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Two ISIL ‘Beatles’ charged with felonies to appear in US court

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The United States Department of Justice unsealed charges Wednesday against two fighters from the ISIL (ISIS) group from the United Kingdom, accusing them of carrying out a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against Western hostages they had captured in Syria, including four Americans.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men dubbed “the Beatles” by the hostages they held captive because of their British accents.

They are expected to make their first appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment.

The charges are a milestone in a years-long effort by US authorities to bring to justice members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria.

The men’s arrival in the US sets the stage for arguably the most sensational trial on terrorism-related charges since the 2014 criminal case against the suspected ringleader of a deadly attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Alexanda Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were allegedly among four British fighters who made up a brutal ISIL/ISIS cell dubbed ‘The Beatles’, have said that their home country’s revoking of their citizenship denies them a fair trial [File: Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Videos of the killings, released online in the form of ISIL propaganda, stunned the US government for their unflinching violence. The recordings routinely showed prisoners in orange jumpsuits on their knees beside a captor dressed in black whose native English drove home the global reach of a group that at its peak occupied vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Relatives of four of the slain hostages praised the Justice Department for transferring the men to the US for trial, saying in a statement, “Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court.”

The indictment describes Kotey and Elsheikh as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme targeting American and European citizens” from 2012 through 2015.

In July 2014, according to the indictment, Elsheikh described to a family member his participation in an ISIL/ISIS attack on the Syrian Army. He sent the family member photos of decapitated heads and said in a voice message, “There’s many heads, this is just a couple that I took a photo of.”

Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in US military custody after being captured in Syria one year earlier by the US-based Syrian Democratic Forces. The Justice Department has long wanted to put them on trial, but those efforts were complicated by wrangling over whether the UK, which does not have the death penalty, would share evidence that could be used in a death penalty prosecution.

A Kurdish security officer, background, escorts Alexanda Amon Kotey, right, and El Shafee Elsheikh, at a security center in Kobani, Syria, Friday, March 30, 2018. [File: Hussein Malla/AP]

US Attorney General William Barr broke the diplomatic standoff earlier this year when he promised the men would not face the death penalty. That prompted British authorities to share evidence that US prosecutors deemed crucial for obtaining convictions.

In interviews while in detention, the two men admitted they helped collect email addresses from hostage Kayla Mueller that could be used to send out ransom demands. Mueller was killed in 2015 after 18 months in ISIL captivity.

The US Department of State described their conduct in terms not nearly so benign. The agency declared Elsheikh and Kotey as specially designated “global terrorists” in 2017 and accused them of holding captive and beheading approximately two dozen hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig.

Specifically, the State Department said Elsheikh “was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions while serving as an ISIS jailer”.

Kotey, according to the State Department, acted as an ISIL recruiter and “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding”.

In a statement, relatives of Mueller, Foley, Sotloff and Kassig said the transfer “will be the first step in the pursuit of justice for the alleged horrific human rights crimes against these four young Americans”.

“We are hopeful that the U.S. government will finally be able to send the important message that if you harm Americans, you will never escape justice. And when you are caught, you will face the full power of American law,” the statement said.

The other two Beatles included the most infamous member of the group, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” who was killed in a 2015 drone strike. Emwazi appeared and spoke in the video of Foley’s execution. The fourth member, Aine Lesley Davis, was sentenced to seven years in prison in Turkey in 2017.

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‘Amplifiers for idiots’: Former Google CEO slams social media

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Eric Schmidt says more regulation may be needed for social media, but US antitrust suit against Google is misplaced.

Former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said the “excesses” of social media are likely to result in greater regulation of internet platforms in the coming years.

Schmidt, who left the board of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. in 2019 but is still one of its largest shareholders, said the antitrust lawsuit the U.S. government filed against the company on Tuesday was misplaced, but that more regulation may be in order for social networks in general.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google [Bloomberg]

“The context of social networks serving as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended,” Schmidt said at a virtual conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Unless the industry gets its act together in a really clever way, there will be regulation.”

Google’s YouTube has tried to decrease the spread of misinformation and lies about Covid-19 and U.S. politics over the last year, with mixed results. Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have also been under fire in recent years for allowing racist and discriminatory messages to spread online.

