Oct 7, 2020
DOJ Press Conference on Indictment of ISIS Operatives Transcript October 7
Department of Justice officials and FBI Director Chris Wray held a press conference on October 7 to announce the indictment of ISIS operatives. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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John Demers: (00:01)
We are here to announce the indictment of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh. Kotey and Elsheikh were members of the notoriously brutal ISIS hostage-taking cell that became known as The Beatles, a name their captives gave to them because of they’re British accents. The defendants are charged with terrorism offenses related to hostage-taking and killing of for Americans as well as citizens of Great Britain and Japan. For over a year, Kotey and Elsheikh were held in Iraq by the US military under the law of armed conflict. I’m pleased to confirm that they are now in FBI custody and will soon appear in federal court in the Eastern district of Virginia.
John Demers: (00:47)
Today is a good day, but it is also a solemn one. Today we remember the four innocent Americans whose lives were taken by ISIS, James Wright Foley, Stephen Joel Sotloff, Peter Edward Kassig, and Kayla Jean Mueller. Many around the world are familiar with the barbaric circumstances of their deaths, but we will not remember these Americans for the way they died. We will remember them for the way they lived their good and decent lives.
John Demers: (01:36)
James Foley was a print and video journalist who was covering the civil war in Syria. He had previously served as a conflict zone correspondent in Iraq, and then in the Libya. James was a former elementary school teacher.
John Demers: (01:51)
Steven Sotloff was a journalist who covered the Middle East and was in Syria reporting on the refugee crisis. According to a longtime friend, he was drawn to the region to quote, “Give a voice to the people who didn’t have one,” close quote. Stephen was the grandson of Holocaust survivors who inspired him to be that voice.
John Demers: (02:12)
Peter Kassig was in Syria working for a humanitarian organization that he founded to deliver food and medical aid to the refugees. He had previously served as an elite Airborne Ranger in the US Army, which included service in Iraq.
John Demers: (02:27)
Kayla Mueller was a humanitarian aid worker and human rights activist who, inspired by her faith, devoted much of her young life to serving those in need both at home and abroad. As President Trump shared during his 2020 State Of The Union address, the American warriors who conducted the military operation that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were so inspired by Kayla that they named the mission: Task Force 814, a reference to August 14th, Kayla’s birthday.
John Demers: (03:04)
Today’s announcement is the result of many years of hard work and the pursuit of justice for these Americans. We have been inspired by their memories and moved by the determination and grit of their families; families which will never rest until justice is done. To them, I say this: Neither will we. Although we cannot bring back your children, we will do all that we can to obtain justice for them, for you and for all Americans.
John Demers: (03:36)
As for Kotey and Elsheikh, 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. These men will now be brought before a United States court to face justice for the depraved acts alleged against them in the indictment.
John Demers: (03:59)
As for their ringleader Mohammed Emwazi, infamously known as Jihadi John, he faced a different kind of American resolve, the mighty reach of our military, which successfully targeted him in an airstrike several years ago.
John Demers: (04:14)
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. If you survive that, you will fail American justice in an American courtroom and the prospect of many years in an American prison. Either way, you will never live in peace. You will be pursued to the ends of the earth. No matter how long it takes, we will never forget. We will never quit.
John Demers: (04:49)
To the American people, today’s announcement is a reminder of the threat that we continue to face from radical Islamic terrorism. These terrorists despise the freedoms and the way of life we cherish and are hell bent on imposing their ideologies on a world that continues to reject them. Although our nation faces a variety of national security threats from many quarters, we will not relent in our efforts to protect America and her citizens from the threat posed by terrorists.
John Demers: (05:19)
Today’s announcement would not have been possible without the relentless effort of countless dedicated prosecutors, agents, and analysts who are the bedrock of the Department of Justice. I want to thank the prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia, for my own national security division, and all of the many FBI agents and analysts who have worked tirelessly on this case.
