Last ISIS kidnapper sentenced to life for role in Kayla Mueller’s death

Photo by Ryan Knappenberger/Cronkite News: Carl and Marsha Mueller speak outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., where El Shafee Elsheikh was sentenced for his role in the kidnapping and murder of their daughter, Kayla, in Syria in 2015.

By Ryan Knappenberger/Cronkite News

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A second Islamic State militant was sentenced to life in prison on Friday for the kidnapping and murder of Prescott native Kayla Mueller, a relief for her parents who have pledged to keep fighting for his memory.

“Now we can put this behind us,” Carl Mueller said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, where El Shafee Elsheikh was convicted of crimes the judge called “horrifying, barbaric, brutal, insensitive and, of course, criminal”.

Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker, was working with Syrian refugees in southern Turkey when she went on a professional trip for Doctors Without Borders in August 2013 to Aleppo, Syria. It was there that she was captured by ISIS fighters and held hostage for 18 months until her death in 2015.

Elsheikh, a British national, was part of a trio known by the hostages as the “ISIS Beatles” for their British accents. One of them, Alexanda Amon Kotey, was sentenced in April to life in prison for her part in the death of Mueller and other hostages. The third, Mohammed Emwazi, was killed in a US airstrike in 2015, according to Justice Department documents.

A federal jury convicted Elsheikh in April of eight counts of taking hostages, conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to provide resources to terrorist organizations. The Justice Ministry said Elsheikh was the highest-ranking ISIS member to face a jury trial.

Photo courtesy of the Mueller family: Kayla Mueller in an undated family photo. A Prescott native and graduate of Northern Arizona University, she was in Turkey doing humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees in 2013 when she was kidnapped by Islamic State on a short trip to Syria. and was killed there in 2015.

In addition to Mueller, Elsheikh and his accomplices kidnapped and executed three other Americans: James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig. Friday’s trial came on the eighth anniversary of Foley’s beheading, which was recorded and released by ISIS as a propaganda film.

Evidence presented at trial showed that Elsheikh and the other “Beatles” beat, threatened and tortured the hostages. According to court documents, Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were placed in a single cell and forced to fight, with the loser drowned.

Evidence also showed that Mueller was held in a kennel-sized cell and sexually assaulted by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the Islamic State.

During sentencing, prosecutors read aloud from letters the hostages sent to their families, including a handwritten note from Mueller that his family received after other hostages were released from captivity.

“The thought of your pain is the source of mine, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength,” she wrote.

At a press conference after the sentencing, Mueller’s mother, Marsha, expressed her frustrations with the government and its handling of her daughter’s capture.

“The government’s hands are tied,” she said, adding that it is necessary to “find a way to work outside of the government to get the hostages released.”

Elsheikh will concurrently serve eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. He has requested an appeal but will be held in the meantime by the Bureau of Prisons, who will determine where to place him.

Elsheikh, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit and face mask in court, showed little response during the sentencing hearing and he refused to speak. Carl Mueller said he “spent most of the time staring at the back of his head in the courtroom.”


Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at Georgetown University, said the trial was “very rare” in terrorism cases.

“He had a fair trial, which is in such contrast to how they treated their hostages,” Hoffman said.

In a June 10 article for the Council on Foreign Relations, Hoffman wrote that the trial “showed America at its best: responding to indescribable horror and unimaginable evil with patience and the protection of human rights from accused “.

U.S. District Court Judge TS Ellis III, a judge in the Elsheikh and Kotey trials, echoed Hoffman in handing down the sentence.

“(This case) is a significant episode in the history of our country,” Ellis said from the bench. “It must be a beacon, a warning to others.”

Photo courtesy of CNN: Former Prescott resident Kayla Mueller was 26 when she was killed in Syria in 2015 by Islamic State, which had held her hostage since 2013.

Foley’s mother, Diane, welcomed the sentencing after Friday’s hearing.

“In order to deter violent crimes like international kidnappings, torture and execution of American citizens, we must be held accountable. We must have justice,” she said. “With today’s verdict, justice has finally been served.”

Carl Mueller said he felt a sense of relief, both seeing Elsheikh convicted and having completed the trial. But he stressed that there was still work to be done for the other hostages and for the memory of his daughter, whose remains have not yet been found.

Both Muellers said they believe the government has learned from the murders of Kayla and the other hostages and hope the tragedy can be averted in the future. But they described it as a bittersweet feeling.

“They definitely learned their lesson and our kids cost it,” Carl Mueller said.

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