NEW YORK - El Shafee Elsheikh was not a typical Islamic State foot soldier — he was a senior leader who took particular pleasure in mistreating the hostages he held captive, prosecutors said Wednesday in opening statements of Elsheikh's terrorism trial.
Elsheikh, a British national, is accused of a playing a leadership role in an Islamic State cell that kept more than 20 Western hostages captive in the years between 2012 and 2015, when the terrorist group controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria and was at the height of its power.
Four Americans — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — were among the hostages. Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were killed by decapitation; gruesome videos broadcast their executions to the world. Mueller was forced into slavery and raped repeatedly by the Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before she was killed.
Prosecutor John Gibbs said Elsheikh was known by his captives not only for his British accent but for his unusual penchant for brutality even within a terrorist group known for its cruelty.
According to Gibbs, surviving hostages will testify that Elsheikh and two British compatriots were more likely than day-to-day guards to hand out beatings. Even hostages about to be released after paying a ransom were given "going-away beatings" by the British men, Gibbs said. When Elsheikh and friends learned that a European hostage was marking his 25th birthday, they ensured they inflicted exactly 25 blows, Gibbs said.
The three individuals "were utterly terrifying" to the hostages, Gibbs said. If the Britons came into contact with hostages, they were supposed to kneel down, face the wall and avoid eye contact at all times.
"If a hostage looked at any of the three men, they would be beaten," Gibbs said. "In fact, they did not have to do anything to be beaten."
Waterboarding and other forms of torture were also inflicted on hostages, Gibbs said.
Interestingly, Gibbs referred only to three British nationals — Elsheikh, his longtime friend Alexenda Kotey, and Mohammed Emwazi, who frequently carried out the role of executioner and was known as "Jihadi John." Together, the men were nicknamed "the Beatles" by their captives, in part because of their accents and in part because the hostages felt the need to be surreptitious when talking amongst themselves because they risked punishment to be openly discussing their captors, Gibbs said.
Among the three, Elsheikh was known specifically as "Ringo," Gibbs said.
Usually, public discussion has centered on four captors known as Beatles. The fourth, Aine Davis, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.
Emwazi was killed in a drone strike, and Kotey was captured alongside Elsheikh and also brought to Virginia to face trial. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain that calls for a life sentence.
Defense attorney Edward MacMahon highlighted the discrepancy about the number of Beatles as he argued for his client's innocence, saying Elsheikh was not a "Beatle" but a simple Islamic State foot soldier.
MacMahon said surviving hostages have different recollections about each of the Beatles and their characteristics, and about whether there were three or four.
He noted that the British speakers were careful to always wear masks, making identification difficult.
MacMahon also said Elsheikh's numerous admissions in media interviews about his role in the hostage-taking scheme should be disregarded. They were made while he was in custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and he was fearful of being transferred to Iraq, where he heard rumors that detainees were being summarily executed after 10-minute trials, the attorney said. Admitting that he was a "Beatle" was a way to ensure transfer into Western custody, MacMahon said.
In pretrial arguments, defense lawyers sought unsuccessfully to have Elsheikh's confessions to interrogators and journalists tossed out, saying they were made under duress. The judge said the evidence was overwhelming that Elsheikh's confessions were given freely.
Throughout opening statements, Elsheikh sat ramrod straight, avoiding eye contact with the jury while Gibbs described the atrocities inflicted on hostages.
Gibbs told jurors that they will hear from numerous witnesses who will provide evidence of Elsheikh's guilt, including from captives who spent time with the slain Americans as well as family members who received ransom demands.
The first witness to testify was terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University, who walked the jury through the origins of the Islamic State group as an offshoot of Al Qaeda.
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.