Western privilege and the interviews of the ISIS ‘Beatles’ in Syria

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The SDF in Syria seem to be holding a circus for journalists to come and profile the ISIS ‘Beatles.’ One after another the detainees have been holding court in Syria, boasting, selling their agenda, and getting a huge amount of exposure. It doesn’t seem to take into account victims families or anyone else, except providing two men alleged to have committed crimes a platform to air their ideas and views. Whose agenda is being served? It appears that only the detainees benefit.

The Associated Press, late March 2017

Let’s go back to one of the first interviews conducted by the AP. In this one El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey wear a nice blue sweatshirt and a red and white track suit. They are located at “a security centre in Kobani, Syria.” The photographer is Hussein Malla and Mohammed Hassan is listed as contributing to the first report.

The report notes: “Two British militants believed to have been part of an Islamic State cell notorious for beheading hostages in Syria have complained they will not be given a fair trial.” It goes on: “In 2014 and 2015, the cell held more than 20 western hostages in Syria. It beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in videos released to the world.”

They were supposedly captured in January 2018 in eastern Syria. They claim the killings of captives were a mistake, but done for “tactical reasons.” Kotey says: “I didn’t see any benefit [in killing them]. It was something that was regrettable.” He blames western governments. The report notes that beheadings took place on camera and that ISIS killed civilians and had sex slaves. A list of victims is provided, including James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, David Haines, Alan Hennin, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. Interesting, it notes that although the head of the group, Mohammed Emwazi was killed in a drone strik, that Aine Davis got just seven years in prison in Turkey.

Some bio is provided for Elsheikh, who the article claims came from Sudan as a child. “He travelled to Syria in 2012, initially joining al-Qaida’s branch before moving on to Isis, according to the US state department.” The State Department says that he “earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an [Isis] jailer”. Kotey is of “Ghanaian and Greek-Cypriot descent and converted to Islam in his 20s.”

The US State Department claims that Kotey  “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods.”

The men claim that it would be unfair is something happened to them, “where is my mom going to go and say where is my son,” Elsheikh said. Interesting though that they don’t provide details on where the dead that ISIS executed are. Kotey wants to be put on trial at the ICC in the Hague.

Jenan Moussa’s interview, early April 2018

Jenan Mousa posted excerpts of her interview online on April 8th on Twitter for Al Aan and she describes El Shafee Elsheikh as being held in “Kurdish jail” and he says El Shafee Elsheikh he is being treated fine. El Shafee Elsheikh wears a green shirt. “Just like any other jail, you eat, sleep and wait to be interrogated.” One says the US government and SDF have interrogated them. No British. El Shafee Elsheikh says that the interrogations seem to be finished. He says the Department of Defense interrogated him. “They were respectable.” Then he says the FBI came “the least respectable of the bunch.” Asked about the “Beatles” he says he doesn’t listen to music.

She asks him a lot about the Beatles and that he beat and waterboarded people. “There is an ongoing legal process and when they decided to get on with it then they can talk about any accusations…let’s make clear about being part of an organization or group and agreeing with what they do.” He says he didn’t agree with the traffic tickets giving that have no basis in “law of Allah.” She asks them about enslavement of Yazidi women. “I don’t denounce slavery, no. Just because America decided to abolish something doesn’t mean every person must run behind America…it has been around as long as humans, Islamic texts speak about slaves and rights of slaves and slave owners.”

She also asks about life in Raqqa. He says life was normal. She asks about foreign hostages and a fair trial. And he said “any accusations about me, I reserve for legal process.” He claims he was ‘in the dark” about whether there were trials under ISIS. He claims he “doesn’t like” to watch videos of executions. “When I began to practice islam I realized there is obligation on you that other Muslims don’t have privilege of growing up in the West, you feel an obligation to do something for people who are oppressed.” She presses him on whether he gave a fair trial. “You need to differentiate between individuals and organizations…I didn’t burn anybody, nor did I give anyone a trial, or chop anyone’s head of, that is an accusation that needs to be proved.” He doesn’t look at her throughout the interview.

