Islamic State hostages were forced to fight each other, US court hears

Aid workers and journalists taken hostage in Syria by a group of British Islamic State militants were forced to fight each other until they passed out, a US court has heard.

The group of three British men, nicknamed “the Beatles” by their captives, took more than 20 westerners hostage at the height of IS’s reign of terror between 2012 and 2015. El Shafee Elsheikh is on trial in Virginia, with prosecutors alleging he was the member nicknamed Ringo by the hostages.

The Italian-born aid worker Federico Motka, who grew up in the UK, told the federal courthouse that he and David Haines, a British fellow aid worker, were made to fight John Cantlie, a British war correspondent and photographer, and the American journalist James Foley, in what the militant group called a “royal rumble”.

“They were super excited about it,” Motka, who suffered 14 months of brutality at the hands of his IS kidnappers, told the court on Thursday. “We were so weak and shattered we could barely lift our arms.”

He added that the trio humiliated them further by providing mock commentary of their forced fight, the Daily Telegraph reported.

The hostages were told that the losers of the fight, which took place during the summer of 2013 when they were being held captive at a facility referred to as “the box”, would be waterboarded, the Associated Press reported.

Foley and Cantlie passed out during the hour-long fight, Motka said. The group deemed the Italian the loser but never waterboarded him, inflicting a beating instead. Motka testified the trio’s individual preferences for torture.

“George was more into boxing,” Motka testified. “John, he kicked a lot. Ringo used to talk how he liked wrestling. He would put people in headlocks.”

Motka, who was surveying the needs of refugee camps in March 2013 when he and Haines were captured, is the first surviving hostage to testify at Elsheikh’s trial.

“They said I was a posh wanker because I went to boarding school,” Motka testified. “They said I was arrogant, and they were going to take me down a peg.”

The phrase “posh wanker” reportedly prompted a moment of uncomfortable laughter in the court, when the judge stepped in to ask what the phrase means, forcing Motka to explain the term’s meaning.

Motka said he and the other hostages endured a lengthy “regime of punishment” when held at the site, including frequent beatings and forced stress positions.

“They played lots of games with us,” Motka said. “They gave us dog names. We needed to come and immediately respond.”

He recounted how, in late 2013 and early 2014, the hostages were made to wear orange jumpsuits, as the group wanted them to replicate the “conditions to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay”.

Motka also testified he was waterboarded and electrocuted with a stun gun through a hatch in his cell “until my hands went rigid”. He was not released until 25 May 2014.

The UK and US do not pay terrorist organisations for the release of hostages, which led to the executions of Haines, the British aid worker Alan Henning and four Americans named in Elsheikh’s indictment – Foley, Steven Sotloff, Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. He is accused of involvement in their murder.

In opening statements, prosecutors referenced three British nationals; Elsheikh, his longtime friend Alexanda Kotey, and Mohammed Emwazi, who frequently carried out the role of executioner and was known as “Jihadi John”.

Emwazi was killed in a drone strike, while Kotey was captured alongside Elsheikh and also brought to Virginia to face trial. Kotey pleaded guilty last year in a plea bargain.

Elsheikh’s defence lawyer Edward MacMahon said there was “no dispute” about the horror of the captives’ fate.

But, he said, while there was “no doubt” that Elsheikh had gone to Syria and fought with IS, there also was no evidence he was one of the “Beatles”.

The trial continues.

The Associated Press news agency contributed to this report.