John Demers: (05:42)
I also want to thank the Office of International Affairs and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, both of which assisted with important aspects of this investigation.
John Demers: (05:53)
The attorney general wanted me to convey that the support of the United Kingdom’s home secretaries, Sasha Javid and Priti Patel was critical to moving this investigation and prosecution forward and he extends his sincerest gratitude for their unwavering commitment to the pursuit of justice in this case.
John Demers: (06:14)
We also want to thank all of our international partners who have come forward thus far with evidence. I would encourage any others with evidence to come forward as well. We understand that the justice we seek in this case will extend to many people in numerous other countries around the world, and we humbly and enthusiastically accept that responsibility.
John Demers: (06:37)
We all have our part to do our part in confronting and defeating ISIS. Just last week, the department announced our significant successes in repatriating and prosecuting a number of US citizens who went to Syria to join and support ISIS and were detained by the Syrian and the democratic forces.
John Demers: (06:57)
The United States has been a leader in taking responsibility for its citizens who left to join ISIS. And as the case we are announcing today highlights, when we have the evidence to do so, we will also take responsibility for prosecuting those non-US citizens who have injured or killed Americans anywhere in the world. If you have American blood in your veins, or you have American blood on your hands, you will face American justice. This department has successfully prosecuted hundreds of defendants since 9/11 for terrorism related offenses in our federal courts, and we will continue to do so.
John Demers: (07:38)
Finally, I want to acknowledge the Departments of State and the Department of Defense. We will continue to work together with them and our other partners in the US government to combat the scourge of terrorism. The step we take today is just that, a step. But it is a big step, and I can assure you that the women and men of the Department of Justice will not stop until justice is won. Thank you.
John Demers: (08:06)
Christopher Wray: (08:14)
Morning. Today’s announcement makes clear once again that combating terrorism remains the FBI’s top priority and that the entire United States government remains committed to bringing to justice anyone who harms our citizens. We showed that resolve to the world last week by repatriating Americans who had traveled to Syria to support ISIS so that they will face charges here. Today, we’re demonstrating that resolve by bringing to our shores two men who left Britain to become ISIS terrorist. Now they’re going to face justice in an American court of law for crimes against American citizens. Not long after these terrorists were captured in 2018, the parents of their American victims wrote the following about their loved ones, and I quote:
Christopher Wray: (09:06)
“One by one our children were taken from us by the hateful criminals of the Islamic State. Jim, Steven, Peter, and Kayla were like so many of your own sons and daughters, they were four unique, passionate young Americans and all risks, their lives pursuing a greater good.”
Christopher Wray: (09:29)
The family of those victims have suffered the painful loss of their loved ones at the hands of brutal killers. While their pain may never fully subside, today with the announcement of this indictment, we’re beginning to bring them the justice they deserve. But we owe these families more than justice. We owe them our gratitude. I say that because their advocacy for their loved ones has led to positive changes in how our government supports and partners with victim’s families.
Christopher Wray: (10:02)
One of those changes was the creation a few years ago the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. This multi-agency team based at FBI headquarters represents our government’s unified approach to recovering American hostages abroad. It’s single focus is to bring these hostages home safely and partner with their families in the recovery effort. A key part of that fusion cell is the family engagement team. That team not only coordinate support to family members of hostages during times of agony and uncertainty, it also supports hostages and families once the crisis is over. The FBI and our partners are working tirelessly every day to recover all US hostages held abroad, and we won’t rest until we see a similar resolution for justice against all those responsible for holding Americans captive, especially when those captives lives are taken.
Christopher Wray: (11:03)
Today, I want to also thank the men and women of the FBI and our domestic and international partners for their unflagging efforts to investigate, charge, and ultimately hold these two men responsible for their crimes. Over the course of this investigation and many others like it, these dedicated professionals put themselves at risk conducting interviews and collecting evidence to build the cases that ultimately led us to where we are today with these two men facing justice in the United States.
