Boasts and brutality of British jihadists

Published by The Mail on Sunday (24th August, 2014)

British jihadis involved in the brutal beheading of American reporter James Foley callously boasted of making personal fortunes from ransoms paid for other released hostages.

The gang openly talked of making so much money they could ‘retire to Kuwait or Qatar’, according to testimonies by former hostages obtained by The Mail on Sunday. The men were reported to be ‘interested in money’ from the start of the kidnap ordeal, even bragging to prisoners about how much they were making.

A security source revealed last night that £24 million was paid by at least four European countries for the release of 11 hostages last year.

British and US hostages were seen as being in a ‘different category,’ he said – so demands for an £80 million ransom on Foley were set deliberately high as a provocation.

It has also emerged that:

• Security services believe they are close to identifying the British militants who executed Foley.

• The East Londoners formed a specialist kidnap gang, operating in Syria for up to two years.

• They are thought to have possibly been involved in the seizure of several Westerners, including Foley.

• Their leader was not ‘John’, the left-handed man wielding the knife in the horrific video of Foley’s death, but ‘George’, who goes under the nom-de-guerre of Abu Muhareb (‘Fighter’).

• One former hostage described them as ‘sadistic psychopaths’, regularly handing out brutal ‘punishments’ that included the use of Tasers on hands and bodies.

• They were so vicious that at one stage they were stopped from guarding hostages by IS.

• IS claims it has ‘sleepers’ already in position in the UK and US, ready to strike at any time.

The sickening beheading of Foley, shown off in a slick and distressing propaganda video, highlighted the shameful role being played by British members of Islamic State.

Security services in Britain and the US have drawn up a shortlist of suspects. They believe there may have been more than one killer, since two different knives feature in the footage, but have not yet definitively identified those behind the murder.

The Mail on Sunday has pieced together an unprecedented picture of the British gang’s brutal operation and its savage treatment of seized captives through extensive interviews with hostages, family and security sources.

The detailed investigation also uncovered disturbing details of how the world’s wealthiest terror group is being funded by ransom payments, with £8 million paid for the release of four French hostages alone.

Two years ago, the United States said such payments had become ‘the most significant source of terrorist funding’. Britain and the US refuse to pay ransoms.

The disclosure that British militants talked among themselves and with their captives about ‘retiring’ with the money they were making demolishes any idea they are motivated purely by religious fervour.

Our investigation revealed the existence of four Beatles – not three as has been widely reported – nicknamed John, Paul, George and Ringo by their Western captives.

The gang’s ringleader was ‘George’, who spent much of his time regurgitating chunks from the Koran and promoting IS’s extremist brand of Islam at public events. The hostages concluded he was not very smart – unlike ‘John’, who used the nom-de-guerre ‘Abu Saleh’ (‘Pious’) and was seen wielding the knife in the video of Foley’s murder.

‘Ringo’ was also frequently seen, unlike ‘Paul’ who appeared in their cells the least. ‘He seems to have been just a guard, not there all the time,’ said one key figure.

They were also guarded by French-speaking jihadis – at least one of whom was Belgian.

According to these accounts, the British gang spoke among themselves in English, struggling with Arabic when asked to translate statements for victims to read on video. This led captives to conclude their tormentors were second-generations Britons; they debated whether the extremists were from Pakistani or Somali backgrounds.

Some, but not all, of the Westerners were tortured – with the thuggish British fanatics feared more than other militants for their viciousness. ‘They did the worst stuff in the world,’ said one family source. This violence included beatings and the use of Tasers to give electric shocks.

Hostages said the British militants were removed at one stage for excessive brutality against them. They said the gang seemed to flit between carrying out kidnap operations on Westerners, fighting on the front line and guarding hostages.

One well-placed source revealed their cars were identified from number plates as being used in ‘multiple’ kidnaps. ‘This appears to be a professional kidnap team,’ he said. ‘There is a good likelihood that some were involved in the kidnapping of many of the Westerners, including Foley.’

The American freelance journalist was seized in November 2012, when kidnappings were starting to take off in Syria. In the early days of the uprising, journalists were valued for giving voice to rebels seeking democracy.

Reporters and aid workers began being grabbed from the streets by criminal gangs. Most ended in the hands of rebel militia, especially the increasingly-influential jihadist groups who saw them as valuable financial and propaganda tools.

