27-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis of Virginia has been indicted on charges of joining the Islamic State. Kurdish forces captured him in Iraq after he changed his mind and fled Mosul in March, making him possibly the first American captured on the battlefield charged with joining ISIS.
“Khweis said after traveling from the United States to London, Amsterdam and Turkey, he met an Iraqi woman who arranged his travel through Syria and finally to the terrorists’ Iraqi hub of Mosul,” Fox News reports.
The FBI affidavit against Khweis said he was “inspired to join ISIL because he saw that they had established an Islamic caliphate and were in the process of expanding it.”
He allegedly told a fellow ISIS member that he wanted to be a suicide bomber, although he now claims he only said that because he thought his loyalty was being tested.
Khweis said he ran away from Mosul because he decided he “didn’t agree with their ideology.”
As NBC News reported in June, he was apparently comfortable with that ideology when he joined because he told FBI agents he was “aware that ISIL wants to attack and destroy the United States,” and he understood the Islamic State “wants American to be taken over.” His personal electronic devices contained terrorist propaganda, including images of the World Trade Center in flames on 9/11.
Most bizarrely, he told the FBI he understood ISIS “used violence in its expansion of the caliphate,” but also insisted they “engaged in peaceful and humanitarian efforts.”
Shortly after his capture, Khweis gave an interview to Kurdish television in which he complained that daily life in Mosul was “basically prayer, eating, and learning about the religion for eight hours.”
“It is not like Western countries. It is very strict and no smoking there. There are a lot of foreign fighters walking around with weapons, and many are from Central and South Asia,” he said in that interview. “I stayed there about a month, and I found it very, very hard to live there. I decided to return home.”
“My message to the American people is that life in Mosul is really very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims,” Khweis said.
NBC News notes that Khweis has claimed he was under duress when he did the interview with Kurdish TV — he was afraid they would send him back to ISIS if he didn’t say what the Kurds wanted to hear — but the FBI found him “lucid, uninjured, and free from duress.” If he can establish that he was under duress when that Kurdish interview was given, the defense could try to have the video thrown out of court.
Voice of America News noted considerable skepticism from the intelligence community about Khweis’s account of joining and escaping the Islamic State in a March report on his capture by the Kurds.
One of the brightest red flags was the fact that Khweis was carrying his Virginian driver’s license and a substantial amount of cash, including American $100 bills, plus three cell phones when he surrendered to the Kurds — despite his own account of having been stripped of ID and passport when he joined. Also, his claim of being lured to the caliphate by a girl after he arrived in Turkey is not consistent with ISIS’s normal recruiting methods or the degree of autonomy it allows women under its strict interpretation of sharia law.
The Washington Post described him as an assuming young man, the American-born son of Palestinian immigrants, who “graduated from Fairfax County’s Edison High School, earned a degree from Northern Virginia Community College and worked as a teller at an area bank… He racked up more than a dozen traffic citations and other petty charges, but in nearly every case, he quietly paid his fine or performed his court-ordered community service.”
Khweis’s lawyers said that he intends to plead “not guilty” to the charges against him.