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What life inside the Islamic State looks like for new recruits

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/06/2017 Rachel Weiner
Mohamad Khweis, 27, of Alexandria, Va., while in Kurdish custody. (U.S. District Court, Alexandria, Va. via AP) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Mohamad Khweis, 27, of Alexandria, Va., while in Kurdish custody. (U.S. District Court, Alexandria, Va. via AP)

An American who traveled undetected into Islamic State-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. His tale of how he snuck both into and out of Islamic State 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.

Khweis described a detailed form the group filled out with questions he answered, including his shoe size, skills and whether he had any female slaves. 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 the Islamic State that focuses on homeland attacks.

In Virginia, Khweis’s life was unremarkable. He graduated from Northern Virginia Community College and, at one point, worked as a Metro Access driver.

On the stand, Khweis explained how articles online gave him a roadmap to the Islamic State, although he sought to minimize his own alleged deviousness.

He testified that he had stopped in two European countries before flying to Turkey and took photos of tourist sites in Istanbul. He then took a bus to the border city of Gaziantep, where he began communicating with Islamic State 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.”

He used several encrypted phone apps to communicate and was picked up at a hotel in the middle of the night, as the manual suggests would happen.

From the hotel, he was taken in a cab that held four other recruits — three from France and one from Tunisia. They were driven to the border, where they were told to walk across to avoid detection. Around the time Khweis crossed into Syria, Turkey was building walls along the border and bulking up patrols to stem the tide of Islamist militants.

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 to avoid detection. Because of land mines, the group was told to walk in the tracks of cars, FBI agent Brian Czekala testified.

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 the Islamic State. The news media showed only the Islamic State’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 the Islamic State.

“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 the Islamic State and was now trying to hide his affiliation. Under cross-examination, Khweis was reluctant to admit to his attempts to conceal his movements and deal with Islamic State members.

“How many reporters in the history of mankind have joined ISIS?” asked prosecutor Raj Parekh.

Khweis is charged with providing material support to the terrorist group, conspiracy to provide material support and possessing a firearm in a crime of violence.

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. One Islamic State member filled out his answers on a handwritten form, while another entered them into a computer, according to testimony.

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.”

He was then taken to a second safe house, where he met recruits from Australia and Russia. Their blood was taken, and they were told it would be tested for several diseases, he said.

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 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.

Hughes said that others who have defected from the Islamic State describe being approached by the elite commando unit only after religious and weapons training and that in the past, all recruits were asked more detailed and frequent questions.

“It sounds like it’s not as coordinated as it used to be,” he said. “It was much more systematic in the 2013 to 2014 time frame.”

Khweis was transferred to Mosul for religious training, living with a largely Russian-speaking group in a church that had been converted into a mosque.

According to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Russian passport-holders comprise as much as 8 percent of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters. They come largely from the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region.

For about 25 days, they were instructed in proper prayer and the terrorist group’s interpretation of Islam. Khweis said he often missed prayer, as he was experiencing a severe stomach illness.

Fellow recruits left for military and sniper training; some were put at checkpoints. Khweis got trash and cleaning duty and went grocery shopping. He said he was given basic medical training. He would also supplement fellow recruits’ allowances with the money he had brought, FBI agent Victoria Martinez testified.

He was then taken to a final safe house in Tal Afar, a northwestern Iraqi city controlled by the Islamic State. Again, he was surrounded by people who did not speak his language, although he was told there was a community near Mosul of Westerners.

“The people in the house, they were suspicious of me; they asked why I wasn’t sent to be with other English speakers,” Khweis said. When he asked a member of the leadership, he said, “I was told that I was still under investigation.”

Khweis said he had no freedom to leave his house until Tal Afar, when after several attempts he took a taxi north and then walked the rest of the night.

When he heard voices and smelled smoke, he said he knew he was no longer in Islamic State 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.”

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