Christopher Wray: (11:38)
Like Assistant Attorney General Demers, and based on conversations I’ve had on a number of occasions, including on the phone just this morning with the attorney general, I know the attorney general joins us in particularly thanking our British counterparts and our international partners in working with the United States to bring charges in our criminal justice system. We mourn not only our American victims, but also the British victims, David Haynes and Alan Henning, and victims of all nations who suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of ISIS. Let there be no doubt, the FBI, the US government and our partners remain vigilant in the fight against terrorism, including the threat from ISIS.
Christopher Wray: (12:22)
Today, ISIS is still trying to radicalize people here in the United States and elsewhere through online propaganda and their global network of supporters. Their goal is to motivate people to launch attacks against Western targets, wherever they are, using any means available. But as today’s announcement shows the FBI and our partners both here and overseas will continue to relentlessly pursue these terrorists and anyone who chooses to support terrorist organizations like ISIS, no matter where they are, and no matter how long it takes.
Christopher Wray: (13:00)
Now, I’ll turn things over to Zach Terwilliger, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to provide a little bit more details about the indictment itself.
Zach Terwilliger: (13:13)
Thank you, Director Wray.
Zach Terwilliger: (13:16)
First, I want to thank Attorney General Barr for his steadfast leadership in support of this investigation and prosecution. Let me be very clear, this day does not happen without Attorney General Barr and his resolve and commitment to seeing that these individuals were brought to justice.
Zach Terwilliger: (13:35)
As Director Wray mentioned, my name is Zach Terwilliger. I’m the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, located just across the Potomac River in Alexandria. It’s with a heavy heart that we’re here today, and I wish we weren’t. But if these alleged atrocities indeed happened, I’m proud to be here as a representative of the United States and our criminal justice system.
Zach Terwilliger: (13:58)
As many of you are now aware yesterday, an eight count criminal indictment was returned in the Eastern District of Virginia that charged two alleged terrorists, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh with the following felony offenses: Conspiracy to commit hostage-taking resulting in death, hostage-taking resulting in death, one count for each of the American hostages James Wright Foley, Kayla Jean Mueller, Stephen Joel Sotloff, and Peter Edward Kassig. Count six, conspiracy to murder United States citizens outside of the United States. Count seven, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in the form of hostage-taking resulting in death and murder. Count eight, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. If convicted the defendants face a maximum penalty of life in prison for each count of conviction.
Zach Terwilliger: (15:02)
Pursuant to well-known protections provided by our constitutional republic and its system of criminal justice, Kotey and Elsheikh are presumed innocent unless and until proven otherwise. All that I’m about to recount now are allegations and can be found in the four corners of the 24-page indictment, which was unsealed just a moment ago.
Zach Terwilliger: (15:26)
As stated in that charging document, these alleged terrorists both grew up in the United Kingdom, where they became radicalized. Their role within the ISIS terrorist organization was that of being part of a brutal hostage-taking scheme by which American, European, and Asian citizens were taken hostage from approximately 2012 to 2015. Their alleged criminal acts include conspiring to commit hostage-taking resulting in death and conspiring to murder American citizens James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Stephen Sotloff, and Peter Kassig.
Zach Terwilliger: (16:05)
As part of the conspiracy they’re vicious acts and those of co-conspirators Muhammad Emwazi and CC1 are alleged to include the following: Forced witnessing of murders, mock executions, shocks via electric taser, beatings, amongst other brutal acts. Also a well established principle in American jurisprudence, co-conspirators, like these defendants, may be held liable for the foreseeable acts of their co-conspirators, such as Emwazi, that took place during the course of the conspiracy.
