The Trump administration is divided over how to handle two captured Islamic State militants who belonged to a cell that held, tortured and killed Western hostages, including two with New Hampshire ties.
James Foley of Rochester was abducted while covering the civil war in Syria in 2012. His captors recorded his beheading in August 2014 and circulated it on the internet. Fellow journalist Steven Sotloff, who attended Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, was captured in Aleppo in 2013 and suffered the same fate as Foley.
Some senior officials, including President Donald Trump's top counterterrorism adviser, Thomas Bossert, favor sending the pair of terrorists captured in January to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter. Last month, Trump signed an executive order keeping the facility open, allowing the United States to transport new detainees there.
But senior officials at the Pentagon and State Department, as well as Foley's family and career federal prosecutors, would like to see the men brought to the United States to stand criminal trial, said the official, who like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
No final decision has been made about how to handle El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, who were detained in eastern Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S. ally fighting the Islamic State, senior officials said. Bossert has instructed officials to consider all options, they said.
The men, who grew up in Britain, had traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and were part of a four-person cell known as the "Beatles" because of their British accents.
Trump campaigned on a vow not only to keep open the facility that his predecessor wanted closed, but to "load it up with some bad dudes." But there is significant public pressure on the administration - domestically and in Europe - to refrain from sending new detainees to the prison, which has become a symbol for detainee and human rights abuses.
Moreover, some current and former national security officials do not view military trials as an effective way to try suspected terrorists.
"Together with our coalition partners, we are still considering options regarding Elsheikh and Kotey, but rest assured our intention is to hold anyone accountable who commits heinous acts against innocent people like they are alleged to have committed," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said Friday.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been an outspoken supporter of continuing to use Guantanamo as a prison and supports Trump's effort to find a way to speed up the military trial process. But he has not expressed an opinion on this specific case, one U.S. official said.
The two jihadists have been undergoing questioning by U.S. officials, including Special Operations forces, for "operational intelligence," said two national security officials.
Elsheikh and Kotey were the last two of the four Beatles to be detained. The ringleader and most notorious of the quartet, Mohammed Emwazi - a Briton known as "Jihadi John" - was killed in a 2015 drone strike in Syria. He was seen in gruesome videos beheading Foley and Sotloff and other hostages.
"I am very grateful that these two jihadists have been apprehended and I am hopeful that they can be held accountable for the crimes," said Diane Foley, mother of James Foley. "It is the first step."
Foley said she hopes the men "will get a fair and public trial and that their crimes will be known to the world."
Said Foley: "I certainly don't want them to go to Guantanamo or any place like that because something like that would just bury the truth. I think there needs to be a public, open and fair trial."
The families are primarily concerned that the killers face justice, but also that their loved ones' remains are returned, said current and former officials and others involved in recovery efforts.
"Sending them to Guantanamo to be prosecuted in the military commission or detained there would be a serious mistake," said Rita Siemion, Human Rights First international legal counsel. "The federal courts have a proven track record for handling international terrorism prosecutions quickly and effectively, while military commissions are just the opposite."
Siemion noted that in November, after a suspected terrorist plowed a pickup truck into passersby in Manhattan and killed eight people, Trump himself acknowledged that fact.
"Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system," he tweeted.
Since 9/11, federal prosecutors have obtained hundreds of convictions in civilian courts, while the masterminds of that terror attack, who were indicted in 2009 and remain incarcerated at Guantanamo, have not been tried. The earliest that might happen now is 2019.