At the helm, former hostage Nicolas Hénin recounts the “sadistic” humor of his torturers

Daesh’s cruel “Beatles” found it funny to sing a macabre parody of the hit Hotel California his “terrified” hostages, Frenchman Nicolas Hénin told a US court on Wednesday. The former war reporter turned consultant is part of a group of 27 Western journalists and humanitarians kidnapped in Syria by Daesh between 2012 and 2015, ten of whom were executed.

He testified Wednesday in Sixth day of the trial of El Shafee el-Sheikha 33-year-old man accused of being part of a group of jihadists nicknamed “the Beatles” by his hostages for his British accent.

Kidnapped in Raqqa on June 22, 2013 by other kidnappers, Nicolas Hénin first heard of them in August, when Britain’s David Haines and Italy’s Federico Motka joined him in detention after several weeks under their yoke. British “sadists”. “When I saw them, I thought of the photos of the liberation of prisoners from Nazi camps at the end of World War II,” said the Frenchman, referring to the extreme thinness and fragility of the two men. These humanitarians from the NGO Acted confess that they were tortured by three men whom they nicknamed “Ringo, John and George”. They did not face the 4th of the group, “Jihadi John” killed by a US attack in 2015.

« Hotel Oussama »

In September, the trio visits this small group of prisoners. “Federico and David were terrified, trembling”, remembers Nicolás Hénin. Quickly, the other hostages develop the same fear. The “Beatles”, who had become regular visitors, liked to hit, forced their prisoners to kneel before them and imposed “Daawa sessions”, that is, an hour of theological and political rhetoric that “served above all to justify” the kidnappings.

In December, “we were forced to sing a parody of Hotel California, which became Hotel Oussama in reference to bin Laden.” “It was basically: welcome to the Osama Hotel, where you’ll never get out, and if you try, you’ll get killed Mr. Bigley style.”

British engineer Ken Bigley was beheaded in Iraq in 2004 by the Islamist group Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and his death was staged in a propaganda video. “It was scary for us, but they saw it as a joke,” said Nicolas Hénin.

4th of July Raid

In January, all the hostages gather in the south of Raqa, in a place they call “the desert prison”. Nicolas Hénin recognizes the place: it is there that he was arrested immediately after his capture. He, too, had managed to escape from there on the third day of his detention, through a window from which he had ripped off the bars. “Unfortunately”, after a night of walking, he had come across “two Daesh fighters” and had been returned to his jailers. He then suffered a torture session as a rule, beaten and hung in the air for hours under a scorching sun.

Despite his failure, this episode gives him a good insight into the place. After his release in April 2014 with three other French journalists -Didier François, Pierre Torres and Edouard Elias-, he is therefore able to accurately describe this prison to the agents who interrogate him. He speaks in particular to US soldiers who want to attempt a raid to free US and British hostages, whose governments refuse to pay ransoms.

“Nicolas Hénin made a sketch that was particularly useful,” an FBI agent, Robert Daniel Story, involved in this delicate operation, said at the bar at the time. On July 4, National Day in the United States, soldiers land in helicopters in “the prison of the desert.” After exchanges of gunfire, they enter the building. “But the hostages weren’t there anymore, they had been moved,” recalled Daniel Story. “It was a big disappointment.”

In the months that followed, several of them, including the three Americans James Foley, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff, suffered the same fate as Ken Bigley. His death is worth for El Shafee el-Sheikh, arrested in 2018 by the Syrian Kurdish forces, to stand trial in the United States. His trial is expected to last another two weeks.

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