Friends and neighbors said, “He was a really good kid.” and “He was a good, kindhearted person.” Sound familiar?
Mohamad Khweis never stood out in any particular way. The Alexandria man graduated from Fairfax County’s Edison High School, earned a degree from Northern Virginia Community College and worked as a teller at an area bank.
He racked up more than a dozen traffic and other petty charges, but in nearly every case, he quietly paid his fine or performed his court-ordered community service. He told a Kurdish broadcast outlet that he left the United States in December, as any American might, to travel to London.
Then, over the course of a few months, Khweis joined and then quickly fled the Islamic State terrorist organization, after which Kurdish peshmerga forces captured him. Early Thursday morning, he was flown back to the United States, where he will be charged in federal district court in Alexandria with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, according to U.S. officials familiar with the case.
Kurdistan24 – “I attended a mosque in America, but not that often…I left the States in the middle of December 2015 and went to Europe. I first went to the UK,” Khweis said
From London, he moved to Amsterdam and then to Turkey where he met an Iraqi woman whose sister was married to an IS fighter. The pair found contacts who took them to Syria and then to Mosul. “First, we took a bus from Istanbul to Gaziantep…From there, a driver picked us up and took us to the border and then [we went] from Syria to Iraq.”
“I don’t know the exact places we passed by, but [we arrived] in Mosul on January 16,” Khweis said.
In the IS-controlled territories, the recruit was stripped of his identification cards and was given the nickname “Abu Omar.” He then lived with 70 foreign fighters in one house until he was transported to Mosul.
In the new location, he would spend most of his day in religion classes. “Our daily life was basically prayer, eating, and learning about the religion for about eight hours.”
But the lessons the Imam preached did not seem acceptable to Khweis. “I didn’t complete the whole Sharia [Islamic Law]. I didn’t agree with their ideology. That’s when I wanted to escape.”
The American fighter also explained that the living conditions in Mosul were very difficult. “It is not like Western countries. It is very strict and no smoking there. There are a lot of foreign fighters walking around with weapons, and many are from Central and South Asia,” he said.
Reflecting on his time in Mosul, he stated, “I stayed there about a month, and I found it very, very hard to live there. I decided to return home [US],” he continued. “I found someone who could take me back to Turkey. First, he said he could help me, but then he said it will be difficult to take me all the way to Turkey. He told me he will take me close to Turkey’s border.”
Khweis then decided to cross the Kurdish frontlines and contact the Peshmerga forces.
“I made a bad decision to go…to Mosul. At the time I made the decision, I was not thinking straight. On the way there, I regretted. I wanted to go back home. After things didn’t work out and I couldn’t see myself living in such an environment,” he added.
“I wanted to go to the Kurds’ side because I know that they are good with the Americans. And I decided to make my journey to go and meet with the Kurds. And when I met with the Kurds, they treated me very well. And I am happy I made that decision,” he said.
He concluded by addressing people of the United States. “My message to the American people is that life in Mosul is really very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh [IS] does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
It is unclear precisely what U.S. law enforcement thinks Khweis did during his time with the Islamic State; the charges are expected to be unsealed later Thursday. Before he left the United States, he was unknown to the FBI. But the 26-year-old son of a limo driver and cosmetologist described his time overseas himself in a video on Kurdish TV, saying that he ultimately decided it wasn’t to his liking.
While U.S. prosecutors have charged at least 85 people across the country with Islamic State-related crimes, Khweis — the first American to have been captured on the battlefield — presents an atypical case.
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 — though that figure includes even those who never left the United States. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, estimated recently that about two dozen have been killed in Syria and another two dozen are still fighting there.
Kurdish peshmerga forces said they first fired on Khweis when they encountered him near the border town of Sinjar, 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 Muslim American 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, his Palestinian parents having come to this country more than two decades ago. He attended Fairfax County’s Mark Twain Middle School and Edison High School, graduating from the latter in 2007.
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. “There wasn’t even like a question about his actions of him doing something in the wrong way. He was a really good kid.”
Khweis 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 did not 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 DWI, from 2007 to 2012. He paid hundreds of dollars in fines and costs and, in the trespassing case, completed more than 50 hours of community service at an adult learning center, the records show. His former attorney said he did not recall details about Khweis — though he would not tell a reporter whether he did so because of lawyer-client confidentiality rules.
“The truth is, I just don’t remember a thing in the world about him,” said the attorney, B.R. Hicks.
It remains unclear what attracted Khweis to the Islamic State. In the video posted on Kurdistan 24, Khweis said he traveled to Turkey via London and Amsterdam, and there he met an “Iraqi girl” in Turkey who said she knew someone who could take them into Syria. He decided to follow her, he said, and after a circuitous journey, he soon found himself undergoing intensive religious and legal instruction in Mosul. Via: Washington Post