UK Government Demonstrates Its Contempt for Justice in Dealings with ISIS Suspects Nicknamed “the Beatles”


The four British men who joined IS in Syria, and became torturers and executioners. From L to R: El Shafee Elsheikh, Mohammed Emwazi, Aine Davis and Alexanda Kotey.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Britain has a dark and brutal history, but principled members of its establishment played a major part in establishing fundamental human rights following the horrors of the Second World War, only to see those rights undermined when it didn’t suit the government — in Ireland in the 1970s, for example, and, since 9/11, as the US’s stoutest ally in the law-shredding “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared after the terrorist attacks.

Just months after 9/11, Tony Blair began imprisoning foreign nationals, suspected of involvement with terrorism, without charge or trial, and on the basis of secret evidence, and his government also subjected British terror suspects to internal exile and house arrest under “control orders.”

When the Tories took over in 2010, promises made by David Cameron to banish this bleak landscape were quickly sidelined, and Theresa May’s six-year tenure as home secretary, from 2010 to 2016, was a horrendously dark and racist time, as May sent vans around Britain’s streets telling immigrants to go home, crowed at the Conservative Party conference about extraditing Muslim terror suspects to the US, just after refusing to allow a white Briton to be extradited, persistently stated her vile authoritarian desire to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights, and, in 2013, stripped two dual national British citizens of their British citizenship, while they were in Syria, and then told the US government where they were, so they could be killed in drone strikes. I reported all off this, and more, in an article in July 2016 entitled, As Theresa May Becomes Prime Minister, A Look Back at Her Authoritarianism, Islamophobia and Harshness on Immigration.

In November 2017, May appointed a new defence secretary, Gavin Williamson (replacing Michael Fallon), who almost immediately caused consternation by suggesting that “Britons who have fought for Islamic State abroad should be hunted down and killed to ensure they never return to the UK,” as the Guardian described it.

Williamson told the Daily Mail, “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain. I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country. We should do everything we can do to destroy and eliminate that threat.” His remarks, as the Guardian described it, “put him at odds with the head of the terrorism watchdog, who recently said the UK could attempt to reintegrate young and naive jihadists who wanted to return to the UK.” Max Hill, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, “warned of the danger of ‘losing a generation’ of men and women by automatically using the courts to punish them.”

In response to Williamson’s comments, Labour MP Dan Jarvis, a former British Army Major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote, in a Guardian article, “Williamson’s comments are at best naive – the hubris of someone insufficiently experienced for their position. But at worst they are morally, legally and practically wrong. They imply a desire for extrajudicial killing to form part of Britain’s security policy. This is so radical a departure from all that we should value, and the way that we should conduct ourselves, that it is hard even to countenance.”

In January, Britain faced further pressure on its stance towards British members of ISIS, when it was revealed that the last two members of a group of four, dubbed “the Beatles,” had been captured in Syria, as Martin Chulov reported for the Guardian. The two were Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, “the final two of an infamous quartet of Britons who acted as jailers, torturers and executioners of foreign aid workers and journalists for more than two years from mid-2013,” as Chulov put it. The other two were “Mohammed Emwazi, the brutal executioner killed by a US drone in November 2015, and Aine Lesley Davis, who was captured in Istanbul in the same month,” and given a seven and a half year sentence in May 2017.

The Guardian, which noted that “Elsheikh, 29, moved to the UK from Sudan with his family in the 1990s, while Kotey, 34, has a Ghanaian and Cypriot background,” also reported that, “In formally designating the two captured men as terrorists last year, the US state department said they were members of a four-strong Islamic State ‘execution cell’ which was responsible for holding captive and beheading more than 27 hostages and torturing many more,” adding, “As a guard for the cell, Kotey likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding,” while “Elsheikh was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions while serving as an Isis jailer.”

News of their capture prompted conflict within the British government. Williamson said, “Do I want them back in the United Kingdom? No, I don’t.” He was speaking after meeting the US defense secretary, James Mattis, and, as the Guardian noted, the issue “threaten[ed] to cause a diplomatic rift,” because the US “favours Isis fighters being tried in their countries of origin.”

Refusing to endorse Williamson’s view, home secretary Amber Rudd, who was clearly responding to delicate and ongoing diplomatic discussions, rather than just making aggressive and bellicose statements, said, “The important thing is that they have been arrested and the important thing is, to us, that they will face trial. I can’t be drawn at the moment on where that will be but I am absolutely convinced and absolutely committed to making sure that they will face trial because the security of the United Kingdom will always come first.”

