A federal jury convicted a militant fighter for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a foreign terrorist organization, on all eight charges that were brought against him in the United States relating to his participation in a brutal hostage-taking scheme that resulted in the deaths of four American citizens, as well as the deaths of British and Japanese nationals, in Syria.
According to evidence presented during trial through the testimony of 35 witnesses, from November 2012 through Feb. 7, 2015, former British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, served as a high-ranking ISIS fighter and was an integral member of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving the captivity of 26 hostages in Syria. Elsheikh personally participated in the detention of and hostage negotiations for four American citizens – James Wright Foley, Kayla Jean Mueller, Steven Joel Sotloff and Peter Edward Kassig – each of whom died as hostages in ISIS custody. In addition, Elsheikh personally participated in the detention of and hostage negotiations for British, French, Italian, Danish, German, Spanish, Swedish, Belgian, Swiss and New Zealand nationals.
According to evidence presented during trial, Elsheikh and two other ISIS members supervised the terrorist organization’s jails and detention facilities at which the hostages were held. Elsheikh and his co-conspirators engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against hostages that was meant as an effort to subdue the hostages. These actions were also intended to compel the victims’ family members and their governments to pay large monetary ransoms for their release, in addition to compelling the U.S. government and other governments to agree to other terms and conditions for the victims’ return.
According to evidence presented during trial, in addition to physically and psychologically abusing the hostages, Elsheikh and his co-conspirators participated in forcibly exposing the hostages to the murder of other hostages held by ISIS, including a Russian hostage who was killed in or about February 2014 and a Syrian prisoner who was executed in or about April 2014. After a group of European hostages were forced to witness the execution of the Syrian prisoner, Elsheikh and his co-conspirators returned the hostages to the prison where they were being held with American and British hostages.
From August 2014 through October 2014, ISIS released videos depicting the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning. In November 2014, ISIS released a video depicting the decapitated head of Peter Kassig. In January 2015, ISIS released videos depicting the decapitated body of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa and the beheading of Japanese citizen Kenji Goto. On or about Feb. 7, 2015, Kayla Mueller’s family received an email from ISIS confirming Mueller’s death in Syria.
According to evidence presented during trial, Elsheikh was part of a group of ISIS members who spoke with British accents and were referred to by the hostages as the “Beatles.” He and his convicted co-conspirator, Alexanda Amon Kotey, 38, were captured together in January 2018 by the Syrian Democratic Forces as they attempted to escape Syria for Turkey. Mohammed Emwazi, who conducted the above-referenced videotaped beheadings, was killed in November 2015 in a U.S. military airstrike in Syria.
On Sept. 2, 2021, Kotey pleaded guilty to all of the offenses charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in the eight-count indictment, consisting of one count of conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death; four counts of hostage taking resulting in the deaths of the four Americans (James Foley, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig); one count of conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens outside of the United States; one count of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists resulting in the deaths of U.S., British and Japanese nationals; and one count of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization resulting in the deaths of U.S., British, and Japanese nationals. Kotey faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 29.
Elsheikh faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 12.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia expresses its profound appreciation to the FBI, the Counter Terrorism Command of the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police Service, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and our many foreign partners for their dedicated commitment to assist the United States in seeking justice for all the victims of these crimes.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Dennis M. Fitzpatrick, John T. Gibbs and Aidan Taft Grano-Mickelson, all of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia; and Trial Attorney Alicia H. Cook of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section are prosecuting the case.
- Priority Open Recommendations: U.S. Department of Agriculture
July 8, 2021What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 12 priority recommendations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since then, USDA has implemented two of those recommendations. The department publicized information on state agencies’ use of data matching to reduce recipient fraud. USDA also ensured its workforce data are more reliable. In July 2021, GAO identified one additional priority recommendation for USDA, bringing the total number to 11. These recommendations involve the following areas: protecting the safety of the food supply. reducing improper payments. strengthening protections for wage earners. improving oversight of federal assistance and awards. improving cybersecurity. USDA’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or email@example.com.
