Two jihadists from the Islamic State group, who were part of a terror cell nicknamed ‘The Beatles’ due to their British accents, have pleaded not guilty before a judge in the USA.
The British militants are facing charges of murder over the execution of a number of Western hostages in Syria, where they are accused of taking part in a campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence.
Alexanda Kotey, 36, and El Shafee el-Sheikh, 32, appeared via video link before a judge in Alexandria, Virginia, and pleaded not guilty through their lawyers.
The two jihadists, who are from Britain but have been stripped of their citizenship, were indicted by a grand jury earlier this week for the kidnapping and murder of four Americans: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and humanitarians Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.
James Foley and Steven Steven Sotloff were murdered in staged propaganda videos.
Not guilty plea
On Friday both men pleaded not guilty through their lawyers and asked to be tried by a jury.
"I wish to set up a trial as soon as possible," but "time is needed to ensure justice is done in this case," said the judge Justice TS Ellis II in setting the next hearing for January 15.
In the meantime, the evidence - which contains confidential information - will be handed over to the defendants’ lawyers.
The two suspects were transferred from Iraq to the United States on Wednesday and held in a secret location in Virginia.
Both men grew up and were radicalised in the UK before joining Islamic State in Syria in 2012.
They were part of a quartet that, according to US study centres, kidnapped and beheaded 27 hostages, including Syrian civilians.
"Their sadistic methods had no limits, including crucifixion, drowning, mock executions," say researchers Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in an article for the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), who met Kotey in his cell in Syria.
The group's most prominent figure, Mohammed Emwazi, nicknamed "Jihadi John", had distinguished himself by appearing all in black dressed with a butcher knife in propaganda videos. He was killed in a US bombing of Syria in November 2015.
Kotey and el-Sheikh were captured in January 2018 by Kurdish forces in Syria and then placed under US military control in Iraq in October 2019 during the Turkish offensive in northern Syria.
The fourth, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey.