PINECREST, Fla. – A British-born Islamic State fighter and a fellow militant who was born in Sudan and grew up in West London are facing charges in Virginia on Wednesday in a case related to the beheading of a journalist from Miami-Dade County.
Steven Sotloff was the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Miami-Dade’s Village of Pinecrest and attended the University of Central Florida. In August 2013, he vanished while working in Syria. His last tweet was about the Miami Heat. Islamic militants kidnapped him and tortured him.
Sotloff later appeared in the video the jihadists released in August 2014 of Illinois war correspondent James Foley’s beheading. To the horror of his loved ones in South Florida, the militants also beheaded Sotloff and released the video online in September 2014. His body was never found. He was 31.
“Today’s announcement is the result of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for these Americans. We have been inspired by their memories and moved by the determination and grit of their families, families which will never rest until justice is done,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said. “To them, I say this: Neither will we.”
Captives nicknamed the two men facing charges — Alexanda “Ringo” Kotey and El Shafee “George” Elsheikh — Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi and Aine “Paul” Davis as “The Beatles” because of their British accents, prosecutors said.
“The Beatles” were under the command of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a Syrian ISIS strategist who was killed in 2016, prosecutors said. Emwazi, who is accused of Sotloff’s execution, was killed in 2015. Davis has been a prisoner in Turkey since 2017.
The U.S.-trained Syrian Democratic Forces captured Kotey and Elsheikh in 2018.
Long before their involvement in torture and murder, Kotey and Elsheikh were arrested outside of the U.S. Embassy in London during a demonstration to celebrate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, prosecutors said. The two traveled to Syria about 11 years later, according to the indictment.
From 2012 to 2015, Kotey, Elsheikh, Davis and Emwazi were involved in ransom negotiations during the kidnapping, torture and killing of hostages. Kotey and Elsheikh are facing charges in the cases of Sotloff, Foley and two other Americans, Peter Edward Kassig, and Kayla Jean Mueller, prosecutors said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray credited the victims’ families for the creation of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency team focused on bringing hostages home safely while coordinating support to the hostages' family members.
“We owe these families more than justice — we owe them our gratitude — and I say that because their advocacy for their loved ones has led to positive changes in how our government supports and partners with victims' families,” Wray said.
Sotloff’s parents, Shirley and Arthur Sotloff, also established the Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund to support journalism students at the University of Miami and at UCF. Their foundation also promotes safety training for freelance journalists.
“He took it as his responsibility to bring these stories to life,” Arthur Sotloff told The U in 2015. “He went to the Middle East and saw all of the injustices that affected the people, and his writing was all about the people and the human factor. He gave his life for this."
That same year, the village where he grew up honored his memory with a memorial garden at Pinecrest Gardens. Peace lillies, ferns, begonias, gingers and palms surround a plaque with a quote by Confucius: “Everyone has two lives. The 2nd one begins when you realize you have only one.”
Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, were in FBI custody when they flew from Iraq to the U.S. to appear in federal court on Wednesday afternoon in the Eastern District of Virginia.
According to the indictment, the evidence against Elsheikh includes a voice recording about many decapitations.
Kotey and Elsheikh are each facing charges of conspiracy to commit hostage-taking resulting in death; four counts of hostage-taking resulting in death; conspiracy to murder United States citizens outside of the United States; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists — hostage-taking and murder — resulting in death; and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization resulting in death.
If convicted, Kotey and Elsheikh face a maximum penalty of life in prison. U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr agreed not to seek the death penalty.