The decision to try one of the so-called “Beatles” ISIS members in the US was to conceal his previous links to British intelligence and his role in their regime-change efforts in Syria.
In January 2023, reports emerged that Alexanda Kotey, known as “Jihadi George” and one of the four British ISIS members collectively known as the “Beatles,” had disappeared from the custody of the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
In 2022, Kotey was convicted in a US court and sentenced to life in prison for the abduction and detention of multiple western hostages in Syria between 2012 and 2015, including journalists James Foley, John Cantlie, and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Kayla Jean Mueller, Peter Kassig, David Haines, and Alan Henning, most of whom were later executed by ISIS.
A BOP spokesperson refused to provide details of Kotey’s whereabouts or why he had been moved, stating only that there are “several reasons” why an inmate may be referred to as “not in BOP custody,” including for “court hearings, medical treatment or for other reasons. We do not provide specific information on the status of inmates who are not in the custody of the BOP for safety, security, or privacy reasons.”
Kotey’s links with British intelligence
The refusal of BOP officials to provide details of Kotey’s whereabouts raises fears that Kotey may be able to escape facing justice for his crimes. This is due to Kotey’s previous links to British intelligence, which sought to use UK-based Islamist extremists such as Kotey as proxies in the 2011 US-led regime-change war against the Syrian government.
Kotey’s links to British intelligence are evidenced by the convoluted effort to prosecute him after his 2018 detention by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Although Kotey held UK citizenship like three of his alleged victims, Haines, Henning, and Cantlie, British officials insisted that Kotey and fellow Beatle Elshafee Elsheikh be tried in US rather than UK courts.
A review of events surrounding Kotey’s case reveals that prosecuting the West Londoner in the US was necessary to avoid revealing his and fellow Beatles’ links to British intelligence.
Laying the foundations for ISIS
Kotey traveled to Syria in August 2012 with fellow Beatle Muhammad Emzawi, known as “Jihadi John,” as part of a “terror-funnel” established by British intelligence. Upon arrival in Syria, Kotey and Emzawi immediately joined an armed group fighting against the Syrian government known as Katibat al-Muhajireen.
In November 2012, Emzawi participated in the abduction of American journalist James Foley and British journalist John Cantlie near the town of Binnish in northwestern Syria.
Kotey, Emzawi, and Elsheikh then served as prison guards for Foley, Cantlie, and other western hostages. Many members of Katibat al-Muhajireen – including the trio – then helped lay the foundation for the rise of ISIS by joining the terror group when it was established in April 2013.
Foley was brutally murdered by Emzawi in August 2014. In a video recording of the murder, a black-clad and masked Emzawi beheaded Foley, who was kneeling in the desert sand in an orange Guantanamo-style prisoner’s jumpsuit. Sotloff, Haines, Hennig, and Kassig were murdered subsequently, while Cantlie’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Terrorism researcher Raffaello Pantucci reports that Kotey and Elsheikh, “were longstanding figures of concern to the security services. Involved in a West London network that has long fed young British men to jihadi battlefields and created terrorist cells back in the UK.”
The Times reports that according to court papers filed in Kotey’s case, he first tried to travel to Syria with three other Britons via the Channel tunnel in February 2012 but was denied entry at the Turkish border and deported.
A month later, Kotey tried again but failed to reach Syria by flying from Barcelona. He returned to London through St Pancras station, where police arrested him for carrying a “lock-blade knife.”
The Times reported further that, “In August 2012 Kotey tried for a third time to make it to Syria by travelling overland across Europe with Emwazi. He has disclosed that the pair were detained at least twice during the two-month journey, although it is unclear in which countries. Each time, it seems, they were allowed to continue on their way.”
A spokesman for the SDF claimed that Kotey entered Turkey in 2012 “even though the Turkish intelligence had his jihadi record. He gained two months’ residence in Turkey and then he was allowed to go to Syria and he entered Syrian soil through the border crossing at Bab al Hawa.”
After years of fighting for Katibat al-Muhajireen and then ISIS, Kotey and Elsheikh were detained by the SDF in 2018 as the Caliphate faced defeat by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies on the one hand, and US and SDF forces on the other, during the race to control Syria’s northeastern oil and grain producing regions. Emzawi had already been killed in a US airstrike in 2015.
Trial in the US instead of UK
By the time of Kotey’s detention in 2018, British police had long been collecting evidence of Kotey’s terrorist activities. As a result, the Guardian reported that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had charged Kotey with five counts of murder and eight counts of hostage-taking in February 2016, and issued warrants for his arrest.
However, once Kotey was in SDF custody, British officials took extraordinary legal measures to ensure he would not be brought back to the UK for trial, insisting instead that Kotey be tried in a US court.
The British Home Office then revoked Kotey’s British citizenship, making it more difficult to prosecute him in the UK. According to Ken Macdonald, a former UK director of public prosecutions, stripping Kotey of his citizenship appeared to be an attempt by the government “to duck responsibility for bringing this Briton to justice.”
The Guardian reports that UK Security Minister Ben Wallace claimed to parliament in July 2018 that the UK did not have enough evidence to try Kotey and a US trial was the only option. However, a legal source with knowledge of the case claimed that the “British families of those murdered by ‘the Beatles’ were misled by UK government officials” and told that “if these men are not sent to the US, we won’t be able to prosecute them.”
