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Former hostages unmask Islamic State ‘Beatle’ at trial

ALEXANDRIA, UNITED STATES (AFP) – Former hostages taking the witness stand at the trial of their alleged Islamic State (IS) group captor have described their brutal treatment in chilling detail.

Eight former IS hostages have testified so far at the trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, accused of being a member of the notorious kidnap-and-murder cell known as the ‘Beatles.’

But in a quirk of the case – none of the former IS captives has been asked so far to formally identify their alleged captor in court.

That’s because the 33-year-old Elsheikh and the other alleged “Beatles” – so-called because of their British accents – took pains to conceal their identities.

The former hostages said they were frequently blindfolded and their captors wore balaclavas

“They always tried to protect themselves,” said Edouard Elias, a French photographer held prisoner by IS from June 2013 to April 2014.

Paula and Ed Kassig, the parents of one of the eight hostages, arrive at the Albert V Bryan Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. PHOTO: AFP

“With other guards I could get some information, but not with them,” Elias said.

“I just saw that one had a darker skin, that’s all.”

The kidnappers also had a “rule” whenever they entered the cells where the prisoners were held.

“We had to kneel down with our face toward the wall and never look them in the face,” said Federico Motka, an Italian aid worker who was held for 14 months, longer than any other hostage.

“We had to cover our face,” said Frida Saide, a former Doctors Without Borders (MSF) worker who was held for three months.

Nicolas Henin, a French journalist, told the court the hostage-takers apparently believed that “as long as they were masked they were protected from prosecution”.

“This was maybe a stupid idea,” Henin said.

Despite the precautions taken, prosecutors are confident they can prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Elsheikh, a former British citizen, was one of the ‘Beatles.’

Elsheikh and another alleged ‘Beatle,’ Alexanda Amon Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria while attempting to flee to Turkey.

They were turned over to United States (US) forces in Iraq and flown to the US to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organisation.

Elsheikh is charged with the murders of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig and suspected of the kidnapping of nearly 20 other Westerners.

Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison.

Elsheikh, who pleaded not guilty, is not expected to testify at his trial but prosecutors have been using his own words against him.

After his capture, Elsheikh gave interviews to several media outlets and prosecutors have played excerpts from those interviews for the jury.