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- Humanitarian Assistance: USAID Should Improve Information Collection and Communication to Help Mitigate Implementers’ Banking Challenges
August 24, 2021What GAO Found Implementing partners (partners) for 7 of 18 Department of State (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) humanitarian assistance projects that GAO selected noted encountering banking access challenges, such as delays or denials in transferring funds overseas. Of those 7 projects, 1 partner told us that banking access challenges adversely affected its project and 2 additional partners told us that the challenges had the potential for adverse effects. Moreover, the majority of partners (15 out of 18) for the 18 projects noted experiencing banking access challenges on their global portfolio of projects over the previous 5 years. Number of Selected U.S. Government Humanitarian Assistance Projects That Experienced Banking Access Challenges USAID’s partners’ written reports do not capture potential risks posed by banking access challenges because USAID generally does not require most partners to report in writing any challenges that do not affect implementation. Six of the 7 projects that encountered challenges were USAID-funded. Of those 6 USAID projects, 5 partners told us that these challenges did not rise to the threshold of affecting project implementation that would necessitate reporting, and 1 did not report challenges although its project was adversely affected. Additionally, GAO’s review of about 1,300 USAID partner reports found that the few instances where challenges were mentioned lacked sufficient detail for GAO to determine their type, severity, or origin. Without information on banking access challenges that pose potential risks to project implementation, USAID is not aware of the full extent of risks to achieving its objectives. The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and State have taken various actions to help address banking access challenges encountered by nonprofit organizations (NPO), but USAID’s efforts have been limited. Treasury’s efforts have focused on engagement between NPOs and U.S. agencies, while State has issued guidance on the topic to its embassies and designated an office to focus on these issues. In contrast, USAID lacks a comparable office, and NPOs stated that it is difficult to find USAID staff to engage with on this topic. Further, GAO found that awareness of specific challenges was generally limited to USAID staff directly overseeing the project. Without communicating these challenges to relevant parties, USAID may not be aware of all risks to agency objectives and may not be able to effectively engage with external entities on efforts to address these challenges. Why GAO Did This Study Since 2012, the United States has provided approximately $36 billion in humanitarian assistance to save lives and alleviate human suffering. Much of this assistance is provided in areas plagued by conflict or other issues that increase the risk of financial crimes. The World Bank and others have reported that humanitarian assistance organizations face challenges in accessing banking services that could affect project implementation. GAO was asked to review the possible effects of decreased banking access for nonprofit organizations on the delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance. In this report, GAO examines (1) the extent to which State and USAID partners experienced banking access challenges, (2) USAID partners’ reporting on such challenges, and (3) actions U.S. agencies have taken to help address such challenges. GAO selected four high-risk countries—Syria, Somalia, Haiti, and Kenya—based on factors such as their inclusion in multiple financial risk-related indices, and selected a non-generalizable sample of 18 projects in those countries. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed U.S. officials and the 18 partners for the selected projects.
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September 17, 2021A federal district court in Baltimore, Maryland, unsealed an indictment today charging a Maryland couple with conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and related charges for money laundering, filing false tax returns, and identity theft.
