Holding Murderous Terrorists Accountable

In the case of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the United States needs to hurry up and intervene.

Imagine you had a beloved child, born in a free and prosperous country. Imagine that he or she grew into a brave and selfless adult, the kind that ventured into some war-stricken land to help those less fortunate. Now imagine that he or she was mercilessly abducted, starved, tortured, raped, beaten, stripped of his or her clothing, and barbarically murdered in front of the whole world. Unimaginable, isn’t it?

Tragically, Diane and John Foley, Paul and Ed Kassig, Marsha and Carl Mueller, Shirley and Art Sotloff — as well as the families of the 23 other victims of the ISIS cell nicknamed the “Beatles” (on account of their English accents) — know only too well what this is like. For six years, these parents have been suffering the shock of this real-life nightmare. Now they are worried that their children’s killers could evade justice.

Two of the British-born jihadi “Beatles,” Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were captured by Kurdish forces, are now being held by American forces in Iraq. Last year, then–U.K. home secretary Sajid Javid stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their British citizenship on national-security grounds and agreed, with then–U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, that they would be extradited to the United States to face trial there. In a classified letter, Javid made clear that Britain would cooperate fully in the sharing of intelligence but would not, as was the precedent, ask for the possibility of a death sentence be removed.

But after Javid’s letter was leaked to the press, Elsheikh’s mother, helped by so-called “human rights” organizations, continued to wage aggressive action against the U.K. government, claiming that they had acted illegally and demanding that her son be tried in Britain. In March of this year, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, finding that, because the death penalty was still on the table, sharing intelligence on the suspects with the U.S. would be unlawful.

Richard Walton, a senior fellow at the influential British think-tank, Policy Exchange, and former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, explained at the time that Javid had “correctly judged that these risks [of a conviction resulting in the death penalty] were outweighed by the risks of no prosecution at all.” This is owing to strict rules in the U.K. about the kinds of evidence — for example, wiretapping or evidence from warzones — that can be submitted in British courts, as well as highly contentious European laws protecting the interests of criminals and terrorists under the guise of “human rights.”

On Thursday, Walton reiterated his concerns in an interview with National Review. “In 30 years of counter-terrorism work, the crimes committed by the so-called ISIS “Beatles” amount to the most heinous terrorism offenses I’ve ever encountered,” he said. “Were Kotey and El-Sheikh tried in the U.K., there is a serious risk that they would walk free which would amount to a propaganda win for ISIS, make a mockery of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy and leave the public despairing of justice.” Walton explained that “it’s routine for the U.K. to work with the U.S. in trying terrorists and — were the U.S. to remove the possibility of the death penalty — that could still happen in this case.”

Now that the situation has come to a standstill in the United Kingdom, it is up to the United States to deliver justice. Either the U.S. can determine that it has enough evidence to proceed without the U.K.’s help, or it could remove the possibility of the death penalty. (The latter being less likely, as it would set dangerous new precedent.) The victims’ families would be content with either way forward, so long as it results in the perpetrators being tried in an American federal court.

“We’d like [Kotey and El-Sheikh] to come to the U.S. and have a fair criminal-court trial where they could present their evidence and we can present what we have,” Diane Foley, mother of the murdered American journalist James Foley, told National Review. “We want to assure the prosecutors here in the U.S. that there is plenty of evidence that we can use against these two.” Carl Mueller, father of the murdered American aid worker Kayla Mueller, agreed, telling National Review that before the coronavirus brought everything to a “screeching halt,” they “were progressing quite well with the independent investigation and finding out a lot of intel.”

Quite apart from the extradition dilemma, Diane Foley does not believe the death penalty should be used against her son’s killers, as it would “make them into martyrs and does not give them a chance for redemption.” (Mrs. Foley is a devout Catholic.) Yet, she said, “when people do this to our citizens, we must act, we must use our justice system and all of the years of investigation and bring them to trial.” In the United Kingdom, it is Elsheikh’s mother who has been most effective at gaining sympathy for her son — and in turning that sympathy into action. “I would like her to look at our side of it,” Mrs. Foley told National Review:

There’s an nonprofit called Reprieve in the U.K. who has been working very hard with Elsheikh’s mother, and they had the audacity to try to get us to side with her to protect her son, because I’m against the death penalty. . . . I’d like her to spend a day in my shoes. I don’t blame her for wanting to protect her son. I don’t want him killed, but I do want him to face justice for his crimes. I do want him to be put on trial.

Is that really too much to ask? Carl Mueller —whose daughter was raped and tortured before pictures of her dead body were sent to him and his wife by email — certainly doesn’t think so. Mueller told National Review: “If the English government does not want to seek justice for the families of those who were tortured, jailed, and beheaded, then they should set aside for the U.S., give us the information we need, to take care of prosecuting these two guys.”

In a war zone, it isn’t always possible to bring international terrorists to trial. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State military commander who repeatedly raped and abused Kayla Mueller, blew himself up (along with two children) during a raid in Barisha, Syria, by U.S. forces. Mohammed Emwazi — a member of the ISIS “Beatles” (nicknamed “Jihadi John”) who was responsible for beheading James Foley, Peter Kassig, and Steven Sotloff as well as Britons David Haines and Alan Henning — was similarly obliterated in 2015 in Raqqa, Syria, during a U.S. drone strike. But bombs are a blunt (and ultimately unsatisfactory) force with which to fight terrorists. Such terrorists are now beyond “earthly justice,” as their victims’ parents put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed imploring the Trump administration to hold the surviving jihadists accountable. With their bodily destruction goes critical information that could have come out in a trial, as well as chance to send ISIS a powerful message — that we in the West have a strong and civilized way of dealing with traitors and murderers.

While no parent could ever be expected to recover from losing a child in this way, finding out exactly what happened, retrieving their children’s remains, and bringing those responsible to justice would help bring some healing and closure. Moreover, there is far more at stake than justice for the victims and their families. The entire credibility of British and American national-security and counterterrorist strategy rests on holding terrorists accountable under our laws. To allow these monsters to evade justice — their guilt laid bare before us — is to make a mockery of our most fundamental principles.


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