On Radio 4’s Today programme, former national security adviser Peter Ricketts said, “I can absolutely understand that people don’t want these guys back, they sound despicable,” but added, crucially, “On the other hand we do believe in the rule of law and in accountability.”

Significantly, however, the British government’s enthusiasm for stripping the citizenship of dual nationals appears to be undimmed. The Guardian noted that a report in the Times “suggested the two men had been stripped of their British citizenship,” and, “while the Home Office has refused to officially confirm their statuses, a Whitehall source told the Press Association [that] they were ‘not British subjects.’” Elsheikh, 29, moved to the UK from Sudan with his family in the 1990s, while Kotey, 34, has a Ghanaian and Cypriot background.

The latest news, as the New York Times reported yesterday, is that, “according to officials familiar with the deliberations,” the British government “wants the Trump administration to provide assurances that American prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against two British Islamic State suspects who were recently captured in Syria — and is threatening to withhold important evidence about them as leverage.” The New York Times added that the British “are also insisting that the United States promise to prosecute the two men in a civilian court, rather than taking them [to] Guantánamo,” an option suggested by media outlets seeking to tie the case to Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for sending new prisoners to Guantánamo.

Significantly, the New York Times reported that “Mattis, whom Mr. Trump has tasked with leading a policy review about what to do with newly captured terrorism suspects, does not want the military to take on the headache of holding the men in long-term detention and prosecuting them in the troubled military commissions system.”

It is more likely, therefore, that the two men will end up in federal court on the US mainland. As the New York Times explained, “While the American military has interrogated Mr. Kotey and Mr. Elsheikh for intelligence purposes, it has not yet read them Miranda warnings and re-interviewed them in hopes of eliciting confessions that could be used as courtroom evidence.”

The New York Times also noted that its sources told them that the Justice Department “is now trying to decide whether the Southern District of New York or the Eastern District of Virginia would handle the prosecution.”

The New York Times also reported that “[t[he parents of four Americans who were kidnapped by the Islamic State and abused in various ways before their killing — [Kayla] Mueller and three men who were beheaded, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig — recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling on the United States government to prosecute the suspects in civilian court and not to seek the death penalty.”

As they stated, “We want the world to know that we agree with the longstanding British government position that it would be a mistake to send killers like these to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, or to seek the death penalty in court. Either path would make them martyrs in the eyes of their fanatic, misled comrades in arms — the worst outcome.” They added, “Instead, they should be tried in our fair and open legal system, or in a court of international justice, and then spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

Nevertheless, it is still unclear why the UK is so enthusiastic about washing its hands of the two men. As Lord MacDonald, the director of public prosecutions from 2003 to 2008, said after news of the men’s capture was reported last month, “regardless of whether they have been stripped of their citizenship, the men could still be tried in the UK for kidnap and torture under the universal jurisdiction principle,” as the Guardian put it. As MacDonald described it, “There is a mountain of evidence for kidnap and torture.”

And as one of the group’s hostages, French journalist Nicolas Henin, who was eventually set free, explained last month, calling for them to be put on trial in Britain, “I would like to see them brought back to Britain. I would like to see all other European jihadis brought back to their home countries, to be judged fairly in their home country.”

