The news of the capture of two infamous British members of an Islamic State militant cell commonly dubbed “The Beatles,” and known for beheading hostages, hit close to home in South Florida, since journalist Steven Sotloff of Pinecrest was one of their most high-profile victims.
The two men, named by U.S. military officials on Thursday as Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were the last two members of the group to remain at large. U.S. officials say the cell is responsible for the capture, torture and beheading of more than two dozen hostages. The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ capture of Kotey and Elsheikh was first reported by The New York Times.
The two men, who were captured in early January in eastern Syria, were linked to British terrorist Mohammed Emwazi. He was the masked ISIS militant known as Jihadi John, who appeared in several internet videos that depicted the graphic beheadings of Western hostages, including Sotloff, 31, in September 2014.
Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born son of a London taxi driver, was killed in a U.S.-led airstrike in November 2015. The other member of the cell, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges.
On Friday, Sotloff’s father, Arthur Sotloff, declined to comment, “for now,” on the capture of the two men.
Diane Foley, mother of another journalist victim, James Foley, told the BBC that the crimes are “beyond imagination” and that Elsheikh and Kotey should spend the rest of their lives in prison.
“I’d like them to be brought to trial in the U.S., but as long as they’re brought to fair trial and detained and justice is served I would be most grateful,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today program. “It doesn’t bring James back, but hopefully it protects others from this kind of crime,” she added.
Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, had a similar reaction in 2015 when news of Emwazi’s death was reported. “Right now there is nothing to add other than, so what? So this guy is dead? But my son is. I don’t have Steven and that’s the big thing of it. They spent millions to go after this guy and they could have done that for us,” she told the Miami Herald at the time.
Bethany Haines — whose father, David, a British aid worker, was beheaded by the Islamic State cell — told the BBC on Friday that she hopes Elsheikh and Kotey die a “slow, painful death” and that “they should be locked up and throw away the key.”
Should there be a trial, be it by military commission or federal court — the Sotloffs haven’t publicly commented on their preference — Haines said she would attend. Haines said she wanted to “look them in the eye and let them know I am who I am and they have certainly destroyed a big part of my life. Hopefully there will be some justice.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long been an outspoken supporter of continuing to use the wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the military commissions held there. Thomas P. Bossert, President Donald Trump’s chief counterterrorism adviser, has also pushed for the suspects to be sent to the military prison, The New York Times reported.
In an Associated Press report, Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said American officials have been able to interrogate the two detainees. And he characterized their capture as “certainly a big deal for America” as well as the families of the people the two men killed.
Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, told the AP that the capture of Kotey and Elsheikh is “hugely significant for a lot of the Western countries who had hostages who were captured by Islamic State and hopes that they are brought to trial because it will help bring closure to their victims and send a message to anyone who considers joining IS or other extremist groups.
“These guys had an absolute sense of their own invincibility,” he told the AP. “They were filled with euphoria. [Trials] will make people think twice.”