The CNN interview 

In the CNN interview credited to Nick Paton Walsh, Slama Abdelaziz, Christian Streib and Mohammed Hassan, the headline claims that “ISIS fighters known as ‘The Beatles’ demand fair trial.” CNN says that Kotey and Elsheikh consented to the interview. In the photo they are seated on the same faux-leather couch as in the AP interview and Kotey appears to wear the same blue sweatshirt while Elsheikh has on the green and orange sweatshirt he wore in the interview with Moussa.

CNN notes that the “pair are among dozens of foreign-born ISIS fighters held in the region now seemingly caught amid a diplomatic wrangle.” The men sipped Pepsi and discussed things for 90 minutes, and then agreed to a 54 minute interview. The piece notes that “the US State Department accuses Kotey, 34, originally from Ladbroke Grove in London, of having ‘likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture’ of their Western journalist and aid worker hostages.” It also accuses Elsheikh of  “said to have earned a reputation for water-boarding, mock executions, and crucifixions.”

But the two “joked” about being sent to the US or UK. “l am not a democratic person, but I am being subjected to democratic law. So it is only right for those who claim to uphold this to fully uphold it,” Elsheikh told CNN. Elsheikh told CNN that what he was accused of was just an accusation. “Displaying a mix of contempt and joviality, Kotey added: ‘The American administration or British government — if they decided they wanted to be champions of the sharia and apply Islamic law upon myself and Shaf [Elsheikh], then by all means. If not, then they should adhere to that which they claim to be champions of.’

Kotey claimed he missed British food.

Asked about losing their UK citizenship. “”It does not necessarily upset me, but I think it would would be a very black day for international law,” said ElSheikh. As in the other interview he mentions the DoD interviewers and the FBI. He said that when he was with ISIS he was kept up at night by the “sound of the F-16 jets flying the sky. And some Syrian neighbor with his kids crying.”
The SkyNews interview
Appearing on April 10, Sky News also interviewed the pair. Elsheikh now claimed that being with ISIS was similar to being in the UK and doesn’t take responsibility for everything ISIS did. “We are in no way justifying anything Islamic State did. It is not an obligation of me to justify or condemn.”
What we know
It is unclear who will be next to interview one or both of the men. What is clear is they have received a lot of time now to tell their story and demand their “fair” trial.
It is also clear that they appear to have been interrogated by the FBI and Department of Defense. What the interviews consisted of, we do not know. The FBI would likely be looking for information related to crimes against US citizens. The Department of Defense would likely be looking at finding other high value ISIS targets. We don’t know who else might have interviewed them under the guise of being someone else.
They appear to be being treated well. They have gained weight from other photos of them posted online. According to SkyNews the UK Home Office had stripped them of their citizenship. It also claims the “US is putting pressure on international partners to take back foreign Islamic State fighters captured in the Middle East. Pentagon official Kathy Wheelbarger, who will join US defence secretary James Mattis at a summit in Rome on Tuesday, said: ‘We are working with the coalition on foreign fighter detainees and generally expect those detainees to return to their country of origin for disposition.'”
This is particularly interesting because it doesn’t seem the US wants to put them on trial for harming US citizens. It also seems clear that EU countries, including the UK, that allowed men like this to go to the Middle East, now are trying to wash their hands of them. They don’t want to hold them accountable.
The UK has also suggested the International Criminal Court in The Hague as an option. This is problematic because the ICC has not charged any ISIS members. It is bizarre considering that the abuses of ISIS are clearly war crimes and genocidal in nature but unlike in 1945 the international community has no interest in a Nuremberg style trial. Instead they want to quietly ignore what happened, particularly crimes committed against Yazidis.
Westerners who joined ISIS appear to enjoy western privilege as well, walking around without prison uniforms, getting Pepsi and not being shackled. It seems they are more like honored guests and movie stars than detainees. This is the ultimate insult after the crimes of 2014-2015, that instead of facing justice, there is basically a collective shrug of the shoulders.

 

 

 

 

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