- Conflict Minerals: Actions Needed to Assess Progress Addressing Armed Groups’ Exploitation of Minerals
September 14, 2020The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) disclosure rule broadly requires that certain companies submit a filing that describes their efforts to conduct a reasonable country-of-origin inquiry (RCOI), and depending on the preliminary determination, perform due diligence to determine the source and chain of custody of their conflict minerals—gold and specific ores for tantalum, tin, and tungsten. After conducting RCOI, an estimated 50 percent of companies filing in 2019 reported preliminary determinations as to whether the conflict minerals came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries (covered countries) or from scrap or recycled sources. The percentage of companies able to make such preliminary determinations increased significantly between 2014 and 2015, and has since leveled off, as shown below. Source of Conflict Minerals in Products as Determined by Companies’ Reasonable Country-of-Origin Inquiries, Reporting Years 2014-2019 However, fewer companies reported such determinations after conducting due diligence. In 2019, an estimated 85 percent of companies made preliminary determinations that required them to then perform due diligence. Of those companies, an estimated 17 percent determined that the minerals came from covered countries—a significantly lower percentage of companies making that determination than the 37 percent reported in 2017 or the 35 percent in 2018. Since 2014, companies have noted various challenges they face in making such determinations; however, SEC staff told GAO that they did not know what factors contributed to the decrease in 2019. We will examine this issue during our future review. While the Department of State (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have implemented the U.S. conflict minerals strategy since 2011, they have not established performance indicators for all of the strategic objectives. For example, they have no such indicators for the objectives of strengthening regional and international efforts and promoting due diligence and responsible trade through public outreach. Without performance indicators, the agencies cannot comprehensively assess their progress toward achieving these objectives or the overall goal of addressing armed groups’ exploitation of conflict minerals. Armed groups in eastern DRC continue to commit severe human rights abuses and to profit from the exploitation of “conflict minerals,” according to State. Provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act required, among other things, that State, USAID, and the SEC take certain actions to promote peace and security. In 2011, State created the U.S. conflict minerals strategy in consultation with USAID to address armed groups’ exploitation of conflict minerals. In 2012, the SEC also promulgated regulations containing disclosure and reporting requirements for companies that use conflict minerals from covered countries. The act also included a provision for GAO to annually assess, among other things, the SEC regulations’ effectiveness in promoting peace and security. In this report, GAO examines, among other things, how companies responded to the SEC conflict minerals disclosure rule when filing in 2019 and the extent to which State and USAID assessed progress toward the U.S. conflict minerals strategy’s objectives and goal. GAO analyzed a generalizable sample of SEC filings, reviewed documents, and interviewed U.S. officials State, in consultation with USAID, should develop performance indicators for assessing progress toward the strategic objectives and goal of the U.S. conflict minerals strategy. State and USAID concurred with GAO’s recommendation. For more information, contact Kimberly M. Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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January 13, 2021The Justice Department announced today that it reached a settlement with Collabera, Inc., a Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based information technology (IT) staffing agency. The settlement resolves the department’s claims that Collabera violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) when it discriminated against work-authorized non-U.S. citizens.
- Embassy Construction: State Has Made Progress Constructing New Embassies, but Better Planning Is Needed for Operations and Maintenance Requirements
August 25, 2021In response to 2 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the Department of State embarked on a $21 billion program to replace 201 insecure and dilapidated diplomatic facilities. In November 2004, GAO reported that State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which manages the construction program, had implemented reforms to its planning, design, construction, and funding processes designed to expedite the construction process and prevent cost overruns that were common to previous State diplomatic construction programs. This report updates GAO’s earlier report, by discussing OBO’s completion rates and costs for embassy construction projects and the impact the reforms and other factors have on completion rates. It also discusses the changes in the costs for operating and maintaining these new facilities.State has made significant progress constructing new embassy compounds (NEC). The average time to design and construct the 18 embassies and consulates completed from 1999 to 2005 is nearly 3 years faster than for embassies built during the 1980s and 1990s, despite these new facilities being significantly larger and more complex. Although only half of the 18 projects were completed according to planned schedules, 15 of the 18 NECs were opened ahead of, on, or within 1 month after their scheduled move-in dates, and approximately 8,700 U.S. government employees were relocated to these secure and modern facilities. Construction costs for 14 of the 18 completed projects were significantly lower than budget estimates OBO provided to Congress. Strategic and procedural reforms implemented by State, including elevating the former Foreign Buildings Office to bureau status, switching to the design-build contract delivery method, and developing a standard embassy design have had a cumulative positive effect on project cycle times; however, it is still difficult to quantify the effects of any single reform. GAO found that factors specific to individual projects affected OBO’s ability to complete work on time and on budget, including the experience levels of OBO and contractors’ projects teams, unforeseen conditions at construction sites, and weather conditions, among others. Due to increased size and complexity, annual operations and maintenance costs for NECs are significantly greater than the costs for previous locations; once all 201 NECs are completed, annual operations and maintenance costs could increase by at least $111 million, and possibly several times more. These costs include increases in utility usage; the need to hire highly qualified technical staff; new maintenance needs; and costly equipment, supplies, and spare parts. State does not clearly identify the projected operations and maintenance costs for NECs it builds. Thus, there is currently no mechanism that allows decision makers to determine whether NEC operations and maintenance needs are being adequately planned for and funded. A lack of a comprehensive long-term plan that clearly identifies the significant increases in resources that are likely to be needed as more NECs come online could increase the risk of earlier-than-expected deterioration of NECs.
