While people in a packed courtroom were crying, Lucy Henning spoke of her own guilt at the death of her father, Alan Henning, who was tortured and beheaded by Islamic State ten years ago.
“If I were not a moody teenager, he might not have gone,” she said through tears at Friday’s sentencing forone of two British nationals – of their prisoners – in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria for their roles in the hostage-taking scheme, which took two dozen Westerners captive and resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
Lucy said she has many questions about her father that remain unanswered: “Would he send us a message? Was he angry that we did not get him out? Was he buried or cremated? Or was he just left there?”
Kotey was sentenced to life in prison on Friday. The verdict was a given conclusion under the indictment he entered into last year. El Shafee Elsheikh, the other British citizen,in August and also gets a lifetime period. The death penalty was not an option under the agreement that allowed their extradition to the United States
Kotey was specifically accused of conspiring in the kidnapping and death of four Americans: journalistsand Steven Sotloff and relief workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were all beheaded. Mueller was tortured and raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before she was killed. The British relief workers Henning and David Haines were also beheaded by Islamic State.
About a dozen family members and survivors spoke at Friday’s hearing. Kayla Mueller’s father, Carl Mueller, said that during the ordeal, “I lost my faith in God and I lost my faith in our government. My government left her there for 18 months. They would not allow us to negotiate.”
He said the trial and prosecution of Elsheikh and Kotey restored his faith in the government, leading to tears from Judge TS Ellis III.
Kayla’s mother, Marsha Mueller, said she and her husband are still desperate for the truth about her daughter’s death. Unlike the three other Americans whose beheading death was recorded on video and spread over the Internet, Kayla’s death is still something of a mystery. Islamic State says she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike – the US government believes she was killed by ISIS.
“I am grateful for every truth, no matter how painful it is to hear,” she said. “We will continue to look for our daughter’s remains.”
Through the victim’s statements of influence, Kotey made eye contact with the victims while Elsheikh looked away or kept her eyes closed. His apparent indifference to the victims’ words angered Sotloff’s mother, Shirley Sotloff, who demanded that Elsheikh look at her as she spoke.
“We are forever crushed by the loss of our beloved son and defined as the people from a horror movie,” she said, referring to the beheading videos circulating around the world.
Kotey declined to comment at Friday’s court hearing, referring instead to a 25-page letter he wrote to the court prior to the sentencing. The letter describes his conversion to Islam at the age of 19 and expresses a certain ambivalence around his actions, while at the same time justifying brutality as a response to Western foreign policy.
“In retrospect, I can say that through our efforts, there were actions we took that required moral compromises,” he wrote.
While Elsheikh was not convicted, the judge ordered him to attend Friday’s hearing so that the victims would not have to travel to two separate convictions to say peace.
Kotey and Elsheikh were captured in Syria in 2018 and brought to Virginia in 2020 to stand before a federal court. A third Beatle, Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”, who carried out the beheadings, was killed in a drone attack in 2015.
The only question of consequence to be decided at Friday’s hearing was whether the judge would recommend a prison other than the “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, for Kotey to serve his time. His lawyers said that unless the judge recommended otherwise, Kotey would almost certainly be sent there.
Ellis acknowledged that conditions in Florence are more “serious” than in other prisons, but he declined to make a recommendation, saying it should be left to the Bureau of Prisons’ assessment.
Wherever he is sent, Kotey will be one of about 50 inmates in the prison system who are subject to “special administrative measures” that greatly limit his ability to communicate with other inmates or the outside world.
The terms of his grievance agreement, however, require the U.S. government to transfer Kotey to Britain’s custody if it agrees to take him and imprison him for the rest of his life. The agreement also requires Kotey to meet with any victims’ family members who request it.