A member of an Islamic State group that beheaded western hostages in Iraq and Syria, nicknamed “the Beatles” for their British accents, has been sentenced to life in prison in the US.
Alexanda Kotey, 38, originally from Paddington, London, stood motionless as Judge Thomas Selby Ellis delivered his verdict at a district court in Alexandria, Virginia, while members of his victims’ families watched.
Kotey was given a life sentence for each of the eight counts to which he pleaded guilty last year when admitting responsibility for the deaths of four American hostages in Syria as well as the kidnapping and torture of numerous journalists and relief workers.
The sentences are to run concurrently for “the period of your natural life”, the judge said, describing Kotey’s conduct as “egregious, violent and inhumane”.
Speaking of Kotey’s victims, Ellis added: “These were not prisoners of war, these weren’t soldiers in the field. They were soldiers but they were soldiers for good.”
Kotey was captured by a Kurdish militia in Syria in January 2018 and handed over to US forces in Iraq before being flown to the US in 2020 to face trial. He was stripped of UK citizenship by the British government.
The judge noted that, under a plea bargain, the US government has committed to seek Kotey’s transfer to the UK after 15 years. “That’s a pretty major plus for you,” Ellis commented.
As the hearing concluded, Bethany Haines, 24, the daughter of British aid worker David Haines, who was abducted and beheaded by Islamic State in Syria in September 2014, walked towards Kotey and said: “I hope you go rot in hell.”
Earlier, wearing green prison uniform and long white sleeves, the bearded Kotey sat near El Shafee Elsheik, a fellow convicted “Beatle” who gazed downwards while wearing a mask over his beard, as members of the victims’ families read prepared statements into a microphone.
Family member after family member spoke movingly about psychological trauma, lives changed irrevocably, being haunted by trying to imagine their loved ones’ final moments and the ripple effect on relatives, friends and communities. Some broke down in tears during the devastating testimony, which was punctuated by and sighs and sniffs in the public gallery.
Bethany Haines told the court that her grandparents “died of grief” and she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. “My whole life has been turned upside down.”
Wearing black, Haines said she had not had a good night’s sleep since before her father was taken. “I wake up during the night hearing my dad’s screams as he is being tortured by these men. I hear him begging for his life and I can’t do anything to save him.”
Haines added that celebrating birthdays or Christmas is no longer enjoyable. “My dad should be celebrating with me, but instead he is in a mass grave in the hills of Raqqa. He hasn’t been laid to rest he was dumped like a bag of rubbish.”
She said the grief had forced her to drop out of school, college and university and she has been unable to hold down a job. “I’m at a loss as what to do with my life. I originally planned to complete my degree at university and work my way up through the police force to become a detective but now I think, what’s the point?”
Haines has a six-year-old son, born in the year following her father’s death. “I struggle to explain to my son why Mummy is so sad all the time, why Mummy has scars on her arms, why Mummy sometimes can’t get out of bed and why Mummy can’t be like the other mummies.”
Haines’s widow, Dragana Prodanovic Haines, broke down at the start of her testimony. She concluded: “I really hope both of you will live at least 200 years to hear about the death of everyone you care about. For all I care you can live long and suffer.”
Her daughter Athea, 11, who lost her father when she was was four, added: “I miss him so much. Sometimes I get sad when I see my friends from school and club laughing and playing with their dads. That is something I will never have a chance to do again. It is not easy to be that kid in school whose dad was killed by terrorists.”
There was a dramatic moment in court when Shirley Sotloff, mother of the late journalist Steven Sotloff, challenged the “Beatles” to look her in the eye. “Elsheikh do not close your eyes, leave them open and look at me,” she demanded. “Yes, you have to do that.”
Elsheikh complied only fleetingly before looking down again and refusing to make eye contact. Sotloff pressed on: “It’s something you see in movies – not in real life. Steven’s death was like a global worldwide horror movie that was witnessed live and continues to be replayed with the click of a button for millions to see.”
She added: “Sleep is never undisturbed even eight years later. The sickness in our stomachs the minute we wake up and the psychological trauma that we relive over and over and over. We are forever broken by the loss of our beloved son and defined as the people from the horror movie.”
At the end of her statement, Sotloff again entreated Elsheikh: “Open your eyes please and look at me. You destroyed our lives and we hope for the rest of your lives you will think about what you have done, and to your families as well.”
Paula Kassig, mother of murdered American aid worker Peter Kassig, said her health had been negatively affected by the loss as she often has insomnia, forgetfulness and palpitations. Both she and her husband took early retirement.
She told the court: “Knowing that the man I rocked to sleep as an infant and whose hand I held when he was fearful as a child was being starved, beaten, tortured, and threatened with death every day for over a year while I was not able to help him at all was beyond my ability to cope.”
Her husband, Ed Kassig, said: “They say, time heals. They lie. And ‘closure’? I’m sorry, that’s just a word to make bystanders of tragedy feel better. We, and our fellow victimized families, bear scarred hearts and souls. For us, the operating word is ‘forever’. I awaken every morning and look into the eyes of my beautiful wife, his mother, knowing they can’t unsee unspeakable horror.
“At totally unpredictable times, the enormity of it all, like a rogue wave will catch me off guard and dash me to the ground. How does one ‘price out’ the cost of losing a lifetime’s worth of watching one’s child grow and have children of their own? He was the last Kassig of his generation. The last male. The name dies.”
Ed Kassig also noted: “It was we, the victims, who lobbied long and hard to keep them out of Gitmo and avoid the death penalty.”
Carl Mueller, father of the killed humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller, addressed the defendants directly. “Who takes a young woman, an aid worker, whose life work is to help people, to heal people, who takes a woman like that? Cowards. That’s who does that.
“Bravery is what you are witnessing here today. She would have helped hundred, maybe thousands of people, during her lifetime, and you took her from the world.”
At times even Ellis, a deeply experienced judge, appeared to be struggling to compose himself. After the statements, he said: “Countries celebrate heroes and we should celebrate these individuals who demonstrated courage, purpose and compassion under the most difficult of circumstances.”
He added: “The victims of the hostage-taking by Isis are undeniably heroes.”
Elsheikh, who was also stripped of British citizenship, is due to be sentenced on 19 August after being convicted of his role in the plot.