The two British Isis members accused of involvement in the beheading of western hostages are being taken to Iraq by the US military as the Turkish offensive in north-east Syria gets into its second day.
Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were members of a British group of Isis militants known as “the Beatles”. They were seized overnight, with lawyers predicting that their transfer to Iraq would be a precursor to them being taken to the United States.
Details remain sketchy, but western officials confirmed that the two Britons have been taken across the border, where they were previously held in detention by the Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Overnight, Donald Trump announced that the two had been moved, tweeting:
The two are understood to be part of a larger group moved by the US, with some reports saying it numbered around 40 Isis fighters. Earlier, Trump had said the US had “taken a certain number of Isis fighters that are particularly bad, and we’ve wanted to make sure that nothing happened with them with respect to getting out.”
The duo were part of a group of four who are accused of being involved in the apparently filmed beheadings of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer, said: “I think Iraq is a stopping point, and they are heading for Virginia in the United States, where they will very likely face a death penalty trial.”
The UK does not normally allows its citizens to be extradited if they will face a death penalty charge, but when he was home secretary, Sajid Javid said he would not longer seek such assurances from the US in the cases of Kotey and Elsheikh.
That decision had been challenged by Elsheikh’s mother, who took her case to the supreme court in London, to prevent the two men being extradited to the US and instead put on trial in their home country. Judgment in that case is awaited.
Stafford Smith said that taking prisoners across a border without due process amounted to an illegal rendition, but the lawyer, who has acted in a string of Guantanamo Bay cases, said he believed the US would allow a trial to go ahead.
“Kidnapping people is illegal, but the question is whether that will be enforceable in the US courts,” he said.
Overnight Trump said that he had spoken to the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, on the subject of Isis prisoners, but did not say whether he was referring to Kotey and Elsheikh.
There were also indications that the UK had been briefed in advance of the US operation, although a Home Office spokesperson said on Thursday: “It would be inappropriate to comment whilst legal proceedings are ongoing.”
The other members of the Beatles group included leader Mohammed Emwazi, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2015. The other, Aine Davis, was caught in Turkey and jailed for seven and half years in 2017, for being a member of a terror organisation.
Estimates vary about the number of foreign Isis fighters held by the Kurdish military, the SDF, but their numbers are at least 1,000 and potentially double that. There are also an estimated 10,000 or so Isis fighters from Syria and Iraq being held.
Many of the jails are near the border, although SDF sources denied reports that the prisons had been hit by Turkish shells. Attacks had taken place in the immediate vicinity, they said.
The number of Britons held in Isis jails is estimated by security sources to be around 30, and the UK has largely pursued a policy of ignoring them, arguing that they travelled to Syria at their own risk, a country where there has been no consular support since the start of the civil war in 2011.
One of those held is Jack Letts, who was raised in Oxfordshire and fled to join Isis before he was picked up in 2017. His British citizenship was stripped by the UK government over the summer, leaving him with his Canadian nationality inherited from his father. His situation is unclear.
There had been repeated warnings that the Turkish invasion meant Isis fighters could end up being released by one of the parties to the looming conflict, but Trump’s words suggest that the US intends to mitigate some of that risk.
Trump has shifted his position repeatedly on the detainees since Sunday night when he effectively gave the Turks the green light to invade the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria, suggesting initially that Turkey might have to take responsibility for them.
Last night, Trump railed against European countries for not taking custody of their own nationals who had been caught among the Isis ranks – and suggested they could escape. “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go,” the president said.
British and European officials have said they fear that trials in home countries could prove difficult because the offences took place overseas, in Syria and Iraq, and the witnesses and evidence are in those countries. The Kurdish administration in Syria had called for them to be put on trial locally, although that would have required international co-operation to establish.