Mohamad Khweis

Mohamad Khweis is an American foreign fighter for ISIS who surrendered to Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq in March 2016, allegedly in order to escape ISIS and return to the United States.Tracy Connor, “Captured American Mohamad Khweis Talks About His Time With ISIS,” NBC News, March 18, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/bad-decision-captured-american-mohamed-khweis-talks-about-his-time-n541081. A U.S. federal jury convicted Khweis in June 2017 of providing material support to ISIS. He received a sentence of 20 years in prison.“American Sentenced to 20 Years for Joining ISIS,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 27, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/american-sentenced-20-years-joining-isis.

According to an FBI affidavit, Khweis claims he first became interested in ISIS in mid-2015. He allegedly started watching videos online showing ISIS executions in preparation for joining the group. Khweis told U.S. investigators that he knew that ISIS employed violence but that the group also engaged in peaceful and humanitarian efforts. He said ISIS wanted to take over the United States, and admitted to using social media to contact ISIS members to learn about going abroad.United States of America v. Mohamad Jamal Khweis Criminal Complaint,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 11, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/865806/download.

Khweis left the United States for London in December 2015. From there he traveled to Amsterdam and then to Turkey.“American Islamic State fighter chose to surrender to Kurds: TV,” Reuters, March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-american-idUSKCN0WK095. Khweis claimed that it was in Istanbul where he met an Iraqi woman who led him to the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul, where she said her sister was married to an ISIS fighter. Analysts have suggested that this woman was an ISIS recruiter who lured men to the group with promises of marriage or sex.Anne Speckhard, “American ISIS Defector - Mohamad Jamal Khweis and the Threat Posed by ‘Clean Skin’ Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-speckhard/american-isis-defector-mo_b_9511746.html. It is unclear whether the woman had been a prearranged contact or she had convinced Khweis to followher. Khweis admitted to U.S. authorities that he had previously researched how to smuggle himself across the Turkish-Syrian border. Khweis used social media in Turkey to communicate with other ISIS members, using the phrase “Green Bird” to identify supporters of jihad.United States of America v. Mohamad Jamal Khweis Criminal Complaint,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 11, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/865806/download.

Khweis reportedly traveled with the woman on a bus to the Turkish border. The woman’s sister arranged for a taxi to then take them into Syria. The two then separated and Khweis continued on to Mosul with a group of recruits. They turned over their passports and received new names.Tracy Connor, “Captured American Mohamad Khweis Talks About His Time With ISIS,” NBC News, March 18, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/bad-decision-captured-american-mohamed-khweis-talks-about-his-time-n541081. Khweis became “Abu Omar.”Anne Speckhard, “American ISIS Defector - Mohamad Jamal Khweis and the Threat Posed by ‘Clean Skin’ Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-speckhard/american-isis-defector-mo_b_9511746.html. He and other recruits subsequently spent eight hours a day in religious indoctrination classes and prayer. Khweis told Kurdish interviewers that after a month, he decided to escape, realizing that ISIS are “not good Muslims.”Tracy Connor, “Captured American Mohamad Khweis Talks About His Time With ISIS,” NBC News, March 18, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/bad-decision-captured-american-mohamed-khweis-talks-about-his-time-n541081;
“American Islamic State fighter chose to surrender to Kurds: TV,” Reuters, March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-american-idUSKCN0WK095.

According to Khweis, he then convinced a friend to take him close to the Turkish border. There, he sought out Kurdish fighters near the village of Golat in northern Iraq in the hope that they would turn him over to the Americans and he could go home. According to his own account, Khweis sought out the Kurds because of their good relations with America.“American Islamic State fighter chose to surrender to Kurds: TV,” Reuters, March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-american-idUSKCN0WK095. Sarbaz Hama Amin, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander in Iraq, said that Khweis approached his unit in northern Iraq and “screamed” if anybody spoke English and that he wanted to go with them. The Peshmerga arrested Khweis and took him to their camp.Najab Balay and Sirwan Kajjo, “Parents of IS Fighter Thought He Was in Canada,” Voice of America, March 14, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/accused-american-islamic-state-member-held-by-kurdish-forces-in-iraq/3234840.html. In an interview with Kurdish TV news channel K24 a few days later, Khweis called the ISIS lifestyle “very difficult,” and said he regretted his “bad decision” to move to Mosul.“American Islamic State fighter chose to surrender to Kurds: TV,” Reuters, March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-american-idUSKCN0WK095.

Khweis’s parents are Palestinian immigrants living in Alexandria, Virginia. Khweis’s father, Jamal, came to the United States in 1988.Najab Balay and Sirwan Kajjo, “Parents of IS Fighter Thought He Was in Canada,” Voice of America, March 14, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/accused-american-islamic-state-member-held-by-kurdish-forces-in-iraq/3234840.html. According to reports, Khweis’s parents and U.S. law enforcement were both unaware of Khweis’s path toward radicalization. Khweis had studied criminal justice in Virginia and only occasionally attended mosque.Anne Speckhard, “American ISIS Defector - Mohamad Jamal Khweis and the Threat Posed by ‘Clean Skin’ Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-speckhard/american-isis-defector-mo_b_9511746.html. Khweis had previously been arrested for driving under the influence and public drunkenness, though the public drunkenness charge had been downgraded to trespassing and was dismissed on appeal.Shane Harris, “American ISIS Fighter Captured in Iraq,” Daily Beast, March 14, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/03/14/american-isis-fighter-captured-in-iraq.html;
Jon Williams, Kirit Radia, and Alexander Marquardt, “Alleged American ISIS Member: I Made a ‘Bad Decision,’” ABC News, March 17, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/International/alleged-american-isis-member-made-bad-decision/story?id=37729313.
On the day that their son surrendered to Peshmerga forces, the Khweises told Voice of America that they thought their son was in Canada, though Khweis’s mother claimed they knew he had been traveling in Turkey.Najab Balay and Sirwan Kajjo, “Parents of IS Fighter Thought He Was in Canada,” Voice of America, March 14, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/accused-american-islamic-state-member-held-by-kurdish-forces-in-iraq/3234840.html.

According to U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby, ISIS fighters are increasingly “becoming disenfranchised” and defecting in larger numbers.“American Islamic State fighter chose to surrender to Kurds: TV,” Reuters, March 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-american-idUSKCN0WK095. Syrian Kurdish fighters say they have seen a rise in defections from ISIS, coinciding with the group’s territorial losses. After his escape, Khweis said ISIS does not represent Islam and life under the terror group’s rule is “really, really bad.”Balint Szlanko, “American IS fighter: I made a bad decision,” Associated Press, March 18, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/33409c625b7f45d9bf846b45daa07e97/american-fighter-i-made-bad-decision. Khweis was returned to the United States in June 2016 to face trial.Matt Zapotosky, “American ISIS fighter who ‘found it hard’ returns to face criminal charges,” Washington Post, June 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/american-isis-fighter-who-found-it-hard-returns-to-face-criminal-charges/2016/06/08/b6990ea2-efa5-11e5-a61f-e9c95c06edca_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_khweis-615a-lede%3Ahomepage%2Fstory.

On June 7, 2017, a federal jury in Virginia convicted Khweis of providing material support to ISIS. Andrew W. Vale, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said that 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.”“Jury Convicts Man of Providing Material Support to ISIS,” U.S. Department of Justice, June 7, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/jury-convicts-man-providing-material-support-isis. On October 27, 2017, Khweis was sentenced to 20 years in prison.“American Sentenced to 20 Years for Joining ISIS,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 27, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/pr/american-sentenced-20-years-joining-isis.

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