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- Climate Resilience: Actions Needed to Ensure DOD Considers Climate Risks to Contractors as Part of Acquisition, Supply, and Risk Assessment
July 30, 2020The Department of Defense (DOD) has not routinely assessed climate-related risks faced by its contractors as part of its acquisition and supply processes, through which DOD obtains contracted goods and services. DOD’s acquisition process includes long-term planning activities such as life-cycle sustainment planning. Its supply chain process includes steps to identify and assess potential disruptions, such as severe storms affecting transportation or energy systems, in order to mitigate risk. However, these processes in general do not systematically identify and consider climate-related risks to materiel acquisition and supply or the acquisition of weapon systems, according to Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and military department officials. DOD’s climate change adaptation directive indicates that OSD and the military departments should include climate considerations in acquisition and supply and integrate those considerations into relevant policy and guidance. However, GAO’s review of DOD and military department guidance on acquisition and supply found that the guidance did not implement DOD’s climate change directive by including consideration of climate change or extreme weather. Until DOD and the military departments include these considerations in their guidance on acquisition and supply chain processes, they risk continuing to develop acquisition strategies and managing supply chains without building climate resilience into these processes and potentially jeopardizing their missions. DOD guidance requires consideration of climate-related risks as part of the mission assurance process, when appropriate. However, GAO found that the department has not assessed risks—including those associated with climate change or extreme weather—to commercially owned facilities, which can support DOD installations as well as weapon systems, as part of this process. Assessing risks to commercial facilities has been a longstanding challenge for DOD, with the department noting in 2012 that it had paid inadequate attention to challenges outside of DOD-owned facilities and citing a limited understanding of supply chain risks as a pervasive problem. DOD’s mission assurance guidance includes minimum requirements for assessments of certain non-DOD-owned facilities, such as completion of an all-hazards threat assessment. However, DOD officials stated that they had not conducted such assessments. The officials noted that DOD is limited in its ability to conduct such assessments, as it does not have the same access to commercial facilities as it does to its own facilities. While DOD officials stated that they are exploring alternative ways of assessing risks to commercial facilities, they noted that these efforts are in the early stages. Without determining what approaches may be feasible for assessing risks to commercial facilities as part of the mission assurance process and issuing or updating guidance accordingly, DOD may not fully evaluate the risks to critical commercial facilities as part of the mission assurance process, leaving gaps in its knowledge of potential risks—to include climate and weather-related risks—to its ability to fulfill key missions dependent on such facilities. Since 2010, DOD has identified climate change as a threat to its operations and installations. The department relies on contracted goods and services for its mission and installations. Climate change is projected to have broad effects that could affect DOD’s supply chains, and any associated risks to contractors can have an impact on DOD. One way DOD assesses risk to its missions is through mission assurance, which is a process to protect or ensure the function of capabilities and assets critical to its missions. GAO was asked to review potential threats to national security from the effects of climate change on defense contractors. GAO examined the extent to which DOD assesses the potential effects on its operations from climate change and extreme weather risks faced by its contractors through the department’s (1) acquisition and supply processes, and (2) mission assurance process. GAO reviewed DOD acquisition, supply, and mission assurance documents and interviewed relevant DOD officials and contractor representatives. GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOD incorporate climate adaptation into its acquisition and supply guidance and issue or update guidance on mission assurance-related assessments for commercial facilities. DOD concurred with three recommendations and partially concurred with three. GAO continues to believe that DOD should fully implement its recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or email@example.com.