Zach Terwilliger: (16:43)
As stated in detail, Kotey, Elsheikh and Emwazi and CC1 facilitated hostage-taking, ransom demands, abuse, and the murder of Americans, Europeans, and Asian citizens in order to further their terrorist agenda and that of ISIS. The brutal acts of beheading were captured by the ISIS media propaganda machine and disseminated to achieve their aims of jihad. Further, as detailed in the indictment, part of the alleged horrific conditions of confinement, the self-proclaimed leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also made it a point to repeatedly sexually assault American citizen Kayla Jean Mueller. As you know al-Baghdadi was killed on or about October 26th, 2019 in a United States military operation named in honor of Kayla and her birthday, August 14th, Operation 814.
Zach Terwilliger: (17:46)
For these acts, these two alleged terrorists will now face the American justice system. Later today, we expect these defendants to make their initial appearance a few miles away in Alexandria, Virginia. At that hearing, they will be informed of the charges against them. They will be provided with counsel, if they cannot afford it. They will receive medical care and be housed in a sanitary facility and be provided with three meals a day, all coupled with the due process of law, all things denied to James, Kayla, Steven, and Peter, and the other British and Japanese victims named in the indictment.
Zach Terwilliger: (18:26)
Like Director Wray in preparation for today, I reviewed some prose that really captured what today is all about. And I quote:
Zach Terwilliger: (18:36)
“They should be brought to America to face our justice system. And that is what our children would have wanted. Give them the fair trial that makes our nation great. That would be the best way to honor our children. Ensuring that truth and justice find their way out of this tragic story would mean that the Islamic State will never have the last word.”
Zach Terwilliger: (19:00)
Well, Diane and John, Paula and Ed, Marsha and Carl, and Shirley and Art, it’s now a certainty ISIS will not have the last word when it comes to your children. You will.
Zach Terwilliger: (19:20)
Assistant Attorney General Demers?
Speaker 4: (19:20)
We can now open the line for questions.
We will now begin the question and answer session. To ask a question, you may press star and then one on your touch-tone phone. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up your handset before pressing the keys. To withdraw your question, please press star and then two. Please note that you will be limited to one question, and we do ask that you specify who your question is for. We will now pause momentarily to assemble our roster.
Our first question today comes from Ryan Lucas with NPR.
Ryan Lucas: (20:12)
Hi, thank you for doing this. First question is how important was the British evidence that the Justice Department has been fighting for five years to try to get from the UK government? Would we be here today without it? Then, what does this case say about the ability of the Justice Department to bring all terrorist cases to US civilian courts for trial?
John Demers: (20:39)
John Demers: (20:40)
I think we decided that if we were going to do this case, we were going to tell the fullest story we could of what these defendants did, and we were going to put on the strongest case possible. With the British evidence, I think we can do that very well.
John Demers: (21:00)
As for your second question, as you know, the department has prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in federal court since 9/11. We have done so successfully. We’ve protected classified information when we’ve needed to, and we’ve gotten justice for many victims and many convictions. You can expect us to continue to do so.
Our next question comes from Pete Williams with NBC.
Pete Williams: (21:32)
Thank you. Mr. Demers, can you tell us, specifically, what does the indictment allege that Kotey and Elsheikh did with regard to the four Americans?
John Demers: (21:43)
Sure. Thanks, Pete. I think I’ll turn that over to Zach on the indictment.
Zach Terwilliger: (21:49)
Thank you, John. Thank you, Pete.
Zach Terwilliger: (21:50)
Yes, I’m going to be very careful and stay to the four corners of the indictment. Pete, as you re review that 24-page document, you will see that we have alleged a conspiracy regarding hostage-taking resulting in death. There are many allegations in that document. It’s a speaking indictment. I think what you will see is that their roles absolutely engaged in the facilitation, the ransom demands, and the abuse of hostages as alleged in that indictment.
Zach Terwilliger: (22:19)
As I stated, as you know, but our viewers may not, if you have multiple individuals in a conspiracy, you are liable for the foreseeable acts of your co-conspirators. At that point, Pete, I think I will leave it at that. Always happy to talk later on about more specifics.
Our next question comes from Daniel Bates with Daily Mail.
