British national Alexanda Kotey, an Islamic State fighter known as one of the ‘Beatles’ by the hostages he guarded along with other British members of his terror cell, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday at a courtroom in the US state of Virginia.
Kotey and another British man El Shafee Elsheikh were captured in Syria in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to stand trial in federal court. A third Beatle, Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” who carried out the beheadings, was killed in a 2015 drone strike.
Elsheikh will be formally sentenced to life in prison in August, and under the terms of their extradition agreement to the US, neither man faced the death penalty.
Kotey was specifically charged with conspiring in the kidnapping and deaths of four Americans — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.
Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were all beheaded. Mueller was tortured and raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
British aid workers Henning and David Haines were also killed by beheading by the Islamic State.
Court hears impact statements from relatives
A packed courtroom on Friday heard witness impact statements from about a dozen relatives of the victims.
Lucy Henning talked about her own guilt at the death of her father, Alan Henning, who was tortured and beheaded by the Islamic State a decade ago.
Lucy said she has many questions about her father that remain unanswered: “Did he want to send us a message? Was he mad that we didn’t get him out? Was he buried or cremated? Or was he just left there?”
Kayla Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that during the ordeal, “I lost my faith in God, and I lost my faith in our government. My government left her there for 18 months. They would not allow us to negotiate.”
He said the trial and prosecution of the Elsheikh and Kotey restored his faith in government, prompting tears from Judge T.S. Ellis III.
Kayla’s mother, Marsha Mueller, said she and her husband are still desperate for the truth about her daughter’s death. Unlike the other three Americans, whose beheading deaths were recorded on video and spread across the internet, Kayla’s death remains something of a mystery. The Islamic State said she was killed in a Jordanian air strike — the US government believes she was killed by ISIS.
“I am thankful for each shred of truth, no matter how painful it is to hear,” she said. “We will continue to search for our daughter’s remains.”
Throughout the victim impact statements, Kotey made eye contact with the victims, while Elsheikh looked away or kept his eyes closed. His apparent indifference to the victims’ words drew the ire of Sotloff’s mother, Shirley Sotloff, who demanded Elsheikh look at her while she spoke.
“We are forever broken by the loss of our beloved son and defined as the people from a horror movie.” she said, referencing the beheading videos that circulated around the globe.
Kotey declined to speak at Friday’s hearing, referencing instead a 25-page letter he wrote to the court in advance of sentencing. The letter describes his conversion to Islam at age 19 and expresses some ambivalence about his actions, while also justifying brutality as a response to Western foreign policy.
“In retrospect I can say that, throughout our endeavors, there were actions we took that demanded moral compromises,” he wrote.
While Elsheikh was not sentenced, the judge ordered him to attend Friday’s hearing so victims would not have to travel to two separate sentencings to say their peace.