Isil ‘Beatles’ say fair trial is impossible in Britain in first interview since capture
Smiling and sipping drinks on a brown leather sofa, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey display few signs of their sinister past.
One dressed in a tracksuit top, the other in a blue pullover, the men are seen engaging in conversation and chuckling in newly released photographs and video.
It is only in pictures of them handcuffed and with faces covered by rudimentary masks while being transported that there is a hint of the pair’s threat.
In fact these young Britons are two of the country’s most notorious suspected killers, accused of overseeing a brutal regime of executions and torture in the name of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
They are accused of forming half of the infamous ‘Beatles’ jihadist group of UK citizens who fled to the Middle East, taking up arms in the hope of forming a new caliphate.
The beheadings of British aid worker David Haines and US journalist James Foley are among the crimes the group is said to have committed.
Yet speaking from a compound in northern Syria in their first interview since capture, the two men issued a string of rebuttals.
They denied any involvement in the group’s kidnapping or killings, with one going as far as saying Mr Foley’s death was “regrettable”.
They hit out at their ‘Beatles’ media portrayal, claiming the nickname would undermine the chance of a fair trial.
And the jihadists even denounced as “illegal” reported attempts by the British government to strip them of their UK citizenship.
The interview, conducted by the Associated Press, provides a telling insight into the minds of two men allegedly at the heart of the Beatles jihadist cell.
Mohammed Emwazi, the group’s leader dubbed ‘Jihadi John’ who often brandished a knife in gruesome beheading videos, was killed in a drone strike in 2015.
Aine Lesley Davis, another member of the cell, is serving seven years in prison after being arrested and convicted in Turkey.
But the fate of Elsheikh and Kotey is up in the air as Britain and America debate where the jihadists should be sent to stand trial.
Both men denied they were part of the group in the interview – though admitted their allegiance to Isil – and distanced themselves from the killing of Mr Foley and other victims.
Kotey said many in Isil "would have disagreed" with the murders "on the grounds that there is probably more benefit in them being political prisoners".
He added: "As for my position, I didn’t see any benefit. It was something that was regrettable.”
Kotey also blamed Western governments for failing to negotiate, noting that some hostages were released for ransoms. Elsheikh denounced the chances of justice being served given the media’s portrayal of the group. "No fair trial, when I am ‘the Beatle’ in the media. No fair trial,” he said.
He also commented on the stripping of the pair’s British citizenship – something widely reported but not officially confirmed by the British authorities because of privacy rules.
Elsheikh said the move exposed them to “rendition and torture” by “being taken to any foreign land and treated in anyway and having nobody to vouch for you”.
He added: “When you have these two guys who don’t even have any citizenship… if we just disappear one day, where is my mom going to go and say: ‘Where is my son?’”
The pair dubbed the allegations against them “propaganda” and said being stripped of their citizenship was “illegal”.
Yet the denials clash with claims from the US authorities who detailed their alleged crimes when announcing terrorism sanctions in the past.
Elsheikh had “earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an (Isil) jailer” since fleeing Britain, according to the US state department.
It was a radical contrast to his early life as the son of a Sudanese family who earned a living as a mechanic in White City, east London. He moved to Syria in 2012.
Kotey was a guard for the execution cell and "likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding," according to the state department.
Part Ghanaian and Greek-Cypriot, he had been living in Paddington, London, before converting to Islam in his 20s and joining Isil.
The future for both men now looks uncertain. America wants home countries to take back their jihadists so they can be prosecuted in their own courts.
Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, does not want the men back in the UK – yet British officials also oppose them facing the death penalty in the US.
The likelihood of the pair leaving their capture in northern Syria any time soon – despite their vehement denials and engagement with the media – looks pretty slim.
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