Schmidt also argued Google’s massive search business — the target of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust suit — continues to be so successful because people choose it over competitors, not because it uses its size to block smaller rivals.

“I would be careful about these dominance arguments. I just don’t agree with them,” Schmidt said. “Google’s market share is not 100%.”

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US officials say Russia, Iran have obtained voter information

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Intelligence officials link Iran to threatening emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states.

The United States’ top intelligence official has accused Russia and Iran of obtaining US voter information and making moves to influence public opinion ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, made the announcement at a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday that also included FBI Director Chris Wray.

The announcement two weeks before the November 3 election showed the level of alarm among top US officials that foreign actors were seeking to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the vote and spread misinformation in an attempt to sway its outcome.

“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said during the news conference.

Most of that voter registration is public, but Ratcliffe said that government officials “have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage”

Ratcliffe was referring to emails sent on Wednesday and designed to look like they came from the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, government sources told the Reuters news agency. A number of voters in Florida and other key states in the election battle between the Republican president and Democrat Joe Biden said they had received the messages.

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“You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you,” the emails said. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.”

“I would take this seriously if I were you,” the message ends, adding the voter’s address.

‘Desperate attempts’

In addition to the threatening emails, Ratcliffe said Iran also distributed a video that falsely suggested voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas.

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said, adding that Russia and Iran seek to “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine confidence in American democracy”.

The top national security official did not explain how the Russians and Iranians had obtained the voter information or how the Russians might be using it.

US intelligence agencies previously warned that Iran might interfere to hurt Trump while Russia was trying to help him in the election. Outside experts said that if Ratcliffe was correct, Iran would be trying to make Trump look bad by calling attention to support and threats by the sometimes violent Proud Boys group.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the US election.

“Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.

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US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.

“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told broadcaster MSNBC in an interview.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in US elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections”.

Wray, the FBI director, meanwhile stressed that US election systems remained safe.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” he told reporters.

“We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient – you should be confident that your vote counts.”

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More than half of small European firms fear closure: McKinsey

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One in 10 small and medium-sized firms in Europe expect to file for bankruptcy within six months, 55 percent in a year, the McKinsey survey found.

More than half the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which together provide jobs for two-thirds of European workers, fear for their survival in the coming 12 months, according to a survey released by management consultancy McKinsey on Thursday.

The survey was conducted in August, before the current acceleration in coronavirus cases across Europe that is forcing governments to impose new restrictions on activity and prompting speculation of fresh national lockdowns.

The finding comes as warnings multiply of an impending wave of business insolvencies and as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others urge the region’s governments to boost state support to help companies weather the coronavirus pandemic.

The McKinsey survey of more than 2,200 companies in five countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain – found that 55 percent expected to shut down by September next year if their revenues remained at current levels.

At the current trajectory, one in 10 SMEs were expected to file for bankruptcy within six months.

“This is a substantial burden on the financial sector,” report co-author Zdravko Mladenov said of just one of the knock-on impacts of such a development, which would also send jobless totals surging and stymie wider investment in the economy.

Economists polled by Reuters last month forecast that the euro area economy would grow by just 5.5 percent next year, after a fall of approximately 8 percent this year, but warned that even that patchy recovery was vulnerable to a further spread of the virus.

SMEs are defined as companies with 250 or fewer employees.

In Europe, they employ more than 90 million people, but their small size makes them vulnerable to cash flow crises. In Spain, for example, 83 percent of the 85,000 businesses that have collapsed since February employ fewer than five workers.

‘Whatever it takes’

State measures across the region, ranging from moratoria on bankruptcies to loan repayment holidays, have until now kept thousands of struggling businesses afloat. But as those measures are in some cases wound down, Germany’s Bundesbank and the Bank of England are among those warning of rising insolvencies.

“Policymakers need to do whatever it takes to contain the pandemic and its economic damage, and not withdraw support prematurely to avoid repeating the mistake of the global financial crisis,” the IMF said in its blog this week.

“For companies, policies now need to go beyond liquidity support and ensure that insolvent but viable firms can remain in business,” it added, citing measures to facilitate debt restructuring or make equity available to viable firms.

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