Daniel Bates: (22:46)
Hi, this one’s for [inaudible 00:22:47]. I just wanted to seek reassurance that prosecutors will not be seeking the death penalty in this case. Obviously that was one of the conditions of sort of British intelligence providing assistance, but can you guarantee us that there won’t be a U-turn and you won’t be seeking the death penalty with this case? Thank you.
John Demers: (23:09)
Well, I think the attorney general made that very clear in his letters to the 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.
Our next question comes from Eric Tucker with the Associated Press.
Eric Tucker: (23:34)
Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for doing this.
Eric Tucker: (23:37)
John and Zach, I guess the question might be best directed to you. Can you talk a little bit about the interactions with the family members over the last year in terms of how important their wishes were in terms of bringing these two individuals to justice and the nature of the conversations you had with them?
John Demers: (23:55)
Sure. I mean, look, I think everyone on this stage has met with the families. I know the director and I did together sometime ago. We listened very carefully to the voices of the family. We weighed their views very seriously. Ultimately, we have to make our own judgment about whether we can bring a case of this nature, but the families’ views were critical to our thinking on this case. As the director said, and as Zach said, we’re very grateful for their continued advocacy for their children and for the continued attention that they brought to this case, for their advocacy not just in this country, but also in the UK and in other countries in helping make this the strongest case we can.
Zach Terwilliger: (24:44)
Just briefly. Thanks for the question, Eric. Yes.
Our last question comes from Jake Gibson with Fox News.
Jake Gibson: (24:52)
Thanks for doing the call. Thanks for taking my question.
Jake Gibson: (24:54)
I just kind of have a two-parter. Number one, in other cases like this, you may seek the death penalty, is that not happening in this case simply because that was a UK demand for their cooperation, number one?
Jake Gibson: (25:12)
Number two, was there any thought from European nations or the UK that they would like to try this case on their own because they also have victims? I mean, ultimately, why did it end up here? Thank you.
John Demers: (25:26)
Thanks for the question. The decision at first of the department was to leave open the possibility to seek the death penalty. There’s a whole process for doing that. Obviously, that’s a process that we never undertook because the attorney general decided that we should provide the death penalty assurance in order to get the British evidence and see that justice could be done more expeditiously than if we had to continue to litigate this issue in the courts in the United Kingdom. We never got there in terms of determining whether we would seek the death penalty or not. The decision was to try to keep the option open at first, but ultimately that didn’t work.
John Demers: (26:13)
As for why other countries are not doing this case and we’re doing it, maybe that’s a better question for them. But as I said in my remarks here, when we have American victims, we are very willing to do these cases.
Christopher Wray: (26:29)
I’ll just add one thing on that. As far as the other countries, one of the things that the FBI works very hard at, in this case our Washington field office had the extra territorial responsibility, is to work very closely with our counterparts from all these other nations, both in terms of developing evidence for our own cases, but in some cases providing assistance to them as they build their own. We work very closely with each other, and that’s an important part of the international cooperation that exists on these kinds of cases, because we’re all facing attacks against our citizens from ISIS. We hope that many of those nations will be able to bring cases against their citizens as we go forward.
Zach Terwilliger: (27:19)
Thanks. Zack Terwilliger, again, just to respond to Eric Tucker’s question regarding the victims. One thing I want to make clear, we utilize in the Eastern District of Virginia, as do the vast majority of US Attorney’s Office, a victim-centric approach. The victims and their families in this case are what’s driving our pursuit of justice. That’s who we represent, the people of the United States.
Zach Terwilliger: (27:40)
I look forward to a close relationship with the families as this process moves forward. We actually have rights set out for victims’ families under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and we have special personnel who will be liaisons between them and our office. I look forward to the opportunity to spend more and more time with them as we move forward and seek justice on behalf of their children.
Speaker 4: (28:06)
This now concludes the Department of Justice press conference. Thank you for calling in. Operator, you may now disconnect.
The conference is now concluded. Thank you for attending today’s presentation. You may now disconnect.