ISIS Fighter Behind Brutal Beheading of Journalist and Murder of Veteran Sentenced to Life in Prison

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Diane Foley speaks after ISIS Beatle sentenced in Virginia.
Diane Foley outside the federal courthouse for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, Va. minutes after former ISIS fighter El Shafee Elsheikh was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the capture and beheading of her son, journalist James Foley. Behind her are Carl and Marsha Mueller whose daughter, Kayla Mueller, an aid worker, was also captured by Elsheikh and his ISIS cell. Military.com photo by Konstantin Toropin)

On the eighth anniversary of the brutal beheading of journalist James Foley, a federal judge in Virginia sentenced one of the men responsible for his capture and murder to life in prison. Foley's mother said that "with today's verdict we finally have a bit of justice."

El Shafee Elsheikh, a British ISIS fighter, was a member of a terrorist cell dubbed "the ISIS Beatles" owing to their British accents. He was captured in 2018 and indicted in 2020 for his role and murder of Foley, as well as those of Steven Sotloff, another journalist; Peter Kassig, an aid worker and former Army Ranger; and Kayla Mueller, another aid worker.

On Friday, a judge in Alexandria, Virginia, sentenced Elsheikh to eight life sentences, court records show.

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"As grateful as I am for this sentence, it is a hollow victory," Foley's mother, Diane Foley, said at a press conference Friday, just outside the courthouse where the verdict was read.

"Our country has lost four of its very best citizens; we families lost our loved ones forever," she said, before adding that the two captured men who helped perpetrate the kidnapping and murders "have lost their freedom, country and families."

"It's a tragic cycle of violence and heartbreak for all involved," Foley said.

The verdict closes another chapter in America's war on ISIS -- the violent al-Qaida splinter group that aimed to create an Islamic state called a caliphate across Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. The group came into being roughly around 2012 and, at its height, it not only controlled the Iraqi city of Mosul but claimed credit for terror attacks in France and Belgium.

Elsheikh and his fellow fighters gained notoriety after they began posting videos online in 2014 capturing their beheading of prisoners. The prisoners would be wearing orange jumpsuits while ISIS members, clad completely in black and with their faces covered, stood over the victims before executing them. The orange jumpsuits were meant to reference pictures that had been made public of detainees wearing similar garb at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In her statement to the court before sentencing, Diane Foley said that "journalists Steven Sotloff and our son James Foley [were drawn to Syria] to bear witness to the Syrian peoples' yearning for freedom, and compassionate aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig to relieve their suffering."

Foley, who was in Syria as a freelance journalist, was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2012, according to court documents. He had once worked for the Stars and Stripes newspaper covering the military, among other outlets.

Mueller and Sotloff were captured Aug. 4, 2013, and Kassig was seized by the group on Oct. 3 of the same year.

Foley was the first to be executed. He was killed on Aug. 19, 2014, with the video surfacing shortly thereafter. The fighter who narrated Foley's video warns then-President Barack Obama that "the life of [Sotloff], Obama, depends on your next decision."

Sotloff was also a freelancer having worked for Time Magazine and other companies. A video of his execution surfaced about two weeks later in September, 2014.

Diane Foley read a statement from Sotloff's parents, who praised the U.S. government for "making it possible to capture, to bring to our country, try and convict in a court of law the ISIS Beatles, who barbarically killed our beloved son."

Kassig's execution video was discovered by a private intelligence company in November 2014. He enlisted in the Army in 2006 and became a Ranger, joining the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He deployed once before being medically discharged.

Mueller never had an execution video released, but court records say that ISIS sent her parents three photos of her dead body in February 2015.

Her father, Carl Mueller, said that the family, along with the FBI, is still working to bring her remains home. "We met with Director Wray just not too long ago and he told us both: 'We got this. We are not going to stop until we find Kayla,'" he said.

The families mentioned that they had an opportunity to speak with Elsheikh as the trial progressed. Diane Foley said the man explained to her his rationale for his actions and "his excuses," before adding that "he did articulate some remorse."

Carl Mueller, however, said, "I still think he believes he was doing the right thing."

The families also emphasized that they feel the government can do more work to prevent similar hostage-taking in the future.

"Our U.S. passport should mean that our government is with us and will protect us, " Diane Foley said, adding that "it has to be a swifter reaction and followed by deterrence and much accountability to deter this horrible practice."

She recalled that when her son and others were still being held captive, "we were told repeatedly to be quiet, to not tell anybody." Though she noted that she understood why that request was made of the families, "it didn't serve us well at all because it made this horrible crisis a silent one that everyone could ignore and did ignore."

Since the capture and murder of Foley, Sotloff, Kassig and Mueller, some changes have been implimented. In 2015, Obama unveiled a series of policy changes after meeting with families of captive Americans. The changes included no longer threatening prosecution against families of hostages who pay ransoms, as well as loosening the long-held policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers.

"They definitely have learned their lesson, and our children were the cost of that," Carl Mueller said. "Hopefully, in the future, our government will do like so many others did, and get their people home, not leave them there for 18 months."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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