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American ISIS fighter who ‘found it hard’ returns to face criminal charges

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/06/2016 Matt Zapotosky

<span style="font-size:13px;">Mohamad Khweis after a 2010 DUI arrest.</span> © Fairfax County Police Department Mohamad Khweis after a 2010 DUI arrest. A Northern Virginia man who joined and then fled the Islamic State before being captured by Kurdish fighters in Iraq was flown back to the United States late Wednesday to face trial. Mohamad Khweis was charged in federal district court in Alexandria with providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, according to U.S. officials familiar with the case and court records.

Khweis is expected to appear in court Thursday afternoon.

In an 11-page affidavit, FBI Special Agent Victoria I. Martinez alleged that Khweis, 26, moved to various IS safehouses during his time abroad and admitted in an interview that he told another member of the group — also known as ISIL or ISIS — that he wanted to be a suicide bomber in response to a question he thought was meant to test his loyalty.

Martinez stated in the affidavit that Khweis was “inspired to join IS because he saw that they had established an Islamic caliphate and were in the process of expanding it.”

No lawyer was listed for Khweis in court records, and his father has declined repeated requests for an interview with The Washington Post. Before he left the United States, Khweis was unknown to the FBI. But the son of a limo driver and cosmetologist described his time overseas himself in a video released by Kurdish TV, saying that he ultimately decided it wasn’t to his liking.

“I found it very, very hard to live there,” Khweis told Kurdistan 24.

Khweis, of Alexandria, graduated from Fairfax County’s Edison High School in 2007. He took classes at Northern Virginia Community College from 2009 to 2014, eventually earning an associate’s degree in administration of justice, a college spokeswoman said. Several professors at the college said they did not know or remember him. Khweis also worked as a teller at Sandy Spring Bank in Fairfax from 2009 to 2011, a bank spokeswoman said.

Court records show that Khweis was charged with more than a dozen traffic or other minor offenses, such as trespassing and DUI, from 2007 to 2012. He paid hundreds of dollars in fines and other costs and, in the trespassing case, completed more than 50 hours of community service at an adult learning centre, the records show.

Martinez alleged in the affidavit that Khweis said in an interview with investigators that he became interested in joining the Islamic State in mid-2015, and he conducted extensive online research, watching videos of Islamic members executing prisoners and conducting other operations. In December of that year, he flew out of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, selling his car before he left the country, Martinez alleged in the affidavit.

Martinez stated that Khweis stopped briefly in London and communicated while he was there with an extremist cleric before he moved on to Turkey and Syria. Khweis said at one point that he was approached by a group from the Islamic State arm responsible for training foreign volunteers to carry out attacks in their home countries, but he did not commit to training with them, according to Martinez’s account in the affidavit.

Martinez wrote in the affidavit that Khweis spoke with the FBI voluntarily and waived his Miranda rights, and he also told agents that his interview on Kurdish TV was not done under duress.

Although U.S. prosecutors have charged at least 85 people nationwide with Islamic State-related crimes, Khweis is the first American to have been captured on the battlefield.

According to a recent congressional report, more than 250 Americans have tried or succeeded in getting to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant groups — although that figure includes even those who never left the United States. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, estimated recently that two dozen have been killed in Syria and that another two dozen are still fighting there.

Kurdish peshmerga forces said they first fired on Khweis when they encountered him near the town of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, then took him into custody.

“This is an unusual situation,” said Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who tracks terrorism suspects. “It’s relatively rare, first of all, for an American to attempt to go to Syria and Iraq to join the militants. It’s even rarer for them to make it.”

According to his own account on TV and to several people who knew him, Khweis was born and raised in Virginia, the son of Palestinian parents who came to this country more than two decades ago.

The yearbook from his senior year lists him as having participated in no extracurricular activities. Friends have said he was a soft-spoken teenager who wore designer shoes and showed no signs of being a particularly devout Muslim.

“He was a good, kindhearted person,” said one family friend, who declined to give his name.

Martinez alleged in the affidavit that when Khweis was detained by the peshmerga, he had three mobile phones, two bank cards and about $600 in various currencies. The FBI agent stated that Khweis had maps of Turkey, Iraq and Syria on his electronic devices, as well as images of the World Trade Center burning on Sept. 11, 2001.

Martinez wrote that Khweis acknowledged he knew the Islamic State “used violence in its expansion of the caliphate,” but also asserted that the group “engaged in peaceful and humanitarian efforts.”

In the video posted on Kurdistan 24, Khweis said that he traveled to Turkey via London and Amsterdam, and that there he met an “Iraqi girl” who said she knew someone who could take them into Syria. He decided to follow her, he said, and after a circuitous journey, he found himself undergoing intensive religious and legal instruction in Mosul.

Khweis, who said in the video that he attended American mosques infrequently, said that he immediately regretted his decision to go with the girl, and that he particularly did not enjoy his time in Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq and the Islamic State’s main stronghold in the country.

Khweis said that he was banned from smoking and made to study religion eight hours a day, and that he soon reached out for a friend to help facilitate his escape.

“My message to the American people is: The life in Mosul, it’s really, really bad,” he said.

Adam Goldman and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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