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Alleged Islamic State 'Beatles' charged in US over deaths of four Americans

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey have been charged in the US with terrorism offences over the killing of four American hostages
A courtroom sketch shows El Shafee Elsheikh appearing via video link at the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia (Reuters)

Two alleged members of an Islamic State (IS) execution squad known as the "Beatles" have been charged in the US with terrorism offences over the killing of four American hostages.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are set to be the first IS members to face trial in the US over the beheading of a number of aid workers and journalists that shocked the international community in the mid 2010s.

The two individuals were flown to the United States on Wednesday and appeared by video link from prison in a federal court in Virginia.

The Justice Department revealed that the duo are facing a multiple charges, including: conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death, hostage taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder US citizens outside of the country, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death, and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation resulting in death.

If they are convicted and found guilty, they would likely face life in prison after US officials said they would not pursue the death penalty against the pair as part of a deal for access to evidence collected by British authorities.

"Like many other terrorists before them, they have underestimated the American resolve to obtain justice for our fellow citizens who are harmed or killed by terrorists anywhere in the world," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said during a news briefing on Wednesday.

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"My message to other terrorists is this: if you harm an American, you will face the same fate as these men. You will face, American arms in the battlefield," Demers said.

"And if you survive that, you will face American justice, and an American courtroom, and the prospect of many years in an American prison. Either way, you will never live in peace."

The US has previously expressed a desire to try the two men - both from the UK but now stripped of their citizenship - over the deaths of American citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both journalists, and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, during a period in 2014-15 when the militant group used videos of their captives' deaths as propaganda.

The pair are also accused of being involved in the abduction, detention and abuse of prisoners from the UK, Italy, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, New Zealand and Russia.

Several of these, including British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, were also executed, while others were released for ransom payments.

Elsheikh's mother had attempted to block the extradition of her son to the US on the grounds that he might face execution.

However, a high court ruling last month that allowed the transferral of criminal evidence from the UK to US prosecutors cleared the way for the men to be transported from detention in Iraq and charged.

On Wednesday, Demer reiterated that Washington will not pursue the death penalty for either individual.

"I think the Attorney General made that very clear in his letters to the [British] Home Secretary, that he decided, on balance, that we were not going to be pursuing the death penalty in this case and that's where we are," he said during the news briefing.

Elsheikh and Kotey were both captured by Kurdish-led forces in Syria in 2018, before being transferred to Iraq in 2019.

Both have denied direct involvement in the execution of prisoners, although they have admitted to taking part in interrogations and extracting information from prisoners.