There is no grandiose entrance, no warning before we spot him in ‘number 700’, a wood-paneled courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia.
Elshafee Elsheikh just seems to appear from nowhere, emerging from within a group of six lawyers and court officials. So slight is his frame that he might have gone unnoticed were it not for his green jumpsuit with ‘Alexandria Inmate’ emblazoned in bold letters on the back.
He is better known by other titles, as an alleged member of the so-called ‘ISIS Beatles’, a kidnap and execution cell so-called by their captives because of their British accents.
After conversations with attorneys in pinstripe suits, he takes a seat just before the hearing begins, rocking from side to side on a comfortable swivel chair, but looking straight ahead.
On the hard benches 15 feet behind him sit three women who lost loved ones to the terror cell Elsheikh is accused of being part of; they are now seeing one of the men accused of holding them hostage for the first time.
Bethany Haines is the daughter of aid worker David Haines from Perth in Scotland. She was aged 17 when she watched the propaganda video of his beheading; she fixes her eyes on the back of Elsheikh’s head expecting to catch his gaze.
Next to her is Marsha Mueller from Arizona, whose daughter Kayla was taken captive in 2013; she stares forward at the judge waiting for him to begin the hearing.
Diane Foley, mother of James Foley, the American journalist who was kidnapped then beheaded by the group in 2014, scribbles notes in the A6 notebook she has brought to document this important moment in her search for justice.
It is only a few moments since Bethany first met Marsha and Diane over breakfast close to the court, having exchanged occasional emails during the last few years. They embraced warmly, united by the same awful experience, the same unanswered questions.
“We will be family”, Marsha told Bethany, the youngest of the three, as they discussed how they might feel when they finally set eyes on Elsheikh. “I’m glad you’re here, everyone speaks of your dad as the best”, Diane said.
Now inside court, they sit next to each other for support, each having planned to be here alone for this moment they have long prepared for.
The hearing begins and witnesses are brought into the courtroom one by one - guards and officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which held Elsheikh before he was transferred to American custody; they give evidence in Arabic, speaking through a translator.
Bethany Haines said she "wouldn't be intimidated" by Elsheikh
Elsheikh follows their testimony closely, jotting down details, at one point passing a written message to his lawyer challenging the accuracy of some of the translations. Bethany, Marsha and Diane seem disgruntled, at times exchanging looks and rolling eyes.
But after three hours of evidence, of details about executions, of complicated legal exchanges and plenty of “objection”, “overruled”, the three women have not yet been able to look Elsheikh in the eye, as they wished; in fact 46 people have been in this courtroom so far since the hearing began, and he has avoided eye contact with all of them, except one of his legal team.
When the hearing enters its second day, a portion of an interview I conducted with Elsheikh in Syria in 2019 is played to the court. In the segment I am seen challenging him about the whereabouts of Bethany’s father’s remains, on her behalf.
For a few minutes, the court proceedings are focused not on the ‘Beatles’ cell, or on ISIS more broadly, but on one man, David Haines. An FBI officer is on the stand and is asked by the prosecutor: "What ultimately happened to David Haines?”
“He was beheaded by ISIS,” is his blunt response. Bethany becomes emotional and steps out of the courtroom. She is supported by Marsha when she returns.
A break is called, everyone is allowed to leave the court, including the defendant. And after almost two days of avoiding the people sitting right behind him, he turns around and cannot help locking eyes with Bethany. For a few moments neither wants to look away.
It's unclear whether Elsheikh knows he is staring at the daughter of one of the men he is accused of killing, but he seems intrigued - hooked for a few moments before leaving the courtroom.
For seven years Bethany has wanted to “look in the eyes” of the men accused of beheading her father. Now, she finally has.
'The ISIS 'Beatles': Blood on their Hands’ will air on ITV on Monday 22 November at 11.05pm.