KOBANI, Syria — Two British members the Islamic State group believed to have belonged to a cell notorious for beheading hostages in northern Syria said Friday that their home country’s revoking of their citizenship denies them the possibility of fair trial. One of them said the killings of captives was “regrettable” and could have been avoided.
The men were allegedly among four British jihadis who made up the IS cell nicknamed “The Beatles” by surviving captives because of their English accents. The cell became known for its brutality, holding in captivity more than 20 Western hostages, and torturing and killing several, including American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers, in 2014 and 2015.
The two men, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, spoke to The Associated Press from their detention Friday in northern Syria in their first interview with the media. They were captured in early January in eastern Syria by the Kurdish-led U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces amid the collapse of IS.
Though they spoke of their membership in the Islamic State group, they did not admit to belonging to the cell or to have been involved in any of the kidnappings or killings.
Elsheikh called the allegations “propaganda.”
Asked about the beheadings of journalist James Foley and other victims, Kotey said many in IS “would have disagreed” with the killings “on the grounds that there is probably more benefit in them being political prisoners.”
“As for my position, I didn’t see any benefit. It was something that was regrettable,” he added. He also blamed Western governments for failing to negotiate, noting that some hostages were released for ransoms.
The leader of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi, was dubbed “Jihadi John” in the British media after he appeared, masked, in a string of videos showing beheadings of the hostages.
He was killed in a U.S.-led coalition drone strike in 2015 in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital. Another member, Aine Lesley Davis, was arrested in Turkey and convicted there in 2017, sentenced to seven years in prison.
Elsheikh, whose family came to Britain from Sudan when he was a child, was a mechanic from White City in west London. Kotey, who is of Ghanaian and Greek-Cypriot descent and converted to Islam in his 20s, is from London’s Paddington neighborhood. Both have been interrogated by U.S. officials since their capture.
Elsheikh traveled to Syria in 2012, initially joining al-Qaida’s branch before moving on to IS, according to the U.S. State Department’s listing of the two men for terrorism sanctions. It said he “earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an (IS) jailer.”
Kotey served as a guard for the execution cell and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding,” the State Department said.
In the interview, the two men denounced the media for the spreading allegations of the “Beatles” cell, at one point depicting the accusations as concocted as a pretext to kill them with drone strikes in Syria.
“No fair trial, when I am ‘the Beatle’ in the media. No fair trial,” Elsheikh said.
They also denounced as “illegal” the British government’s decision in February to strip them of citizenship. The decision was widely reported in British media, though officials have not confirmed or denied it, citing privacy rules.
The revocation of citizenship exposes them to “rendition and torture,” Elsheikh said, “being taken to any foreign land and treated in anyway and having nobody to vouch for you.”
“When you have these two guys who don’t even have any citizenship …if we just disappear one day, where is my mom going to go and say where is my son,” he said.
The capture of the two men has sparked a debate over where and how to prosecute them. The U.S. has been pressing for the home countries of foreign jihadis in Iraq and Syria to take their nationals for trial. Britain’s defense secretary has said they should not be allowed back into the country. Former captives of the cell and families of its victims have called on Elsheikh and Kotey to be given a fair trial, whether in the United States or Britain.