WASHINGTON — Two notorious Islamic State detainees from Britain were being brought to the United States on Wednesday to face federal charges over accusations that they jailed and tortured Western hostages, some of whom were beheaded, Justice Department officials said.
The transfer is a milestone in the saga of the two men, El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, and Alexanda Kotey, 36, who are half of an ISIS cell of four Britons called “the Beatles” — a nickname bestowed by their victims because of their accents — and known for their extreme brutality.
The American government has linked the group to the kidnapping and abuse of more than two dozen hostages, some of whom were ultimately beheaded for propaganda videos, including the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The British extremists repeatedly beat the hostages they kept imprisoned in Raqqa, Syria, formerly the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, according to prosecutors. They subjected their hostages to abuses including waterboarding, mock executions, painful stress positions, food deprivation, beatings with sticks lasting 20 minutes or longer, chokeholds causing blackouts and electric shocks. They also forced their hostages to fight each other and to witness murders, court papers said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Justice Department officials and the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, announced the men had been indicted on multiple charges, including hostage-taking resulting in death and conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States. If convicted, the men could spend the rest of their lives in prison. They were expected to make an initial appearance on Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
“These charges are the product of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for our citizens slain by ISIS,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement. “Although we cannot bring them back, we can and will seek justice for them, their families, and for all Americans.”
Both of the detainees were captured by an American-backed Kurdish militia in Syria in early 2018. In October 2019, the American military took custody of them amid the upheaval of Turkey’s attacks on the militia, and they had been held in Iraq since then.
Their arrival and the initiation of a civilian trial is a victory for the families of the hostages who were killed. The families had pushed for the men to be prosecuted in federal court instead of being sent to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, where military commissions have proved dysfunctional in cases in which defendants contest the charges rather than plead guilty.
The two men have given numerous interviews while imprisoned, at first striking a largely unrepentant tone and dodging questions about their culpability in the killing of the hostages. But as time passed, the men seemed more apologetic and admitted holding Westerners hostage in later interviews.
Another member of the cell — Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John — was killed in an airstrike in 2015 in Syria. Mr. Emwazi was believed to have killed Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff, both Americans, as well as Peter Kassig, an aid worker.
A fourth man, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges. The extradition of Mr. Davis to the United States seems unlikely as the American-Turkish relationship deteriorates.
The families of Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff as well as those of Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, two Americans who were also killed in Syria, said they welcomed the news the two men were being brought to the United States to be prosecuted.
“James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria,” the families said in a statement. “Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court.”
The families added they were particularly grateful to Mr. Barr for his decision to waive the death penalty against the two men and thanked Ali H. Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent who quietly helped them.
Any trial would most likely involve former hostages, especially from Italy, France, Spain and Denmark, possibly testifying and recounting the horrors they experienced while imprisoned by the Islamic State in Syria.
The two men helped supervise detention facilities where hostages were held, coordinated ransom negotiations for their release and engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against their prisoners, charging documents said. For example, on April 25, 2014, prosecutors said, the men forced prisoners from Europe to witness the murder of a Syrian man by Mr. Emwazi as part of a hostage negotiation process.
“Emwazi executed the Syrian prisoner by shooting him in the back of the head and then numerous times in the torso as and when he fell into a grave,” the charging documents said. “Kotey instructed the hostages to kneel at the side of the grave and witness the execution while holding handmade signs pleading for their release. Elsheikh videotaped the execution of the Syrian hostage.”
It added: “After the execution, Kotey, Elsheikh, and Emwazi returned the European hostages to the prison with Elsheikh telling one hostage, “You’re next.”
All four men had lived in West London. Mr. Kotey, born in London, is of Ghanaian and Greek Cypriot background, while Mr. Elsheikh’s family fled Sudan in the 1990s. Both men have been designated foreign terrorists by the United States. The United Kingdom has stripped them of their British passports.
The Trump administration wanted to bring the two detainees to the United States for a trial in civilian court, as the families of their victims urged, but their transfer was delayed by a need for evidence in British hands that prosecutors viewed as essential to prove their case.
A lawsuit in Britain brought by the mother of one of the defendants tied up that government’s ability to share the evidence because the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, refused to preclude seeking the death penalty, as normally happens in such cases since Britain has abolished it.
In August, however, Mr. Barr sought to resolve the impasse by reversing the policy and telling Britain that the United States would not seek to execute the two men. The British courts swiftly permitted the government to share the evidence — clearing the way for their transfer to American soil for the case to commence.
Prosecuting foreign terrorists in civilian court, once common under the Obama administration, has become rare under the Trump administration. Mr. Sessions had attacked that approach while he was still a Republican senator from Alabama, portraying it as soft on terrorism and declaring that such suspects should be held as military combatants and tried at Guantánamo Bay.
But the military commissions trial system at Guantánamo has proved dysfunctional, and there were additional legal problems raised by the prospect of holding members of ISIS — as opposed to Al Qaeda — there without trial.
Britain also did not want to share evidence for use at Guantánamo, and the victims’ family members pressed instead for prosecutions in civilian court, to avoid the risk that some would see the men as human-rights martyrs and because civilian courts have proved to be far more effective in practice.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, who worked closely with the Foley family and pushed to have the two detainees brought to trial in civilian court rather than a military commission, hailed the charges as “a giant step towards justice.”
“The families of the Americans murdered by ISIS finally have their day in court on the horizon,” she said in a statement. “Through a thorough trial with all evidence presented, the United States has an opportunity to deliver real justice and honor the memories of James, Peter, Steven and Kayla.”