A US hostage’s harrowing story of his captivity at the hands of Islamic State militants who would kill him was told in court in Virginia on Wednesday.
A letter from the late Peter Kassig was read aloud during the terrorism trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, a 33-year-old former British citizen and alleged member of a kidnapping and murder cell known to captives as the “Beatles” because of their British Accents.
The court in Alexandria heard how, in May 2014, American hostage Peter Kassig lost hope. “Dad, I’m paralyzed here. I’m afraid to fight. A part of me still has hope. Part of me is sure I’m going to die,” he wrote to his father, Ed Kassig, who read the letter from the witness box.
Peter Kassig wrote that his captors tried to tell him and the other hostages that they had been abandoned by their families and countries for refusing to meet the demands of the Islamic State.
“But of course we know you are doing everything you can and more. Don’t worry, dad, if I fall, I’ll only think about what I know to be true, that you and mom love me more than the moon! Cassig wrote.
He added: “If I die, I think at least you and I can take refuge and comfort knowing that I came out after trying to ease the pain and help those in need.”
Kassig, an aid worker, was taken hostage in Syria in 2013. He had set up his own nonprofit to provide medical training and supplies in areas beyond the reach of some of the biggest aid groups. His long handwritten letter was delivered to his family by a freed hostage.
The testimony left many in the courtroom fighting back tears on the sixth day of a trial that detailed the horrific brutality inflicted on more than 20 Western hostages held captive by Islamic State around a decade ago .
Elsheikh is accused of playing a leading role in the hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the deaths of four Americans: Kassig, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller. Kassig, Foley and Sotloff have been beheaded in videos that have been shown around the world. Mueller was raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
On Wednesday, the jury also heard testimony from French hostage Nicolas Henin, who survived 300 days in captivity before his release in 2014. When questioned by First Assistant US Attorney Raj Parekh, Henin described escaping several days after he was taken hostage and torture was inflicted on him when he was recaptured.
Henin said he asked his guards for a broom to clean his cell, and he used the broom to help knock down the bars covering a window. He crawled out of the window in the middle of the night and ran for miles through the Syrian desert until he came to a village near the city of Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold, where he sought help.
“I met two people in pajamas,” he said. “Unfortunately, you cannot recognize an Isis fighter in pajamas. They took me to the local police station.
Authorities returned him to his captors, who beat him, hung him in the air from handcuffs that dug into his flesh under the Syrian sun, and ultimately left him in a cell for 11 days, the wrists chained to the ankles.
In his last months of captivity, he meets the “Beatles”, already recognized by his fellow hostages as particularly sadistic. He said the men regularly inflicted beatings and the one they nicknamed ‘Ringo’ frequently lectured the hostages on the justification for their captivity.
“They were trying to explain to us that even though we weren’t carrying weapons, we were still sort of a fighter in the war between the infidel West and Islam,” Henin said.
Prosecutors have alleged that Elsheikh is “Ringo”, although none of the hostages who have yet testified have been able to explicitly identify him. Witnesses said that all members of the cell tried to keep their faces fully covered when in contact with the hostages.
“They liked to consider that as long as they were masked, they were protected from prosecution – maybe it was a stupid idea,” Henin said, smiling in the direction of Elsheikh who, wearing a black mask, a white shirt and black pants, sitting a few feet away from him at the defense table.
The French journalist also recalled meeting Mueller in their desert prison south of Raqqa. She was wearing a traditional Arab dress, he said. “I was inspired by her bravery. I think she inspired us all with her strength. Yes, she was really strong.
Henin said that when he and other hostages were finally freed, they were blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to a transit location near the Turkish border. “They told us several times, ‘We don’t want you to go into the media. If you go to the media, it will backfire on the hostages.'”
Henin understood this to mean that the remaining hostages would be tortured, so shortly after his release, when he gave his first interview to the France 24 network and was asked who captured him, “I lied and said I don’t know.”
From memory, Henin provided the FBI with a schematic of the desert prison. The court heard from Dan Story, an agent who used the diagram to plan a rescue effort in July 2014. It ultimately failed because the hostages had already been moved to another location.
US troops, however, took photos and collected evidence, some of which was shown to the jury on television screens. It included weapons, iron ties, and, as Story explained, “You can see the writing and you can see the word Kayla – Kayla – scratched across the wall.” There was an involuntary murmur in the public gallery.
Elsheikh’s defense attorney, Edward MacMahon, told Story, “You don’t know if any forensic evidence linking Mr. Elsheikh to the desert prison has been found.” The FBI agent acknowledged, “I don’t.”
Elsheikh and another cell member, Alexanda Amon Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria, turned over to US forces in Iraq, and flown to Virginia in October 2020. Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and risk life in prison. Britain stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their British citizenship.
Executioner Mohamed Emwazi was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while the cell’s fourth member, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted of terrorism.
Elsheikh has denied the charges and his lawyers say his arrest is a case of mistaken identity. He faces life in prison if convicted.