An American hostage’s harrowing story about captivity at the hands of the Islamic State militants who would kill him was recounted in court in Virginia on Wednesday.
A letter from the late Peter Kassig was read aloud during the terrorism trial of El Shafee Elsheikh, a 33-year-old former British citizen and alleged member of a kidnap-and-murder cell known to captives as the “Beatles” because of their British accents.
The court in Alexandria heard how, by May 2014, the American hostage Peter Kassig was losing hope. “Dad, I’m paralyzed here. I’m afraid to fight back. Part of me still has hope. Part of me is sure I’m going to die,” he wrote to his father, Ed Kassig, who read the letter from the witness stand.
Peter Kassig wrote that his captors tried to tell him and the other hostages that they had been abandoned by their families and their countries for refusing to meet the Islamic State’s demands.
“But of course we know you are doing everything you can and more. Don’t worry, Dad, if I do go down I won’t go thinking anything but what I know to be true, that you and Mom love me more than the moon!” Kassig wrote.
He added: “If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can take some refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”
Kassig, an aid worker, was taken hostage in Syria in 2013. He had started his own non-profit organisation to provide medical training and supplies to areas beyond the reach of some of the larger aid groups. His long, handwritten letter was delivered to his family by a released hostage.
The testimony left many in the courtroom fighting back tears on the sixth day of a trial that has detailed gruesome brutality inflicted on more than 20 western hostages held captive by the Islamic State roughly a decade ago.
Elsheikh is accused of taking a leading role in the hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the deaths of four Americans: Kassig, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller. Kassig, Foley and Sotloff were beheaded in videos distributed across the world. Mueller was raped by the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before she was killed.
On Wednesday the jury also heard testimony from the French hostage Nicolas Henin, who survived 300 days of captivity before his release in 2014. Under questioning from the first assistant US attorney Raj Parekh, Henin described escaping several days after he was taken hostage and the torture inflicted on him when he was recaptured.
Henin said he had asked his guards for a broom to clean up his cell, and he used the broom to help knock loose the bars covering a window. He crawled through the window in the middle of the night and ran for miles across the Syrian desert until he came to a village near the city of Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold, where he sought help.
“I met two people in pyjamas,” he said. “Unfortunately you can’t recognise an Isis fighter in their pyjamas. They took me to the local police station.”
The authorities returned him to his captors, who beat him, strung him up in the air dangling from handcuffs that dug into his flesh in the Syrian sun, and finally left him in a cell for 11 days with his wrists chained to his ankles.
In his later months of captivity, he came across the “Beatles”, who were already recognised by his fellow hostages as particularly sadistic. He said the men would regularly inflict beatings, and that the one they dubbed “Ringo” would frequently lecture the hostages on the justification for their captivity.
Peter Kassig is pictured making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanon in a 2013 photo. Photograph: Reuters
“They were trying to explain to us that even though we were not carrying weapons, we were still somehow a kind of fighter in the war between the infidel west and Islam,” Henin said.
Prosecutors have alleged that Elsheikh is “Ringo”, though none of the hostages who has yet testified has been able to explicitly identify him. Witnesses have said all the members of the cell took great pains to keep their faces fully masked when they were in contact with the hostages.
“They liked to consider that as long as they were masked, they were protected from prosecution – this was maybe a stupid idea,” Henin said, grinning in the direction of Elsheikh who, wearing black face mask, white shirt and black trousers, sat just feet from him at the defence table.
The French journalist also recalled meeting Mueller in their desert prison south of Raqqa. She was wearing traditional Arab dress, he said. “I was inspired by her bravery. I think she inspired us all by her strength. Yeah, she was really strong.”
Henin said when he and some other hostages were finally released, they were blindfolded, handcuffed and driven to a transit location near the Turkish border. “They told us several times, ‘We don’t want you to go the media. If you go to the media, it will be backfire on the hostages.’”
Henin took that to mean that the remaining hostages would be tortured, so shortly after his release, when he gave his first interview to the France 24 network and was asked who had captured him, “I lied and said I don’t know.”
From memory, Henin provided the FBI with a diagram of the desert prison. The court heard from Dan Story, an agent who used the diagram to plan a rescue effort in July 2014. It ultimately failed because the hostages had already been moved to another location.
US troops did take photos and gather evidence, however, some of which was shown to the jury on TV screens. It included weapons, iron restraints and, as Story articulated, “You can see writing and you can see the word Kayla – K-A-Y-L-A – scratched on the wall.” There was an involuntary murmur in the public gallery.
Elsheikh’s defence lawyer, Edward MacMahon, put it to Story: “You don’t know if forensic evidence linking Mr Elsheikh to the desert prison was found at all.” The FBI agent acknowledged: “I do not.”
Elsheikh and another member of the cell, Alexanda Amon Kotey, were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria, turned over to US forces in Iraq and flown to Virginia in October 2020. Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and is facing life in prison. Britain stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their UK citizenship.
The executioner Mohamed Emwazi was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while the fourth member of the cell, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey after being convicted of terrorism.
Elsheikh has denied the charges, and his lawyers claim his arrest is a case of mistaken identity. He faces life in prison if convicted.