“Of all our jailers, George was the most aggressive … and the most cruel,” describes Didier François, a former hostage of the Beatles, an Islamic State (IS) kidnapping group known for staged beheadings of Westerners. For several months, the French journalist was one of the captives in Syria of this terrorist cell, which operated until 2015. According to US authorities, the group beheaded at least 27 journalists and humanitarians from a dozen countries. Bloody videos of the killings, broadcast on the Internet, shocked the whole world.
Nearly a decade after the war reporter’s kidnapping, the trial of El Shafi’i el-Sheikh, also known as “Jihadist George”, began on Wednesday in the United States. At age 33, a man with a long beard and curly hair appears in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, with 18 jurors and up to 70 witnesses. Accused, in particular, of hostage-taking resulting in death and conspiracy to commit murder, he faces the death penalty – Washington has pledged not to seek the death penalty in order to enlist the judicial assistance of London.
El Shafi El Sheikh was born in 1988 in Sudan and spent his childhood in London with his mother and two brothers. The mechanic married at the age of 21 an Ethiopian whom he met on a trip to Canada, and the immigration authorities would not allow her to join him on British soil. While his brother was sentenced to ten years in prison for his involvement in a deadly quarrel, the young man quickly fell into radical Islam and traveled to Syria in 2012 with Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”, another symbolic executioner of EI . Killed in an airstrike on Raqqa in 2015, the latter has appeared several times in horrifying propaganda images, butcher knife in hand, in front of kneeling, orange-clad Western hostages. In August 2014, a video showed him beheading journalist James Foley, the first American hostage to be executed by a jihadist group.
Simulations of drowning, electric shock…
It is in September 2013 that French journalists Didier François and Edouard Elias (kidnapped June 6, 2013), as well as the duo Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres (kidnapped June 22, 2013) will meet the Beatles. for the first time. “We had just been transferred to a furniture factory in northern Aleppo when we saw them disembark. We were asked to stand facing the wall. I turned around and got slapped.” explains Didier Francois. The reporter recalls “terror” in the eyes of the other hostages with whom they were grouped (American James Foley, Briton John Cantley, Italian Federico Motka…) and who have already suffered from jihadist bullying. The prosecution believes that the group used torture on their captives, including torture with water, electric shock, suffocation causing fainting or deprivation of food. The journalist also describes “Syrians, Kurds or Yezidis massacred or massacred by the dozens and without discussion.”
The hostages are increasingly communicating with the Beatles, now in Idlib, now in Raqqa, where they will be transferred at the end of December. In this city in central Syria, a former ISIS stronghold, they were locked up for two weeks in a room next to the terrorists. “They were just as cruel, they tortured us. Once “George” made me put in the center of the room. He gave me a straight line. I have a toothache.” It details the identities of the three jihadists involved – the fourth, Ayn Leslie Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey – “who never left each other” : “Of the three, ‘George’ was the most aggressive and unpredictable, while ‘John’ was the more calm and decisive. “Ringo” [Alexanda Kotey, arrêté par les forces kurdes syriennes en 2018 avec “George” et transféré lui aussi aux Etats-Unis, ndlr] was the most collected.
“Ability to recover damages”
Confronted by US investigators, “George” and “Ringo” admitted their involvement in the kidnapping of the hostages, including four Frenchmen, according to a DGSI report cited by Parisian. The former would also admit that “beat the hostages to intimidate them and prevent any escape attempt.” French journalists were finally released in April 2014, but many others were less fortunate.
On the first day of the trial, Didier François learns that “not justice allows us to fight jihadism”: “It’s important to me that these guys are safe and that they can’t be recruited.”At the end of the line, journalist Nicolas Henin, he expects a lot from the procedure: “Our hostage-taking was marked by arbitrariness and injustice. This trial offers the possibility of redress, division of responsibilities, return to the rule of law… It won’t heal all wounds, it won’t bring back the dead, but it’s the best possible answer. .