April 6, 2018

IntelBrief: Justice for Islamic State Hostages 

An unidentified woman kneels near a makeshift memorial for Kayla Mueller (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff).
  • For several American families, the fall of the so-called Islamic State is shedding new light on the killings of loved ones.
  • The FBI is testing human remains uncovered in Syria that might be those of murdered U.S hostages, including Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig.
  • Two of the four executioners nicknamed ‘the Beatles’ are awaiting trial, though under which jurisdiction and on what exact charges remains unclear.
  • Thousands of families in Iraq and Syria had relatives murdered by the Islamic State and mass trials in Iraq are producing more uncertainty than justice.


One of the more tragically enduring images of the rise and fall of the so-called Islamic State is that of the masked executioner, reveling in the spectacle of savagery. As the Islamic State faces military—but not total—defeat, the global community is working to fully uncover and adjudicate its crimes. As reported by ABC News, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is testing the remains of bodies uncovered in Syria as the Islamic State was pushed out by coalition forces. It is uncertain but possible that these remains are of Americans killed by the group.

In late March 2018, the families of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller met with FBI and other government officials. The meeting was about possible identification of their loved ones and about the potential future trials for those who murdered them. Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, Islamic State executioners and two of the four so-called ‘Beatles,’ so named for their British accents, were captured in January by Kurdish forces in Syria.

Since the British government has stripped them of their citizenship, the question of if and where they may face trial has fallen to the United States. President Trump, as both a candidate and president, has talked about expanding the ineffective and quasi-legal military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) for captured members of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Whether Kotey and Elsheikh end up in GTMO or federal court—the latter has a far better record for actually prosecuting terrorism cases—is an open question at this point.

The families of the murdered American hostages are joined in tragedy with thousands of families in Iraq and Syria who have lost relatives to the murderous ideology of the Islamic State. Mass graves have been uncovered in Iraq, to include one near Kirkuk last November that held the remains of more than 400 people. For these families, justice remains elusive. In December 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on the thousands of expedited trials of Islamic State members being conducted by the Iraqi (and Kurdistan) government. The report, titled Flawed Justice: Accountability for ISIS Crimes in Iraq, found that by prosecuting all cases under one counterterrorism law—and trying people for membership in the group but not for specific actions—the Iraqi courts were not focusing on the most horrific of crimes. Iraq was missing an opportunity ‘to show its people, the world, and indeed ISIS that it is a nation ruled by laws, due process, and justice, capable of bringing accountability for the gravest crimes and reconciliation for all of the communities affected by this war,’ according to Sarah Whitson of HRW.

The study found that over 7,000 people have been charged with belonging to the Islamic State since 2014 and that there are over 20,000 people being held on the same charge. Such numbers present an enormous challenge to even the most efficient and ethical judicial system, which the Iraqi people do not have. Expedited mass trials may clear the docket, but they are not synonymous with justice and could end up only fueling future grievances.

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