Federico Motka’s kidnapper greeted him in English after he and his colleagues were kidnapped near a refugee camp on the Turkish border: “Welcome to Syria, you mutt.”
For the Italian aid worker, it was the beginning of 14 months of brutality in the hands of the Islamic State.
Motka testified at the trial on Thursday in the terror trial against El Shafee Elsheikh, a British citizen accused of taking a leading role in a kidnapping program by the Islamic State that took more than 20 Westerners hostage between 2012 and 2015.
Four Americans – journalistsand and aid workers and – was among them. Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were beheaded. Mueller was forced into slavery and repeatedly raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before being killed.
Motka is the first surviving hostage to testify at Elsheikh’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia.
Motka was born in Trieste, Italy, and said he spent much of his childhood in the Middle East attending boarding school in England. He was an aid worker who investigated the needs of a refugee camp in March 2013 when he and a British colleague, David Haines, were captured and taken hostage.
Motka testified that during the first month of captivity he was only sometimes treated badly, but that the beatings often fell into the hands of three prisoners whom the hostages called “the Beatles” because of their British accents. They learned to talk secretly about their captives, who wore masks and made an effort to hide their identities, because they never knew what would make them speed up. A dispute over bathroom hygiene led to a particularly intense assault, he said.
“They said I was a ‘posh wanker’ because I went to boarding school,” Motka testified. “They said I was arrogant, and they would take me down a stick.”
Motka’s use of the term “posh wanker” sparked a brief period of uncomfortable laughter in the courtroom, when the judge interrupted and asked what the phrase meant, forcing Motka to explain the term’s vulgar meaning of British idiom.
However, the British accents and phraseology are an important part of the case, as prosecutors try to prove that Elsheikh is indeed one of the Beatles who tortured the hostages, even though the Beatles went to great lengths to hide their faces. Motka testified that there were at least three Britons in the group of prisoners, and the hostages gave them the nicknames “John”, “George” and “Ringo”.
Prosecutors have told the court that Elshiekh is the one who was nicknamed Ringo.
One way Motka distinguished the three was their preference for sentencing.
“George was more for boxing,” Motka testified. “John, he kicked a lot. Ringo used to talk about how he liked wrestling. He put people in headaches.”
He described a case where Ringo put James Foley in a head lock so hard that he fainted.
Motka also told of a time in the summer of 2013 when the hostages were held in a facility they called the “box”. The Beatles put Motka and his cellmate David Haines in a room with Foley and the British hostage John Cantlie for what they called a “Royal Rumble”.
“They were super excited about it,” Motka said of the Beatles about the match they imposed on the four. “We were so weak and crushed that we could barely lift our arms.”
The group was told that the losers would be watered. Two of the four fainted during the hour-long battle, Motka said. The Beatles had considered him the loser but never waterboarded him, but beat him instead.
When they were transferred to various facilities, Motka said that the hostages were sometimes separated from the Beatles for weeks at a time. These periods were welcome, relatively speaking, because the Beatles were unique in their cruelty, he said.
When they were taken back to a place they nicknamed the “dungeon” and saw that the Beatles were there, “we did shit in the pants,” Motka said. “We had just started to relax a bit” when the abuse had eased in their absence.
“The Box”, where the Beatles were a regular presence, was one of the worst stretches of captivity. Motka said that he and other hostages there had to endure a long “punishment regime” that included regular beatings and forced stressful positions. “George”, another man named Abu Mohamed and a third nicknamed “the punisher” tortured them regularly, Motka said.
“They played a lot of games with us,” Motka said, keeping his composure as he clearly struggled with the feelings of describing his captivity. “They gave us dog names. We needed to come and answer immediately” on the dog name to avoid abuse.
Motka was not released until May 25, 2014. His 14 months in captivity was the longest of all the hostages in the group.
Defense lawyers, however, have highlighted the difficulties the hostages have in formally identifying each of their prisoners, who routinely wore masks that covered everyone except their eyes.
In initial statements, prosecutors referred to only three British citizens – Elsheikh, his longtime friend Alexenda Kotey and Mohammed Emwazi, who often performed the role of executioner and was known as “Jihadi John”.
Emwazi was killed in a drone strike and Kotey was captured along with Elsheikh and taken to Virginia to stand trial. Kotey pleaded guilty last year to a life-threatening prosecution.
Jury members also heard testimony on Thursday from the Danish hostage-taker Jens Serup, who testified about long-standing efforts to secure the release of Daniel Rye Ottosen in exchange for 2 million euros.
The jury saw images of huge bruises on Ottosen’s arm and back after he was finally released. Serup testified that the kidnappers told Ottosen that the beating was a “farewell gift not to forget them.”