After an interview with IS perpetrators, the journalist bursts into tears

British filmmaker Sean Langan bursts into tears after an interview with an IS supporter.

The Beatles were a British beat band from the 1960s that wrote music history and still inspires fans worldwide with their songs. “The Beatles” was also called a Syrian group of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS), which was notorious worldwide for its brutality. She was responsible for the beheading of US war correspondent James Foley in the summer of 2014.

The Beatles: The name of the terrorist cell came from the British origins and accents of its four members. Two of them – Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh – were interviewed by British filmmaker Sean Langan in 2018 after their arrest. An exceptional conversation, because: In 2008 Langan was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and held hostage for 12 weeks. And: Langan was a close friend of the murdered Foleys.

An interview and a big plan

He is called “Alexi”, says Kotey in the ARD documentary “The hostage-takers – testimonies from IS hell” (until November in the ARD media library) and stirs sugar into the tea. Alexi: That sounds nice, almost cute. Langan is also nice to him. When it comes to a possible death sentence, he apologizes to Kotey: “I’m sorry that we have to talk about unpleasant things.” Langan’s friendliness in the run-up to the trial against the two IS men is a means to an end: “I had the idea to go to Syria and talk to my friend’s killers,” he explains in the documentary. “Hope they reveal something. Even if it’s just a little piece of information that can be used against them.”

The interviews with the IS disciples are repeatedly interrupted by stories by the Danish war photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen, who was held hostage by the IS commando “The Beatles” for over a year. He tells of violence for the sake of violence, starvation, electrocution and waterboarding. “There were punishments,” says El Shafee Elsheikh to Langan. But one rule was: “Only inflict pain so that they learn their lessons.” And: No slaps in the face.

Shooting as a “humane way of execution”

Married twice and father of five, El Shafee Elsheikh is a slim young man; he bursts into tears when he is allowed to look at his mother’s Facebook page on Langan’s cell phone. Scenes like this seem surreal after interview segments in which Daniel’s parents talk about their fear and their desperate attempts to raise the ransom. Or when Daniel Rye Ottosen tells of a shooting and the fact that being a hostage seemed “a humane way of execution” to him.

In captivity, Ottosen memorizes the suicide note that James Foley wrote for his mother. After his release, he calls Diane Foley. “It was a monologue,” the photographer recalls. “I read the letter for the first and last time outside of Syria.” Tears run down from under the rim of his glasses as he talks about it in the interview. Unlike Elsheikh, he doesn’t brush them away.

“I had a very eventful youth,” swears the IS man

The ARD describes the emotionally gripping documentary as a psychogram of the perpetrators, but the classification is not quite right. Nothing is said about the history of the two IS men, no psychological trail is followed from birth to deed. All that remains are the inmates’ statements without classification. “I had a very eventful youth,” reports Elsheikh, “I know how to inflict pain.” He doesn’t want to downplay the suffering of the hostages, but he could have done “real damage” but refrained from doing so: “That was neither the purpose nor the goal.”

In the interviews, Kotey and Elsheikh are visibly trying not to reveal too much and, if possible, to shift the blame entirely onto their IS colleague Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”. He was killed by a US drone-launched missile in Syria in 2015. In retrospect, it is opportune for the two imprisoned “Beatles” to portray him as the true source of the brutality.

In retrospect, Kotey sees himself as just a kind of “contact person” for the terrorist cell, “I had a role,” nothing more. In front of the camera, he squirms in search of the most harmless vocabulary possible for horror, until it finally becomes too much for Langan: “Is there a correct term for cutting Jim’s throat? What’s that called in Arabic?” he asks angrily. “Are you looking for a fight?” Kotey asks back, but Langan has it under control again: “He was my friend, I’m sorry. Let me be angry for a second, may I?” His outburst does at least the viewer good after an hour of friendly concessions.

When Langan gets angry, the perpetrator breaks off the interview

Kotey tries to justify: “I also dug up my friend’s dead child under the rubble after an American air raid, do you understand that?” The sympathy from the West is always so one-sided, nobody wants to see the suffering of those who killed someone in American attacks Air Force lost. Langan is getting really angry now, “fucking self-pity”, accusing Kotey of damn self-pity. The IS-Beatles would have always held the prisoners responsible for all decisions of their governments, would have held Daniel Rye Ottosen’s mother personally responsible for abuse of the Prophet in Danish newspapers. “Why don’t you take responsibility? For what you did?”

“If I’ve done wrong, it’s between me and my maker,” Kotey replies. He cannot think of a single occasion when he showed compassion for the prisoners. It’s finally over for Langan: “And you call yourself a damn Muslim? Are you calling me an infidel?” Kotey cuts off the interview: “Fuck off, you idiot!” Langan stays behind, puts his face in his hands. And sobs.

After all: Sean Langan’s interview material provided important evidence for the processes. In a US court, Kotey pleaded guilty to eight counts of kidnapping, torturing and beheading hostages in Syria and was sentenced to life in prison on each count. El Shafee Elsheikh was also convicted on all eight counts and received multiple life sentences. The mental suffering that the IS Beatles inflicted on their hostages and their relatives will probably remain for a similar length of time.


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