Alexandria, Virginia — The 27-year-old resident of Alexandria, Mohamad Jamal Khweis, who left the United States to join the ranks of the Islamic State terror group was convicted by a jury of his peers on Thursday for providing material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
In his closing argument just prior to the jury being excused to deliberate Khweis’s fate, Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Dana J. Boente made his final statements in regards to the defendant “He [Khweis] is a 27-year-old man who studied criminal justice in college. He strategically planned his travel to avoid law enforcement suspicion, encrypted his communications, and planned for possible alibis. Khweis knew exactly what he was doing, knew exactly who ISIS was, and was well aware of their thirst for extreme violence. Nonetheless, this did not deter him. Instead, Khweis voluntarily chose to join the ranks of a designated foreign terrorist organization, and that is a federal crime, even if you get scared and decide to leave. This office, along with the National Security Division and our investigative partners, are committed to tracking down anyone who provides or attempts to provide material support to a terrorist organization.”
Boente finished his dissertation with a simple, yet damning final comment, “Khweis is not a naïve kid who didn’t know what he was doing.” Yet, how did a the promising criminal justice student end up fighting for ISIS? It all started in the winter of 2015.
”A good-hearted guy.”
The Fairfax County resident who was known by friends as “Mo,” or “Mike” was described as a “good-hearted guy who was never an angry person.” Khweis came from a normal hard-working family who emigrated from the Palestinian held territories of Israel who embraced the ideals of their new home in the West. Khweis attended mosque sporadically and to those that thought they know “Mo” never saw any signs that he would ever consider joining a radical terrorist organization like ISIS.
Then in the beginning of 2015 something changed in Khweis, he began what the FBI called “extensive research concerning the Islamic State (ISIS).” Khweis actively searched and poured over the multitude of online propaganda ISIS is well-known for. Khweis frequently watched ISIL videos depicting all forms of grisly executions, to include the immolation of a Jordanian pilot accused by the Islamic State of burning Muslims alive with his bombs and crushing those that survived the fire with the resulting rubble. So in accordance to the Islamic States Salafist interpretations of Islam, burned him alive in what ISIS considered a literal ‘eye-for an-eye.’
Khweis then began to seek out online forums and chat rooms that were populated by like-minded wannabe jihadists that desired to travel to the newly ordained “caliphate” to fight the infidels of the Islamic States interpretation of Islam. Khweis eventually made contact with who he believed were legitimate ISIS recruiters and then began to make plans to heed the Islamic States call for “hijrah” for “Emigration” to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
In early December 2015 Khweis did just that, sold his car then headed out to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and jumped on a flight bound for Turkey. Khweis spent two days in London where according to the FBI’s investigation sent several messages to a “well-known Islamic extremist terrorist” and began researching possible border crossings along the Turkey-Syria borders settling on the Turkish border town of Gaziantep. Once Khweis arrived in the Republic Of Turkey he created a social media account with the Arabic phrase of “green bird” to win the trust of the ISIS jihadists and to get help from these ISIS sympathizers to facilitate a border crossing into northern Syria.
The term “green bird” is sort of a “challenge and pass” like phrase that indicates the user of this phrase supports violent jihad and is a reference to a verse within the Qur’an that reads;
“The souls of the martyrs live in the bodies of green birds who have their nests in chandeliers hung from the throne of the Almighty. They eat the fruits of Paradise from wherever they like and then nestle in these chandeliers. Once their Lord cast a glance at them and said: Do ye want anything? They said: What more shall we desire? We eat the fruit of Paradise from wherever we like. Their Lord asked them the same question thrice. When they saw that they will continue to be asked and not left (without answering the question). They said: O Lord, we wish that Thou mayest return our souls to our bodies so that we may be slain in Thy way once again. When He (Allah) saw that they had no need, they were left (to their joy in heaven).”
“I made a bad decision.”
While in Gaziantep, Khweis met an Iraqi girl and four other ISIS recruiters who were willing to help him cross the border and introduce him to her connections within the Islamic State. A few days later Khweis found himself in a ISIS safehouse just outside of Raqqah, Syria, where he was processed into the Islamic State and asked to provide a kunya or a nickname of sorts of which ISIS would call him by. Khweis settled on Abu Omar al-Amriki, or simply “Omar the American.”
Two days later Khweis, now known as Abu Omar was approached by operatives from the secretive Islamic State militant wing known as Jaysh Khalifa, which is known to recruit foreign fighters from Europe and the United States to be trained in terror tactics and then be sent back to their respective countries to conduct attacks against the population on behalf of the Islamic State. The Jaysh Khalifa organization is suspected of harboring, training, then sending jihadists hailing from Paris back to France to conduct the Paris terror attacks in November 2015 which killed 130 people.
Khweis was approached by these operatives and asked if he was willing to be a suicide bomber and attend this training, thinking that this was a test of his commitment to jihad, Khweis replied “yes” and was then sent to what was then the ISIS-held city of Mosul, Iraq where he met up with several other hopeful jihadi foreigners to begin his sharia training before he began his suicide bomber training.
Life was hard for Khweis in Mosul, he couldn’t smoke, wasn’t allowed any social media time and was forced to pray and study the Qur’an for up to eight hours a day. After about a month of this monotonous schedule, Khweis had enough began to realize he missed the freedom of the United States, decided that he had made a grave mistake and secretly planned to defect from ISIS and head back home to Virginia.
Khweis made arrangements with an Arabic “coyote” of sorts to take him to the Turkish border to make his way back home, only to have this person drop him off in the Kurdish held Sinjar mountain region just outside of Tal Afar, Iraq. Khweis was immediately captured by the Peshmerga on March 14 2016, and they released a video of Khweis admitting to defecting from the Islamic State and also being a U.S. citizen. In the video confessional Khweis admitted while smoking a cigarette that ”I made a bad decision, to go with the girl and go to Mosul…. at the time… I made the decision to because I wasn’t thinking straight… and on the way there I regretted it.”
Shortly afterward FBI agents along with elements of the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force made their way to Sinjar and took custody of Khweis and brought him back to the United States in shackles to be debriefed and eventually await trail in Alexandria, Virginia. A year later Khweis had his day on court and was found guilty on all three charged counts, including providing and conspiring to provide material support or resources to ISIS, and a related firearms count. Khweis faces a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum penalty of life in prison when sentenced on October 13.
In a Department of Justice (DOJ) press release Assistant Director in Charge in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Andrew W. Vale said that “Mohamad Khweis purposefully traveled overseas with the intent to join ISIL in support of the terrorist group’s efforts to conduct operations and execute attacks to further their radical ideology. Today’s verdict underscores the dedication of the FBI and our partners within the Joint Terrorism Task Force in pursuing and disrupting anyone who poses a risk of harm to U.S. persons or interests or by providing material support to a terrorist group.”
It is unclear whether Khweis will serve out the entirety of his sentence due to possibly assisting the United States in providing potentially actionable intelligence in regards to the Islamic State’s recruitment of foreigners and terror operations. However, one thing is clear, Khweis did come home to the United States; just not the way he intended.
Feature image courtesy of: Kurdistan24