Two suspected so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorists originally from Britain – dubbed The Beatles because of their accents – have been taken from Syria into American custody.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, dubbed “the worst of the worst” by Donald Trump, have been moved by American security services to an “undisclosed location” amid fears they could escape custody as Turkish troops invade the Syrian Kurdish-held region of north-eastern Syria.
But former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said the pair should be brought back to the UK to face justice.
Before his removal, Elsheikh, 30, told ITV News security editor Rohit Kachroo he wanted to stand trial in Britain.
He said: “If the UK wants to put me on trial then I will defend myself with what I can, I will admit to what I admit to, and defend myself on what I defend myself on, that’s it.”
Asked about extradition to the US, he said he had “never committed a crime in the United States” and “has nothing” there.
Together, the “Beatles” cell beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers, and a group of Syrian soldiers, in 2014 and 2015, boasting of the butchery in chilling propaganda videos released to the world.
The barbarism often featured members of the group, which also included terrorists British-raised Aine Davis and Mohammed Emwazi.
British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines were among those executed by the four-man cell, while other victims included US citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig.
Mr Haines’s daughter Bethany told ITV: “I’m not going to give up regardless of if they are in Syria or in some US prison. I will keep fighting and pushing and pushing them and make their lives hell until they give us the answers we want.
“Justice is what we are waiting for, that’s the end of the story. It is hugely important and it is such a relief that the chances of them escaping are very much lessened now.”
Announcing the operation, President Trump said: “We are taking some of the most dangerous Isis fighters out.
“We’ve taken them out, and we’re putting them in different locations where it’s secure.”
US officials confirmed this included Elsheikh, a mechanic from White City in west London, and Kotey, from Paddington, also in west London.
In a subsequent post on Twitter, Mr Trump added: “In case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, the United States has already taken the 2 ISIS militants tied to beheadings in Syria, known as the Beetles (sic), out of that country and into a secure location controlled by the US.
“They are the worst of the worst!”
The pair, who were raised in the UK but have since been stripped of their British citizenship, are among thousands of IS fighters, including others from Britain, who have been held in camps in the region.
They were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in January 2018.
The Crown Prosecution Service has said there is “insufficient evidence” to prosecute them in the UK.
But Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have rather left those Isis detainees in the hands of the Kurds.
“I think it’s a very challenging problem. What do you do with up to 10,000 fighters, has been mentioned, and some of them are from Britain? I think there does have to be some concerted effort here.
“Frankly, it was only ever a temporary solution to leave them in a camp in the desert in Syria.
“I think, ultimately, they ought really to be brought back to their home countries to face justice here.
“What’s happening now is two former British citizens are likely to face American justice. They should probably face British justice here.”
Emwazi – the supposed ringleader dubbed Jihadi John – was killed in a US air strike in 2015, while Davis was convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation and jailed for seven-and-a-half years at a court in Silivri, Turkey, in 2017.
Kotey, a Muslim convert and a reported father-of-two, was previously described by neighbours in his former west London community as a quiet man who was dedicated to Queens Park Rangers football club.
But he reportedly became increasingly radicalised and was influential in encouraging young men to join IS in Syria.
Raised a Greek Orthodox Christian – his mother is believed to have been Greek-Cypriot and his father Ghanaian – he reportedly converted to Islam as a teenager.
He is said to have attended the Al-Manaar mosque in Notting Hill in west London along with Emwazi and Davis, before fleeing Britain 10 years ago.
Elsheikh is said to have come to the UK in 1993 after his family fled Sudan and claimed asylum.
His mother, Maha Elgizouli, later said her son was influenced by hate preacher Hani al-Sibai, and that the former fairground worker was “brainwashed” into becoming an extremist after going to sermons at local mosques for little more than two weeks.
He fled for Syria in 2012.
His younger brother, Mahmoud Elsheikh, later followed him but was killed fighting for IS in Iraq in 2015.
Earlier this year, Ms Elgizouli brought a Supreme Court challenge against the decision of then-home secretary Sajid Javid to share evidence with American authorities without seeking assurances the men would not be executed if convicted in the US.
The court is expected to give its ruling at a later date.