-tak­ing re­sult­ing in death, a charge that car­ries a po­ten­tial death sen­tence, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

In an interview this summer, Kotey and El­sheikh de­nied in­volve­ment in any mur­ders, say­ing they only fa­cil­i­tated ran­som ne­go­ti­a­tions. Both men agreed to speak to The Wash­ing­ton Post, and Kur­dish se­cu­rity of­fi­cials fa­cil­i­tated sep­a­rate in­ter­views at a fa­cil­ity in Rmeilan, Syria.

Their role, both said, was to ask pris­on­ers for con­tact in­for­ma­tion and per­sonal de­tails for “proof of life.” Kotey re­called hav­ing pris­on­ers hold up signs urg­ing their govern­ments and fam­i­lies to “be quick or they will be kill me.”

At one point, Kotey said, a Syr­ian pris­oner was shot in the back of the head in front of the Euro­pean pris­on­ers, who were made to hold signs say­ing they wanted to avoid a sim­i­lar fate.

The British and Amer­i­can hostages were not in­cluded in that video, he said, be­cause their govern­ments were not ne­go­ti­at­ing.

“They were not pam­pered,” El­sheikh said. “The treat­ment had to be harsh to keep them in the state of mind” of com­pli­ance. “The pris­on­ers had to be kept al­ways un­der pres­sure.”

He said the harsh treat­ment in­cluded head­locks, punches and stress po­si­tions. But he de­nied any in­volve­ment in mock ex­e­cu­tions or wa­ter­board­ing.

Kotey said he saw Emwazi, bet­ter known as “Ji­hadi John,” beat pris­on­ers and threaten to wa­ter­board them “as if he had pre­vi­ously” done so. He said Emwazi saw the killing of jour­nal­ists and aid work­ers as war­ranted be­cause they had “come to in­ter­fere in our in­ter­nal af­fairs.”

Both Kotey and El­sheikh claim they were no longer work­ing with Emwazi when the killing of hostages be­gan. But they say they were among a very small group of Is­lamic State mem­bers who knew Emwazi’s true iden­tity, first re­ported in The Post in early 2015.

A de­ci­sion is ex­pected in the com­ing weeks from the Supreme Court of the United King­dom on whether the British govern­ment’s of­fer to share ev­i­dence on El­sheikh and Kotey, ab­sent a prom­ise from the United States that the men will not face the death penalty, vi­o­lates British law.

Toby Cad­man, a British lawyer rep­re­sent­ing Diane Fo­ley, said he also wor­ries that mov­ing the pris­on­ers around could cre­ate new op­por­tu­ni­ties for the de­fen­dants’ fam­i­lies to de­lay a pros­e­cu­tion.

“The last thing any­one wants is for the process to be . . . fudged in or­der to get them be­fore a court that they can then chal­lenge,” he said. “You want these peo­ple law­fully handed over.”

A fourth “Bea­tle,” Aine Davis, was con­victed in Tur­key of mem­ber­ship in a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion and sen­tenced to seven years in prison.

In its bat­tle against the Is­lamic State, the U.S. mil­i­tary pre­vi­ously de­tained a dual U.s.-saudi cit­i­zen in Iraq for more than a year be­fore re­leas­ing him in 2018.

Hina Shamsi, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s na­tional se­cu­rity pro­ject, said the U.S. de­ten­tion of high-value de­tainees raised “a host of thorny is­sues that the mil­i­tary has sought to avoid, start­ing with its author­ity to de­tain peo­ple un­der do­mes­tic law.”

Many Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have sought to min­i­mize their in­volve­ment in the de­ten­tion of ter­ror sus­pects, a prac­tice that was as­so­ci­ated with scan­dals and le­gal chal­lenges fol­low­ing the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks.

“The mil­i­tary must abide by both do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional law, and not repeat the costly le­gal, moral, and strate­gic mis­takes of abuse and un­fair tri­als,” she said.

PHOTOS BY ALICE MARTINS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

El Shafee El­sheikh, left, and Alexanda Kotey, in Rmeilan, Syria, in Au­gust. As part of a group of British mil­i­tants dubbed the “Bea­tles,” they are ac­cused of in­volve­ment in the be­head­ing of four Amer­i­cans and oth­ers. They may now be put on trial in the United States.

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