There are at least seven Western hostages – three of them American – currently controlled by IS in North-Eastern Syria. Others are being held by a motley variety of rebel militia and criminal gangs, sometimes claiming to be IS to ramp up ransom payments.

Seized Westerners said they were frequently moved, often every few weeks, and held together in gloomy basements and cellars. The French hostages confirmed to security sources after their release that they had shared cells.

The hostages were divided over whether The Beatles themselves carried out ransom negotiations, fixed the prices on their heads or wrote chilling emails sent to their families.

Foley, however, was treated differently from the start. He was barred from contact with his family and there was no ransom demand for the first year of his captivity – then when one was sent, it was set preposterously high at £80 million.

American hostages – especially Foley, whose brother was discovered to be serving in the US Air Force – were picked out for the most brutal beatings. ‘From the beginning, they were interested in hitting America,’ one hostage told a friend. ‘The more they can do to point the arrow into America, they more they will do. They think America is evil.’

Nicholas Henin, a French journalist, has described how his fellow captive Foley ‘became the jailers’ punch bag’ yet remained impassive, despite terrible abuse.

Western hostages endure mock executions, are routinely accused of being spies, and are forced to suffer terrifying interrogations. One European photographer was told he must be a spy since his country had friendly relations with the US government.

The hostages, who could hear air strikes nearby and in at least one prison, were ordered to pray five times a day and were blindfolded even when moved between cells by the British gang.

‘Those guards really want everything to stay secret,’ one hostage told a friend. ‘They used lots of tricks to make sure we didn’t know who they were or where we were. For example, when they entered the room, you faced the wall even if they were masked.’

Western captives were seen as valuable commodities, sometimes being fed better than local inmates. ‘They might keep Americans for special occasions,’ said a Syrian bounty hunter hired to track down hostages.

One local journalist kidnapped by IS and held in their stronghold of Raqqa said they were crammed 20 to 40 in a stinking cell under a municipal building.

He described watching the torture of a fellow prisoner by guards using electric shocks and sticks, while two fellow inmates were publicly executed in a nearby square. Syrians have been executed by IS for ‘crimes’ such as homosexuality and witchcraft.

IS kidnaps and buys hostages from other groups, while also raking off a fortune from oil sales. It has become extremely wealthy and well equipped; even captured soldiers in Iraq are held to ransom, with $1 million raised from just 20 troops in one recent case.

A security source with intimate knowledge of Syrian kidnap cases said hostage families were contacted by email with threatening demands for money. ‘In some cases, the negotiators added on fees when families stalled or weren’t able to produce the money,’ he said.

It is understood £8 million was paid to secure the freedom of four French hostages, including war reporter Didier Francois, with another £16 million handed over for the lives of seven other European journalists and aid workers.

‘They usually demand insane ransoms for people, then it gets lowered to a few million,’ said a Syrian source. All governments deny making payments, but an official Italian source privately admitted paying ransoms last week. Most of the cash comes from governments, although families and employers have also contributed.

One hostage said £3 million was paid to free an Italian journalist held with him. Italian diplomats are currently in the region trying to negotiate freedom for two female aid workers.

IS is copying tactics honed by rival terror groups. The New York Times last month revealed Al Qaeda and its affiliates took £75 million from kidnappings over the past six years, with £40 million handed over last year alone.

Yesterday, the United Nations called for concerted action to save thousands of people trapped by the fanatics in the town of Amerli, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.

Most of the town’s 18,000 residents are Turkman Shia, descendants of Ottoman Turks seen as apostates by IS forces that have besieged them for two months. They are in a desperate state, with no electricity or drinking water and are running out of food and medicines.

Yet IS remains defiant, despite global outrage. A spokesman told The Mail on Sunday that the message from the Foley murder was that they would fight the US ‘by all means necessary – and not just by killing a journalist’ – following US air strikes.

Abu Obiada, a religious official with IS currently fighting on the frontline against Kurds in Iraq, said Foley was killed despite his innocence for the crimes of his country.

Alarmingly, he claimed the bloodstained group already had ‘sleepers’ ready to strike in this country. ‘Our message is to know that we have some people already in the UK and US who are ready to fight them there.’

‘We will attack anyone who stands in the way of an expansion of the Islamic State,’ he said. ‘There is no border we will stop at.’

*This article was jointly written with James Harkin

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