At the helm, former hostage Nicholas Henein tells the “sadistic” humor of his tormentors

The ruthless Beatles of ISIS found it funny to sing a shocking parody of the hit California hotel to their “terrified” hostages, Frenchman Nicolas Henin told a US court on Wednesday. The former war correspondent turned consultant is part of a group of 27 Western journalists and humanitarian workers kidnapped by ISIS in Syria between 2012 and 2015, ten of whom were executed.

He testified on Wednesday on the sixth day of the trial of al-Shafi’i al-Sheikh, a 33-year-old man whose hostages accused him of belonging to a group of jihadists whose hostages dubbed “The Beatles” because of their British accent.

Nicholas Henein, who was kidnapped in Raqqa on June 22, 2013 by other kidnappers, first heard of them in August, when Briton David Haines and Italian Federico Mutka joined him in arrest several weeks later under the thumbs of these “sadistic” Britons. “When I saw them, I thought of images of the liberation of prisoners from Nazi camps at the end of World War II,” said the French, referring to the extreme thinness and fragility of the two men. These humanitarian workers from the NGO Acted admit that they were tortured by three men they named “Ringo, John and George”. They did not encounter the fourth of the “Jihadi John” group that was killed in an American strike in 2015.

“Osama Hotel”

In September, the trio visited this small group of prisoners. “Federico and David were terrified, trembling,” recalls Nicholas Henin. Quickly, the other hostages were struck by the same fear. The Beatles, who had become regular visitors, love beatings, forced their prisoners to kneel before them and imposed on them “invitation sessions,” an hour of religious and political discourse that “served above all to justify” the kidnappings.

In December, “They forced us to sing a parody of California hotelWhich became the Osama Hotel in reference to bin Laden.” “It was basically: Welcome to the Osama Hotel, which you will never leave, and if you try, you will be killed in Mr. Bigley’s fashion.”

British engineer Ken Bigley was beheaded in Iraq in 2004 by the Islamist group Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his killing was captured in a propaganda video. “It was terrifying to us, but they saw it as a joke,” said Nicolas Henin.

Fourth of July raid

In January, all the hostages gathered in the south of Raqqa in a place where they baptized the “Badiya Prison”. Nicholas Henin learns about the place: he was arrested immediately after his arrest. It was also there that on the third day of his arrest he managed to escape, through the window from which he tore the bars. “Unfortunately,” after a night of walking, he came across “ISIS fighters” and was taken back to his jailers. He was then subjected to a torture session as a base, beaten and hung in the air for hours under the scorching sun.

Although he fails, this episode gives him a good knowledge of the place. After his release in April 2014 along with three other French journalists – Didier François, Pierre Torres and Edouard Elias – he was able to describe this prison accurately to the agents who interrogated him. He speaks privately to American soldiers who want to attempt a raid to free American and British hostages, whose governments refuse to pay the ransom.

“Nicholas Henin drew up a diagram that turned out to be particularly useful,” the bar then told FBI agent Robert Daniel Storey, who was involved in the delicate operation. On July 4, the US National Day, soldiers land in helicopters in the “Desert Prison”. After an exchange of fire, they entered the building. “But the hostages are no longer there, they have been moved,” Daniel Storey recalls. “It was a huge disappointment.”

In the following months, many of them, including the three Americans James Foley, Peter Kassig and Stephen Sotloff, suffered the same fate as Ken Bigley. Their death deserves al-Shafi’i al-Sheikh, who was arrested by Syrian Kurdish forces in 2018, to stand trial in the United States. His trial is expected to last two more weeks.

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