By Jan Wolfe
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - A former British national accused of engaging in "brutal hostage-taking" as an alleged member of an Islamic State cell nicknamed "the Beatles" appeared in a U.S. federal court on Wednesday for the start of his criminal trial.
El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, is standing trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, on charges including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder.
U.S. authorities have said Elsheikh was one of four ISIS militants belonging to the cell, which operated in Iraq and Syria, and whose member were nicknamed "the Beatles" for their British accents.
The cell garnered international attention after releasing videos of the murders of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, among other victims, in 2012 through 2015.
In a brief opening statement at Elsheikh's trial, his defense lawyer, Edward MacMahon, told jurors that he would not minimize the violence hostages endured but rather cast doubt on Elsheikh's legal responsibility for those acts.
"It was horrific and senseless. None of that is in dispute," MacMahon said. "What is in dispute — and what you must decide — is whether Mr. Elsheikh bears any legal responsibility."
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis will oversee the trial, which is expected to last three or four weeks and will include testimony from released hostages.
In his opening statement to jurors, prosecutor John Gibbs said Elsheikh "played a role in a brutal hostage-taking scheme" that included gruesome acts of torture.
"We do not intend to display the most graphic evidence publicly," Gibbs said, adding that jurors would be able to view beheading videos and other horrific photographic evidence during their deliberations.
MacMahon said during his remarks that the "Beatles" all shared similar British accents and characteristics, and discrepancies in the testimony of released hostages means Elsheikh cannot be conclusively identified as a member of the terrorist cell.
Elsheikh and another member of the cell, Alexanda Kotey, were held in Iraq by the U.S. military before being flown to the United States to face trial.
Mohammed Emwazi, a British citizen who oversaw the executions, died in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the group's fourth member, was convicted in Turkey on terrorism charges and jailed.
Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the murders of Foley, Kassig, Sotloff, and Mueller. He will be sentenced next month.
Kotey and Elsheikh were citizens of the United Kingdom, but the British government withdrew their citizenship.
The charges against Elsheikh carry a potential death sentence, but U.S. prosecutors have advised British officials that they will not seek the death penalty against Elsheikh or Kotey.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)