A former hostage of the so-called Isis ‘Beatles’ described how he and his fellow captives were given dog names by their jailors, who subjected them to a “regime of punishment” for perceived transgressions.
Federico Motka, an Italian aid worker who was held by Isis for 14 months, detailed his brutal treatment at the hands of the four British jihadists during the trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, who is accused of being one of the four.
Elsheikh, 33, is being charged with involvement in a vast hostage-taking operation during his time with Isis in Syria, which ultimately led to the killing of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. The indictment also holds him responsible for the deaths of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.
The group is alleged to have been involved in the kidnapping of at least 27 people in Syria between 2012 and 2015, most of them Westerners.
Mr Motka described the moment he was kidnapped alongside his colleague David Haines as they were carrying out an assessment in northern Syria in March 2013. He said he was on the phone with his boss when eight masked, armed men surrounded their car and ordered them out .
He told his boss: “I think I’m being kidnapped,” he recounted to the court.
As they were driven deeper into Syria, Mr Motka said one of the kidnappers turned to Mr Haines and asked him in British-accented English where he was from and what he was doing there, before adding: “Welcome to Syria, you mutt.”
Soon after, the pair would identify at least three British men among their captors. These three British men were present at their capture, during their detention, and at Mr Motka’s release in May 2014.
Mr Motka described how he and other hostages came up with the nickname for the group of four British Isis members, who were later identified as Elshiekh, Alexanda Kotey, Aine Lesley Davis and Mohammed Emwazi, an Isis executioner known by his nickname ‘Jihadi John. ‘
“We started calling them ‘the Brits,’” Mr Motka said, but they worried their guards would figure out what they were talking about, so they instead referred to them as “The Beatles.” They gave names to each of them: Ringo, George, John and Paul.
Mr Motka went on to describe beatings and torture at the hands of the British jihadists, who seemed at times to revel in their brutality.
“They played lots of games with us,” he said. “They gave us dog names and told us that if they called us day or night we had to respond.” The punishment for failing to do so was a beating, I added.
Mr Motka also described an incident in which one of the group lost their temperature with him during a late night trip to the bathroom.
“Something I said triggered them. They came in 20 minutes later and started to beat and kick me,” he said. “They called me a posh wanker because I went to boarding school.”
After what Mr Motka described as a “calm” first few weeks of captivity, that changed when he was accused of trying to escape from jail and talking to a Syrian captive. From then on, he said a “regime of punishment” was introduced.
Mr Motka said there was a certain protocol implemented by the Beatles during their captivity: detainees had to kneel and face the wall when they entered the cell. The Brits wore full balaclavas with only their eyes showing all the time. In the courtroom, Elsheikh watched the testimony while wearing a mask that covered the bottom half of his face.
Elsheikh, who was born in Sudan and then raised in the UK, is the most high profile Isis member to stand trial in the US. He went to Syria in 2012, at which point he joined an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Later, he and his friend Alexanda Kotey would swear allegiance to Isis and join up with fellow Brits Emwazi and Davis.
Emwazi was perhaps the most infamous of the group, and thought to be the ringleader. Known as ‘Jihadi John,’ he carried out the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning — acts which Isis filmed and released in propaganda videos.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2018 as they fled the former Isis capital of Raqqa dressed as civilians. They were held in Syria until October 2020, when they were eventually taken to the US to stand trial.
Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 to the murders of Foley, Sotloff, Meuller and Kassig, and is due to be sentenced next month. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in 2015. Aine Lesley Davis, the fourth member of the group, was convicted in Turkey on terrorism charges and jailed for seven and half years in 2017.
After previously admitting to being one of the so-called Beatles in media interviews given after his capture, Elsheikh’s defense team this week said that the evidence would not prove he was a member of the cell, but instead was a “simple Isis soldier.”
The prosecution is likely to call witnesses who will identify Elsheikh as the person who held them captive. In his testimony from him, Mr Motka described sitting alongside ‘Ringo’ as the British fighters drove him to a location for his release from him.
“He had a beard not as full as some of the others,” he said.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.