Are we to conclude, therefore, that the Tories’ mania for stripping the citizenship of dual nationals is more important to them than delivering justice in the UK? I think we should be told. Because if it is, then I suspect that what they’re working towards, eventually, is being able to strip the citizenship of British-born nationals, making them stateless. And that’s something that should worry us all.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, shining a light on the dodgy behaviour of the British government when it comes to Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the last two ISIS members dubbed “the Beatles,” who were recently captured in Syria. UK defence secretary and loose cannon Gavin Williamson has publicly endorsed extrajudicial executions, saying outrageously that “Britons who have fought for Islamic State abroad should be hunted down and killed to ensure they never return to the UK,” and he specifically doesn’t want them back in the UK, although the US position seems to be that captured terrorists should be sent to their home countries, and home secretary Amber Rudd has been much less bullish than Williamson. Complicating matters, the UK government seems to have stripped the two of their British citizenship, an obsession of Theresa May’s that is evidently still ongoing. As the US and UK wrangle behind the scenes about what to do with these two, and with a US trial being the most likely outcome, I ask, “is the Tories’ mania for stripping the citizenship of dual nationals more important to them than delivering justice in the UK?”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Perhaps there were precedents, here work for lawyers.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I think confusions abound, Aleksey, both in the US and the UK regarding how to deal with situations like these, all of which stem from the general lawlessness of the response of the US and their allies to 9/11. I’m hoping more of this murky story will become clear in the months to come, but for now it’s difficult to have any confidence that either the British or American establishments have a clear idea of what they’re doing.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    This was helpful in separating facts from the relentless tirade of media BS and political posturing. It may seem counter intuitive to some but to me it seems that as well as endorsing the principle that justice should anyway be applied fairly, judicially and equally that there could be a coda that the above notwithstanding, the more heinous the alleged crime the more essential it should be that justice be seen to be done and charges proven beyond all possible doubt in such cases. If suspected mass killers are extra-judicially dealt with, while expedient and emotionally satisfying to your average Sun reader, it will help create the perception that countries like the UK have no respect for the rule of law and that would be immediately weaponised as propaganda for jihadist extremists to use for recruitment. Respecting the rule of law and not caving to populism should be something everyone understands and respects no matter what their political leanings.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well said, David – I particularly like “the more heinous the alleged crime the more essential it should be that justice be seen to be done and charges proven beyond all possible doubt.” That principle was essentially jettisoned by the US after 9/11, and the dangerous ripples from it have had a long and malevolent reach, helping to create ISIS, for example, as well as dangerously undermining respect for the rule of law in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Thank you Andy – excellent article. Share widely please friends. xx

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lindis. Glad you appreciate it!

  8. Tom says...

    If you lock them away in Guantanamo, they’ll be martyrs. If you try them in the UK (and they’re convicted), they’ll still be martyrs. If you don’t try them, then May and the Home Secretary will get lots of cheap empty threats from Trump, Tillerson and Sessions. We’ll cut off your access to intelligence. We’ll recall your ambassador. We’ll cut off diplomatic relations, and so on. The only thing that matters is perception. If a detainee was innocent and tortured, tie the UK govt. to this and then what? The govt. fights it all the way up to the High Court. Then, govt. lawyers negotiate with them for “fair and just compensation”.

    I know there are legal statutes that govern these cases. But what is “fair and just” compensation when you’ve been tortured?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom. I suppose anyone can be made into a martyr by their supporters if they’re killed, either on the battlefield or through being executed after a trial in a country that has the death penalty, and I also know that being held in amasser that doesn’t conform to international norms, as at Guantanamo, enables someone to be regarded as some sort of a martyr too. However, I have faith that a proper trial and conviction, without the death sentence, is still the best way forward for countries that claim to respect the rule of law.
    I also do think that the hostility of the Tories towards prosecuting these men here is their own conclusion, reached independently from the US. I don’t see them as having had pressure exerted by the US on this point – in large part, I suppose, because the US doesn’t yet seem to have a clear viewpoint about what to do with ISIS fighters beyond killing them on the battlefield.

  10. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks again Andy, for addressing the important issues these cases raise.

    I think you and I, and most of your readers, agree that public safety and respect for the rule of law go hand in hand. There are Prosecutors – Guantanamo was full of them – who were fully prepared to prosecute and convict men, based on flawed evidence, clearly unreliable evidence, or, in some cases, outright forged evidence, or perjury. Morris Davis, Darrel Vandeveld, and some of their colleagues on the Prosecution teams bucked this current, and their careers suffered for it.

    The idea of convicting men on false evidence, really concerns me, even when this practice is defended, by claims it doesn’t matter for individuals like KSM, who everyone is certain is guilty, the use of false evidence, perjury and evidence coerced through torture or other inhumane techniques seems like a terrible mistake, that puts public safety at risk.

    Whenever we allow someone to be convicted on bad evidence we are making it more possible that we let other guilty men remain at large — and unsearched for.

    The so-called dirty-bomb plot, that Abu Zubaydah, Majid Khan, Jose Padilla and Binyam Mohammed were once all named as conspirators, was pure invention. Once we allow overly ambitious prosecutors to enhance their careers with convictions on false plots like this, we end up squandering precious counter-terrorism resources, guarding against non-threats.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, arcticredriver. I am glad that you continue to point out how dangerous it is for public safety to have “false evidence, perjury and evidence coerced through torture or other inhumane techniques” contaminating what should be – what needs to be – a clean and reliable record.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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