- Social Security Contracting: Relevant Guidance Should Be Revised to Reflect the Role of Contracting Personnel in Software Development
August 31, 2020The approach followed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in awarding and overseeing contracts generally aligns with the requirements GAO reviewed. For the 27 contracts and orders GAO reviewed, SSA varied its approach depending on the contract type used and the dollar value. For example, one of SSA’s written acquisition plans acknowledged the risks to the government associated with time-and-materials contracts. From fiscal year 2015 through 2019, SSA obligated 22.7 percent of its contract dollars on time-and-material contracts compared with 10.5 percent at other civilian agencies. In addition, from fiscal year 2015 through 2019, the rate at which SSA used competitive award procedures to achieve the best value for the agency increased by nearly 20 percentage points. This increase was the result of the agency’s increased use of competition in its contracting for information technology (IT). SSA relies heavily on IT resources to support the administration of its programs and related activities. During fiscal years 2015 through 2019, about 65 percent of the $8.3 billion in contract obligations were for IT goods and services compared with about 16 percent at other civilian agencies. The figure shows the percentage of obligations for IT goods and services at SSA. Percentage of Social Security Administration’s Contract Obligations for Goods and Services during Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019 SSA adopted an Agile approach to software development for some of its critical IT programs in 2015. An Agile approach to software development involves incremental improvements to software rather than the more traditional single-track approach. Subsequently, SSA developed an IT modernization plan in 2017 that states SSA will use an Agile methodology. GAO’s draft Agile Assessment Guide states that an organization’s acquisition policies and guidance should support an Agile development approach and identify clear roles for contracting personnel, since this is a different approach than federal agencies previously used. However, GAO found SSA’s acquisition handbook does not specifically identify a role for contracting personnel with respect to contracts and task orders involving Agile, which GAO has identified as a leading practice. Identifying a role for contracting personnel in the Agile process should better position SSA to achieve its IT modernization goals and provide appropriate levels of oversight. SSA is responsible for delivering services that touch the lives of virtually every American. To do so, SSA relies on a variety of products and services, including information technology (IT) systems. SSA obligates approximately $1.5 billion annually to procure goods and services, 65 percent of which are IT-related. GAO was asked to assess how SSA implements its contracting and acquisition processes. This report examines: (1) how SSA awards and oversees contracts for products and services, and (2) the extent to which SSA has updated its guidance regarding the role of contracting personnel in software development efforts. GAO reviewed SSA’s acquisition policies, interviewed contracting officials, and reviewed a non-generalizable sample of 27 high- and lower value contracts and orders with dollars obligated in fiscal years 2014 through 2018. GAO also examined data from fiscal years 2015-2019 to determine what SSA contracted for and reviewed IT guidance. GAO compared SSA’s practices to leading practices for Agile software development with respect to the roles of contracting personnel. GAO recommends that SSA revise relevant guidance to identify the roles of contracting personnel in Agile software development. SSA agreed with this recommendation. For more information, contact William Woods at (202) 512-4841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Military Personnel: Perspectives on DOD’s and the Military Services’ Use of Borrowed Military Personnel
November 18, 2020Policies on the use of borrowed military personnel vary among military services. Borrowed military personnel refers to military personnel used for duties outside their assigned positions, such as security protection. DOD policy acknowledges that there may be instances in which military personnel can be used to appropriately satisfy a near-term demand but that DOD must be vigilant in ensuring that military personnel are not inappropriately utilized, particularly in a manner that may degrade readiness. Additionally, the Army and the Marine Corps have their own policies that describes how military personnel may be used on a temporary basis. DOD and the Army, Navy, and Air Force do not centrally track their use of borrowed military personnel, nor do they assess any impacts of that use on the readiness of units and personnel to accomplish their assigned missions. According to DOD and Army officials, the relatively limited use of borrowed military manpower, their limited impacts on readiness, and the existence of other readiness reporting mechanisms serve to obviate the need to collect and analyze this information centrally—especially given the resources that would be required to establish and maintain such a reporting process. The House Armed Services Committee has questioned whether DOD continues to divert servicemembers from their unit assignments to perform nonmilitary functions that could be performed by civilian employees. House Report 116-120, accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to assess the levels and impacts of borrowed military personnel. This report examines DOD’s and the military services’ policies on the use of borrowed military personnel, the tracking and reporting of their use of borrowed military personnel, and any impacts of that use on readiness. For more information, contact Cary Russell at (202)512-5431 or RussellC@gao.gov.
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