American Debate

Guantanamo Trials vs. “Beatles” Trials

Diane Foley, founder and president of James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, speaks at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Feb. 5, 2016. (Michel Euler/AP)
Diane Foley, founder and president of James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, speaks at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Feb. 5, 2016. (Michel Euler/AP)

American Debate

During last week’s court proceeding in Alexandria, a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC,  Sudanese-British El Shafee Elsheikh was sentenced to eight life imprisonment terms for his role as part of the “Jihadi Beatles,” who were members of Islamic State (IS) and slaughtered Americans in Syria.  At the same time, a news report from the US Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where about 50 terrorist suspects have been waiting justice for about 20 years, repeated the endless legal arguments that have been made all this time.

That was the contrast between two ways the US has been conducting its Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), particularly the treatment of captured terrorist suspects.

Last week’s sentencing of Elsheikh followed an earlier one, in the same court, of his fellow “Beatle,” British-Ghanian Alexanda Kotey.

They were the first and only terrorists to be tried in a civilian court. The contrast with Guantanamo military trials was clear.

While the crimes committed, or said to be committed, by all of them took place during the last 20 years, the debate in the US has been not only about the differences between civilian and military courts, but, also, about the seemingly never ending GWOT.

The return of the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan and the return of Al-Qaeda to Kabul, as shown in the presence of its now-dead leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and the expanding attacks by violent Islamists in faraway places, from Mali to Mozambique, show the never-imagined Jihadism spread, and, consequently, the continuation of the GWOT.

Following are excerpts from three American opinions about how to deal with captured terrorist suspects: endless, and partly-secret, military tribunals, or open and short civilian trials:

First, Diane Foley, mother of James Foley who was slaughtered by IS, described confronting Kotey during his trial, and arguing that the civilian court, while bringing no final closure to her son’s death, was a result of her years-old campaign to punish his killers.

Second, Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, specializing in terrorism and counterterrorism, compared those civil trials to the military ones in Guantanamo which he described as “a stain on our democracy.”

Third, Marsha Mueller, mother of Kayla Mueller, the humanitarian volunteer who was arrested and killed by IS in Syria, criticizing the GWOT for spreading “anger and fear.”


Diane Foley: “Face to Face”

“When I sat down to talk to Kotey, we looked at each other and said 'hello’. It was not an easy thing to do, but it was important. Jim would have wanted me to do it

The hours I spent with him were, for me, an affirmation of faith, forgiveness and a commitment to what has now become my life's work …

In that small room as I stared at him, I felt more ‘even’ with the man convicted of helping to kill my son. He was still rather frightening to me, but, of course, since I knew I was safe, and he could harm me no longer, I had some power.

I wanted Kotey to be confronted with the horror of what he did, and to hear about the man he murdered, the eldest of my five children …

Kotey listened quietly and, then, also talked about his own family. He said had been praying to his God for forgiveness. He shared a picture of his family. He has some young children whom he will probably never see again. It made me realize how much he has lost by following hatred and propaganda.

It made me pity him …

But he never said sorry. He was somber and respectful towards me and talked about remorse, but never apologized …

When I stood up to leave, I said to him that I hope at some point we could both forgive one another. He looked at me confused and said: ‘I don't have to forgive you for anything.’

My plea was grounded in my Catholic faith: I felt like, as people, none of us are perfect. We all do things we regret.

If I hate the terrorists, they have won. They will continue to hold me captive because I am not willing to be different to the way they were to my loved one. We must pray for the courage to be the opposite …

I wish our countries had worked together and brought our sons and daughters home instead of having to spend so much time on bringing accountability after their murders. But, it is better than nothing …”

Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, specializing in terrorism and counterterrorism.

Bruce Hoffman: “Guantanamo’s Contrast”

“Beyond the immediate impact on these terrorists and the families of their victims, though, the trials [of Kotey and Elsheikh] have significant implications for U.S. counterterrorism, the ability of the justice system to prosecute international terrorists, and the future of U.S. hostage policy …

The first conclusion to be drawn from the Beatles trials in Alexandria is also the most important: Americans so rarely get to see an international terrorist brought to justice here in the homeland. And the trial showcased the power of the American justice system to prosecute and incarcerate such individuals.

The constitutional right to a speedy and fair trial—as stipulated by the Sixth Amendment—was rigorously applied by Judge T.S. Ellis III throughout the court proceedings that lasted (for Elsheikh) two-and-a-half weeks and heard testimony from thirty-five prosecution witnesses …

The trials thus stood in marked contrast to the futile two-decade-long effort to bring to justice Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and the other terrorists incarcerated at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A total of some 800 persons have been imprisoned at the facility since 2002. Fewer than forty currently remain there …

None have been accorded anything even resembling the due process that unfolded in Alexandria in late March through mid-April.

It is a stain on our democracy …”


Marsha Mueller, mother of Kayla Mueller, the humanitarian volunteer who was arrested and killed by IS in Syria. Credit: (Getty Images/John Lamparski)

Marsha Mueller: “Anger and Fear”

“My husband Carl and I are the parents of Kayla Mueller, have not given up looking for our daughter's remains. We just met with FBI Director Christopher Wray who told us: ‘We are not going to stop until we find Kayla.’

Our daughter was 26-year-old on a humanitarian mission in Turkey in August 2013 when ISIS kidnapped her after she crossed the Syrian border. In February 2015, U.S. officials confirmed that she died while in ISIS custody.

Elsheikh declined to speak about her during his trial. He was obviously cold with no remorse throughout the whole trial. And I think he believes he was doing the right thing …

Our government mishandled our daughter’s and other hostages’ situations.  Former President Obama had every opportunity to bring Kayla home during the 18 months she was held captive.

Hopefully, in the future, our government will do like so many others did, and get their people home. Not leave them in there until they are killed by the terrorists.

Needless to say, the terrorists seek to divide, to scare, to hurt, and to break us apart.  But they fail when we choose light over darkness—when peaceful justice prevails over anger and fear …”

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