Terrorist or just ‘curious’? How an American bus driver escaped after joining ISIL to ‘see the other side’
Mohamad Khweis of Alexandria, Va., in a photo provided by the U.S. District Court. To the Kurdish peshmerga forces patrolling northern Iraq in March 2016, Khweis looked like an Islamic State suicide bomber. They certainly didn’t peg him as a bus driver from the wealthy suburbs of Washington.
An American who traveled undetected into ISIL-controlled Syria and fled three months later says he was “curious” about life under the terrorist regime.
“I know there’s always two sides to a story,” said Mohamad Khweis, 27, who was born and raised in Virginia and captured in Iraq in March 2016. “I just wanted to see the other side.”
Terror suspects rarely go to trial and almost never testify, but Khweis this week took the stand in federal court in Alexandria, where he is accused of supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Officials could name no other American who has testified at his own terrorism trial.
Khweis’s tale of how he snuck both into and out of ISIL territory, along with documents seized in Mosul earlier this year and produced at his trial, offer an unusual view of the terrorist organization’s inner workings.
Jamal Khweis, left, who identified himself as the father of 26-year-old Mohamad Khweis, reacts with another man as they walk outside a home in Alexandria, Va., on March 14, 2016. The Virginia drivers license Mohamad Jamal Khweis was carrying when he gave up listed the address in Alexandria.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Khweis described a detailed form the group filled out with questions he answered, including his shoe size, skills and his “specialty before jihad” and skills. He was required to have his blood tested for Hepatitis B and HIV. And he was asked, he told FBI agents, whether he would be a suicide bomber or commit a terrorist attack at home.
He said he also identified for FBI agents three Frenchmen who traveled with him from Turkey into Syria, as well as an American who had joined an elite unit within ISIL that focuses on homeland attacks.
In Virginia, Khweis’s life was unremarkable. He graduated from Northern Virginia Community College and before his trip worked as a Metro Access driver.
On the stand, Khweis explained how articles online gave him a roadmap to ISIL, although he sought to minimize his own alleged machinations.
He testified that he had stopped in two European countries before flying to Turkey. He then took a bus to the border city of Gaziantep, where he began communicating with ISIL facilitators on Twitter.
His first handle, “fearislove1,” did not get much of a response. So he created an account with the handle “IAgreenbirdIA,” a reference to martyrdom that he thought would be more “appealing.”
You chose to do what a lot of people wouldn’t do. Nobody held you at gunpoint to get inside that taxi
He used several encrypted phone apps to communicate and was picked up at a hotel in the middle of the night.
From the hotel, he was taken in a cab with four other recruits to the border, where they were told to walk across to avoid detection. Because of land mines, the group was told to walk in the tracks of cars, FBI agent Brian Czekala testified.
Once in Syria, the group was picked up in an SUV by a Turkish man who told them to put their phones on airplane mode and remove the batteries.
Khweis, like other recruits, was asked upon arrival in Syria for his date of birth, blood type, kunya or nickname, country of origin, citizenship and other details.
The terrorist group kept meticulous records, many of which were seized during the Iraqi army’s capture of Mosul earlier this year. A copy of the computerized spreadsheet shown in court included an “allowance” for every fighter.
“It’s a treasure trove for researchers who are trying to understand this,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “It’s important to the public, and it provides a level of nuts and bolts of joining a terrorist organization that you haven’t seen before in the U.S. court system. This stuff usually doesn’t see the light of day.”
Khweis said he chatted with other recruits, who told him they had heard it was impossible to be Muslim in the United States and that Syrian Muslims in the country had been killed over a parking space.
“I told them, ‘No, that’s not how it is,’” Khweis testified. “That there may be a few incidents, but Muslims are allowed to pray; there are even officers that walk them into the mosque.”
This undated image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and shown to be consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now called the Islamic State group, marching in Raqqa, Syria.
Militant photo via AP
The recruits were visited by a group called Jaysh al-Khalifa asking for volunteers to commit terrorist attacks in their home countries, Czekala testified. They were told that the volunteers must be single, uninjured, willing to train for six to 12 months in remote locations and able to live an isolated life on their return home.
Khweis said he met one American who had been part of Jaysh al-Khalifa but was sent back because of kidney problems. He later said he identified a photograph of that American for the FBI, along with the three Frenchman in his taxi.
Otherwise, Khweis said he was placed with people who did not speak English, first in Mosul for religious instruction and then in the Northwestern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. Along the way he said he met fighters undergoing weapons and sniper training. But he claimed to have done little but suffer from a stomach illness.
He said the other recruits were “suspicious of me” and “asked why I wasn’t sent to be with other English speakers,” Khweis testified. When he asked a member of the leadership, he said, “I was told that I was still under investigation.”
Throughout, Khweis maintained that he intended to be only an observer, not a member, of the terrorist group.
He told jurors he was emulating journalists, such as Vice News reporter Medyan Dairieh, who spent three weeks embedded with ISIL. The news media showed only ISIL’s atrocities, he testified, while their online supporters also touted the possibility of a peaceful life in the caliphate. He loved Syria when he visited with his family as a teenager, and was gripped by the current civil war. He wondered whether the ruling government was more violent than ISIL.
“Coming from a Muslim background . . . I thought that I could just blend in,” he said. “I wanted to go real quick and come back out; I wanted to see it.”
Prosecutors say Khweis gave himself over, willingly, to ISIL and is now trying to hide his affiliation in the face of three felony charges.
“You chose to do what a lot of people wouldn’t do,” said prosecutor Raj Parekh. “Nobody held you at gunpoint to get inside that taxi.”
Under cross-examination, Khweis was reluctant to admit to his attempts to conceal his movements or that he was at all helpful to ISIL members. He claimed he exaggerated his actions when he spoke to FBI agents in Iraq.
Khweis said he was “desperate” to leave but had no freedom of movement until Tal Afar, when after several attempts at escape he took a cab north and then walked the rest of the night towards what he believed to be Kurdish territory.
When he heard voices and smelled smoke, he said he knew he was no longer in ISIL territory, where cigarettes are banned. He surrendered to local Kurdish forces on March 14 of last year.
“Hello, can you please help me,” he recalled asking. “I’m an American… I want to go back home.”