Kobani, Syria (CNN)“Is this how MI6 roll?” asked El Shafee Elsheikh, his first words as I entered the room into which the Syrian-Kurdish jailers had led him and a fellow prisoner.
It was typical of what would follow, as I interviewed the two last members of the British ISIS cell known as “the Beatles” to be captured: like their life was a breathless movie, in which journalists were the enemy, and everything, really, was a bit of a laugh.
I explained I wasn’t posh enough to be in MI6, and pretty quickly they got to asking me exactly where in Surrey I was born.
We were three Britons, in a room, separated by a tiny table, and the fact that — although they stood accused of torturing and imprisoning journalists and forcing them to speak on camera — they were no longer in the so-called Caliphate, and had rights. They needed to consent to be interviewed. That’s how it works, even with the nastiest people.
Peter Kassig was a generous, kind, self-sacrificing kid who I drank with in Beirut’s bars. It tells you almost all you need to know about the tolerance for risk this ex-US army ranger had that in between his trips into Syria to deliver medical aid, he would run barefoot around Beirut with me. Barefoot. In Beirut. He preferred it that way.
Pete was beheaded, it appears, by Jihadi John, although the video they released of the killing only showed the end of the scene, not the act itself.
Other hostages had been made to recite long denunciations of America and been videoed as the knife reached their throat. I and his other friends have liked to think that the ex-commando fought back when they began the murder, and spoiled their video.
That would have been Pete. On the day his video was released, we went to one Beirut bar and tried to clear his inevitably huge tab. He had already done it before he left for Syria.
I don’t appreciate or agree with journalists being a central part of the story anywhere. But this is an unavoidable part of the context, and when people debate if and how men like the Beatles should be interviewed, it is important to explain how these things come about.
El-Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey knew fully well that they had the right to not consent to be interviewed. They insisted the cameras be turned off — even pointed away — as we talked things through.
They wanted to know all the questions first: no.
They wanted the right to delete the interview at the end if they didn’t like it: no.
Elsheikh was always the more hostile of the two: a wiry, tiny bug of a man, who thought his stare carried menace when instead it exuded sadness and wild anger.
We both surged forward in our seats when I told him I didn’t need him to lecture me about justice. Later, he almost got up to walk out. You may ask: why not just let them leave?
One of the major failings of the war on ISIS is that it has left us in the West little the wiser as to why this happened. We know local ISIS members in Iraq and Syria have obvious grievances of abuse against Sunnis by Shia, the Syrian civil war and the ongoing violence in Iraq.
But foreign fighters? What brings them here from their comfortable Western lives? We still don’t know, really. We have ideas, but we don’t have the full picture.
ISIS strived hard to erect a wall of fear between the West and their citizens who went to join the so-called Caliphate.
That worked: we rarely ever got to talk to them, to understand why they did the daft and hideous things they did. We don’t need to humanize them, but the last 17 years of war have left us wiser about why Afghanistan can’t be fixed, and why Iraq needs to find its own solutions, with some outside help.
Knowing why bored or uneducated Western citizens join a death cult should form part of our task as journalists and governments. We need to know why they are so dumb. So we need to hear them talk.
That’s technically a violation of international treaties, definitely of journalistic ethics, and also means they won’t say much of interest.
After 90 minutes of persuading and cajoling, they agreed to put on microphones. In my mind, I hope Pete was watching from some fictional afterlife, and was able to consider this a win.
They were going to talk on our terms, and they were going — for the most part — to make sociopathic idiots of themselves. Here are some things that didn’t make the final cut of the interview.
Elsheikh, who in turn seemed really upset and dismissive at reports that they had both lost their UK citizenship, declared that such a move, if true, “would be a very black day for international law.” It staggered me: the cowardice of running for the very legal institutions your Caliphate had sought to destroy.
Elsheikh also repeatedly declared his admiration for his US Defense Department interrogators as “fair actors.” “They are definitely not terrible people,” he said, before a little fear emerged. “If you were to be taken back to the USA, you would be dealing with the likes of the FBI and people of that sort who are definitely not… I don’t have the same to say about them,” he said, stopping short of actual criticism.
He went on later to praise his friend Jihadi John and recalled how an American interrogator had drawn a comparison between John, and a former army colleague of the interrogator’s that he served in Iraq with, who went off the rails when he returned from Iraq, using drugs, robbing banks and attempting “death by cop.”
Elsheikh was still, after the last six years, incredibly naive. He had been won over by a simple trick by an interrogator, of forced empathy. I took slight delight pointing out to him at the end that the interrogator may or may not have had such a friend, but either way, was playing him. He looked genuinely hurt.
When I asked Kotey — generally more seized with the “fun” of it all — if he regretted anything, he laughed, and said: “Sorry, you just reminded me of one of the responses of one of the detainees in the cell who was asked a similar question by an American interrogator. He said: ‘I regret that I trusted that motherf***ing smuggler’.” He later invoked OJ Simpson as an example of someone falsely tried by media. This was not a serious person.
These men were not the 10-feet-tall ISIS militants who fought for years, terrifying over their barbaric video broadcasts. They were young. Ill-informed. Uneducated. Dismissive of women (Kotey almost immediately launched into a chauvinistic tirade about one female journalist being “emotional”).
They were easily led. They would probably both have been delivering pizza and swapping top-end video games, in drab urban lives, had ISIS not happened to them.
This had been the greatest street gang they could have joined. The masks and the black flag had made them someone they were not, or could ever have been. They had had their “moment,” and they still cared little for the lives they had ruined. I saw only one moment of apparent genuine emotion in Elshekih’s eyes when he regretted letting his four-year-old son see a video of a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage by ISIS. Pause a moment to let that sink in.
The excitement for them, the long negotiations with journalists as to whether and how they will speak, will soon be over. And the cold, silent, hard-lit world of a tiny American cell likely awaits the rest of their lives.
Don’t worry, Pete, you won