Television cameras get everywhere these days. Or maybe that was always true. Gore Vidal, the grand old man of American letters, wrote a book in which NBC gets the rights to the crucifixion, live from Golgotha, with St Paul as the ‘anchorperson’. So it was only faintly bizarre when CNN ‘crossed’ to a prison in northern Syria to speak to two of the so-called ‘Beatles’, the British jihadis accused of murdering British and American hostages while members of Isis.
The interview was just as self-serving as if the remote link had been to some politician or celebrity. But it was also revealing, the most honest — or least dishonest — interview so far from the Beatles.
The nickname, in case you have forgotten, was invented by the hostages because the British jihadis took such perverted delight in regularly beating their captives. And there were four of them. Two were arrested by the Kurds a little more than a year ago: Alexanda Kotey, from Shepherd’s Bush in London, with a Ghanaian father and a Greek Cypriot mother — Ringo; and El Shafee Elsheikh, born in Sudan, but also brought up in west London — George. They gave some prison interviews then, looking well fed, relaxed, cocky even, and they denied everything. A year later, they are thinner, anxious, apologetic — and they have some interesting things to say.
They admitted they’d handled the western hostages, guarding them and — when it came to the Europeans — sending demands for millions of dollars to their governments. In other words they admitted they were, in fact, the notorious Beatles. You might think that the Europeans freed after ransoms were paid could identify them, so this wouldn’t matter. But everyone was too afraid to look their captors in the face. When the British jihadis entered the cell, everyone fixed their eyes on the floor, terrified of being singled out. A former hostage told me once: ‘They were itching for any excuse.’ Any excuse to do what? Ringo and George — Kotey and Elsheikh — improvised their own version of waterboarding, this former hostage said: the victim held down, cloth over the face, water from the toilet hose poured into the nose and mouth.
All of the Beatles enjoyed a game where the hostages had to hold out their hands to be shocked with wires attached to a car battery or something that could have been an electric cattle prod. The cell filled with the smell of singed skin. They’d be denied food or sleep, or have to stand for 12 hours. Sometimes the Beatles wouldn’t let them out to go to the toilet for days. Then they’d be taken to a hole in the ground but with their hands cuffed behind their backs. They’d shit themselves. The Beatles found that very funny. In the early days, the hostages were forced to fight one another. Ringo/Kotey would tell them gleefully: ‘You’re gonna be part of a royal rumble.’ When they were too weak to lift their arms, he’d shout: ‘Bite them!’ The loser would be waterboarded.
There was nothing of this in the CNN interview. In that version of events, Kotey was a simple ‘fighter’ who had been told to get email addresses from the hostages for ransom negotiations. Why did he take on this role? ‘It just so happened that way.’ Elsheikh said he was ‘just liaising between the foreigner prisoners and the people dealing with their negotiations process’. The former hostage who described the abuse above would disagree. He thought he had actually been kidnapped by the Beatles. He certainly remembered them being there from the beginning of his captivity.
This included the most famous Beatle of them all: Jihadi John, as the British media called him, simply ‘John’ to his prisoners. His real name was Mohammed Emwazi, brought up by Iraqi parents in west London. He was killed by a missile fired from an American drone — payback for murdering American and British captives, cutting their throats in videos that may have been staged with the other Beatles.
However, George and Ringo told CNN they’d had nothing to do with this. They had, conveniently, ‘been transferred to another unit’ when the executions began. By this time, the European hostages had been ransomed out, so there are no independent witnesses. But one of the Europeans told me once about another telling incident.
A new prisoner was brought in, an Arab man, bearded, in a dishdasha. He asked the other hostages ‘Which direction is Mecca?’, and he gestured back at his jailers: ‘They’re not real Muslims.’ He banged on the cell door. Everyone was terrified but some other guards came and allowed him to go with them to wash for prayer. He prayed continuously until the Beatles came back to take him away, some hours later. Then George gave pieces of cardboard to the European hostages. ‘Make signs for your families,’ he said. One was told to write: ‘Please pay the two million euros. I don’t want to end like him.’
The hostages were driven out to the desert. The man they had seen earlier was there, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, standing next to a trench. Emwazi stood behind him with a handgun. The hostages watched as, with sickening inevitability, Emwazi shot the man in the back of the head. The other Beatles joined in, pumping bullets into the body, which had fallen into the trench. The hostages were told: ‘Stand in the ditch. Hold up the signs.’ Ringo filmed it all. The video was emailed to their families.
None of this evidence will be heard (or tested) if the two Beatles are transferred to Baghdad for trial. There, justice is dispensed in ten minutes flat, the sentence handed down for Isis membership — death by hanging. They have been stripped of their British citizenship and so will not face a British court. Documents obtained by the Daily Telegraph suggest that Britain won’t oppose their extradition to the United States — even if that means the death penalty.
Diane Foley, whose son James was Jihadi John’s first victim, doesn’t like the idea of the death penalty. She thinks it will only make martyrs of the remaining Beatles. But she is campaigning for a US trial. She told me: ‘We want them to face the victims.’
If it is important for the victims’ families to know what really happened, it is important for the rest of us too. We’re not there yet. Mrs Foley wasn’t buying Kotey and Elsheikh’s performance on CNN. ‘I suspect their attorneys urged them to make some type of admission and minimal show of remorse.’
Regardless, the two Beatles are no longer relying on the German camp guard’s defence of mistaken identity. We are, perhaps, starting to get the truth. To get the whole truth, the Beatles would have to be put on trial.
Paul Wood, a BBC correspondent, and Tom Wilson, of Policy Exchange, on jihadis.