The Telegraph reported in 2018 that according to a leaked letter from British Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the Metropolitan Police and FBI had been investigating Kotey’s activities in Syria for the past four years, “collecting more than 600 witness statements in a criminal inquiry involving 14 other countries,” and that there was “intelligence” implicating Kotey in the “kidnap and murder” of two Britons and three Americans.
Britain’s support of terrorists in Syria
UK officials were correct, however, in saying to the victims’ families that if Kotey and Elsheikh were not sent to the US, they could not be prosecuted. This was because British intelligence had been directly supporting Katibat al-Muhajireen, the armed group Kotey, Elsheikh, and Emzawi initially fought for during the time they participated in the abduction and captivity of numerous western hostages.
Two previous efforts to convict British citizens on terrorism charges for their involvement with Katibat al-Muhajireen had fallen apart for this specific reason, illustrating British intelligence support for the armed group.
The first was the 2015 terror trial of Swedish citizen Bherlin Gildo, who according to the Daily Mail fought for Katibat al-Muhajireen and later for the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The Guardian reports that after Gildo abandoned the conflict, he was detained while transiting through Heathrow Airport. He was accused by British authorities of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training between 31 August, 2012, and 1 March, 2013, as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.
However, the terror trial collapsed “after fears of deep embarrassment” to the British security services. This was because, as Gildo’s lawyer explained, “British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he [Gildo] was.”
Another example is former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, who was also tried on terror charges for assisting Katibat al-Muhajireen. Begg traveled to Syria several times in 2012 and provided physical training to foreign fighters from the group in Aleppo, as reported by Foreign Policy. Begg made his latest trip to Syria in December 2012.
As a result, Begg was detained by UK authorities in 2014 and accused of attending a terrorist training camp. The Guardian reported, however, that Begg was freed after British intelligence officials from MI5, “belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents that detailed the agency’s extensive contacts with him before and after his trips to Syria,” and which showed that MI5 told Begg he could continue his work for the so-called opposition in Syria “unhindered.”
It was therefore clear that any terror trial of Kotey and Elsheikh in the UK would collapse for the same reasons as the previous cases, leaving UK officials no choice but to have them tried in the US instead.
In the letter leaked to the Telegraph, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid explained that “the UK does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage, the transfer of Kotey and El-sheikh to the UK to support future UK-based prosecution.” Showing that he was under pressure as a result of this decision, Javid wrote further to the letter’s addressee, “I do understand your frustration on this subject.”
The Telegraph notes further that, “despite repeated ministerial assurances that British jihadists traveling to Syria would be held to account in British courts, the Home Secretary’s letter discloses concerns that laws in this country may not be robust enough to ensure successful prosecution. He believes American terrorism laws are more effective.”
In other words, British law was not robust enough to convict someone on terrorism charges for fighting with a terrorist group the UK intelligence services themselves supported.
The capital punishment loophole
Despite claims that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Kotey in the UK, any successful conviction in the US would have relied on evidence collected by UK prosecutors, which would have to be shared with their US counterparts.
This was problematic, however, because US officials had not provided assurances that Kotey would not face the death penalty if convicted. Because the death penalty is banned in the UK, it was contrary to long standing UK policy to provide evidence that could contribute to a death sentence.
Home Secretary Javid nevertheless approved providing evidence against Kotey and Elsheikh to US prosecutors after the pair were transferred from SDF to US custody.
House of Lords member Alex Carlile, a former reviewer of terrorism legislation, described Javid’s willingness to approve this as “a dramatic change of policy by a minister, secretly, without any discussion in parliament,” and that “Britain has always said that it will pass information and intelligence, in appropriate cases, provided there is no death penalty. That is a decades-old policy and it is not for the home secretary to change that policy.”
This led Elsheikh’s mother to sue the British government, fearing that if her son and Kotey were convicted in a US court, they would be executed. The case eventually went to the British Supreme Court, which according to the New York Times, “unanimously ruled that the British home secretary’s decision to transfer personal data to law enforcement authorities abroad for use in capital criminal proceedings without any safeguards violated a data protection law passed in 2018.”
As a result, US Attorney General William Barr belatedly gave the assurance in August 2020 that Kotey and Elsheikh would not face the death penalty, allowing the sharing of evidence and the prosecution to move forward.
A testimony of the west’s support of ISIS
In 2022, Kotey and Elsheikh were finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At the time, the Washington Post explained that the successful prosecution of Elsheikh and Kotey had been unlikely, given that at time of their capture, it was “unclear whether an American trial would happen at all. A federal prosecution was met with opposition at the highest levels of government on two continents.”
While the reason for Kotey’s recent disappearance from US Bureau of Prisons custody is unclear, the insistence of UK officials to have him and fellow Beatle Elsheikh prosecuted in a US rather than UK court, and the reluctance of both governments to try the two ISIS militants at all, indicates that British planners wished to hide their previous support for extremists who helped lay the foundation for ISIS.
While ISIS is widely understood to have emerged in Iraq, evidence continues to emerge showing that officials in London and Washington played the crucial role in the rise of the notorious terror group as part of a broader effort to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.