We arrived at a small village in Northern Syria early in the morning, driven to a nondescript, secretly located prison where my team and I had the task of convincing the two infamous British ISIS fighters, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, to agree to an interview in front of our cameras.
As half of the alleged four-person ISIS cell nicknamed “the Beatles,” Kotey and Elsheikh stand accused of murdering more than two dozen hostages. Their leader, Mohammed Emwazi, was also known as “Jihadi John” — the suspected British voice behind the brutal execution videos of the American journalist James Foley, aid worker Alan Henning and several others.
Knowing all this, and Kotey and Elsheikh’s likely complicity in these horrific crimes, it was uncomfortable to set about the task of convincing both men to allow us an interview for our new VICE on HBO documentary that explores the aftermath of ISIS in northern Syria. I’ve interviewed a number of jihadists before, but this was my first time facing down leaders of ISIS with such brutal notoriety.
Dressed in sweatpants and fake Gucci sandals, 35-year-old Kotey and 30-year-old Elsheikh shuffled into a stuffy office attached to the high-security prison where they’re currently being held in the custody of the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces. Slumped down in the sofa across from me, they look less like fearsome torturers and more like sullen teenagers, scratching sleep and fleas from their eyes and hair. Their unassuming appearances nonetheless struck a chilling note throughout the room.
There was palpable disgust as the two men took note of my fitted jeans, my exposed hair and my clumsy offer of water as they fasted for Ramadan. Both refused to look directly at me or my female producer who was sat nearby. Anticipating this might happen, she and I had made sure our male cameraman was in the room during the negotiation. Kotey and Elsheikh answered our questions, but directed their answers toward him.
Over the course of an hour though, the hostility gradually softened, and a bizarre, hybrid British-jihadi humor surfaced. The men reminisced over their favorite fish and chips shop and London’s Portobello market, as well as the good times they’d enjoyed as proud members of the so-called Islamic State.
They made bitterly dark jokes about the recent royal wedding and Donald Trump’s Stormy Daniels scandal, about suicide bombers and how they bet their “Beatles” nickname has John Lennon turning in his grave. At one point, Kotey, who had a habit of self-mythologizing, told us of a dream he’d had the night before he left London for Syria. In his dream, he said he gifted his mother a shoebox containing the Queen’s head. “Tells you something about how I must’ve felt,” he scoffed.
I probed a little deeper into their families, asking how they might feel now, knowing what these men have become. The mood shifted. Kotey said he hadn’t spoken to his mother since early 2014 and asked me how she was doing. I told him that, to my knowledge, she hadn’t spoken to the press. I watched him stifle a tear — a vulnerable moment for someone who has likely caused immeasurable suffering to countless mothers grieving their innocent sons who were abducted, tortured and killed by ISIS.
After over an hour of back and forth, they eventually agreed to be interviewed, and the small talk stopped as my team got to work. As the crew completed their final preparations, I had to take a moment to physically step out of the room. I was struck by how human the interactions had felt and how strange it was to connect on some level to what I reminded myself were two alleged terrorists accused of unimaginable evil.
Once cameras were rolling, Kotey and Elsheikh sat up to passionately launch an attack on the “hypocrisy” of Western democracy, claiming they won’t get a fair trial. The eye contact they had so strenuously avoided off-camera turned into a glare they held throughout most of my interview with them. They sneered when I presented them with the long list of crimes the U.S. Department of State has accused them of: the waterboarding; mock executions; crucifixions; exceptionally cruel torture methods; and beheadings that allegedly took place in the cell they were overseeing. They were defensive and unrepentant over any involvement they’d had with ISIS, claiming zero regrets on coming to Syria and that they wouldn’t think twice to do it all over again.
Both Kotey and Elsheikh accused Western powers of destroying the city of Raqqa with their widespread airstrike campaign, which was led by the U.S. They also condemned Donald Trump’s recent indecisiveness over whether to keep U.S. troops in Syria. They stated that such tactics would only serve to drive local support toward ISIS, fueling the imminent havoc that they warned was yet to come from growing anti-Western, extremist sentiment. They also openly toyed with the idea that U.S. pullout could mean they — and thousands of their comrades — could soon be broken out of this prison by ISIS loyalists.
The men were articulate, calculated and self-aware. They were charismatic when they wanted to be and had natural leaders’ instincts, which I imagine were put to good use when they at one time inspired and influenced more impressionable young kids initiated into the caliphate. Yet there was also another, strangely childish side to them — they complained about fleas in their cells, or how they don’t have regular access to television. It’s hard to imagine what kind of mental gymnastics it would take for them to make such minor complaints knowing the gruesome acts they stand accused of, and surely witnessed.
There was a collective sigh of relief when, several hours later, the guards came in, handcuffed the men and placed paper bags on their heads. As they left the room and stepped into the scorching Syrian sunlight, I couldn’t help but hope that they’d remain locked up for life.
But the future of the region hangs in a tenuous balance. The Kurdish-led U.S.-backed forces that hold prisoners like ‘The Beatles’ depend on Western support, and they face powerful enemies on many sides. With the Assad regime on the doorstep, and the last remnants of ISIS still battling it out on the Iraq-Syria border, the security of this region — and, indeed, of its prisons — remains an open question.
Below, watch the full episode on Yeung’s report from Syria, which includes her entire interview with Kotey and Elsheikh.
Isobel Yeung is a correspondent and producer for VICE on HBO. Follow her on Twitter here.