WASHINGTON — The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured two notorious British members of an Islamic State insurgent cell commonly dubbed “The Beatles” and known for beheading hostages, U.S. military officials said Thursday.
Air Force Col. John Thomas said that El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey were captured in early January in eastern Syria. The two men are among four members of the ISIS cell that captured, tortured and beheaded more than two dozen hostages including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and American aid worker Peter Kassig.
The State Department has imposed sanctions on both men. They are believed to be linked to the British terrorist known as Jihadi John, the masked ISIS militant who appeared in several videos depicting the graphic beheadings of Western hostages.
Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said American officials have been able to interrogate the two detainees. And he characterized their capture as “certainly a big deal for America” as well as the families of the people the two men killed.
While the SDF discovered the two and captured them, the U.S. helped with biometric data and other tools to accurately identify them.
The U.S. has been training the SDF in border and internal security, including how to screen individuals and determine if they are foreign fighters or other enemies hiding in the population.
Their capture was first reported by the New York Times.
The closer the U.S. gets to its original goal in Syria of defeating the Islamic State group, the murkier its end game. New layers of complexity are descending on a shifting battlefield, as demonstrated by a deadly barrage of American air and artillery strikes on a shadowy attacker.
According to the U.S., Elsheikh traveled to Syria in 2012 and first joined al-Qaida’s branch there, and then later joined ISIS. The State Department, in imposing sanctions on Kotey last year, said he likely engaged in executions and torture, including electronic shock and waterboarding, and recruited several British nationals to ISIS.
According to Thomas, the two men represent just a small portion of the hundreds of foreign-born ISIS terrorists from a number of nations that SDF fighters have captured or killed since October 2017.
He said that so far the future of the detainees is undetermined and it’s not clear what the process will be for bringing them to justice.
U.S. officials did not provide any other details of the capture, but said the U.S. government works closely with its coalition partners on the disposition of detainees held by the SDF. They said those discussions are private and no additional information would be given.
Sotloff was kidnapped in August 2013 after crossing into Syria from Turkey. He was killed on Sept. 2, 2014, and a video was distributed around the world documenting his death. Foley, another American journalist, had been killed a month earlier by the Islamic State. Kassig was an American aid worker captured by Islamic State militants in 2013 while delivering relief supplies to refugees in Syria.