ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) – A Virginia man who authorities say joined the Islamic State group for two months before surrendering to Kurdish authorities has been flown back to the U.S. to face terrorism charges.
A judge on Thursday unsealed charges against Mohamad Khweis, 26, of Alexandria alleging he provided material support to terrorists and agreed to be a suicide bomber for them.
Khweis was captured by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq in March. He told his captors he was a Palestinian-American who had gone to join the Islamic State. But he told Kurdish television he became disenchanted with life in the Islamic State and made his way to the front lines to surrender, where he renounced the organization’s ideology.
At the time of his capture, U.S. authorities and even Khweis’ own family appeared to be caught off guard that he had left the U.S. to join the militant group.
At an initial appearance Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Khweis – shorn of his long hair and beard – waved to his father, mother and brother as he was led out of the courtroom. He said little during the five-minute hearing; he was ordered held pending a detention hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
An FBI affidavit filed last month and unsealed Thursday states that an Islamic State group member asked Khweis whether he was willing to serve as a suicide bomber. Khweis said he agreed, but he told U.S. authorities that he believed the question was a test of his loyalty.
According to the affidavit, Khweis received training in Islamic law during his time there, but the affidavit makes no mention of military training. Khweis told investigators that the only time he touched a gun in his time there was to move it off a couch so he could sit down.
Khweis told the FBI he developed an interest in joining the Islamic State in mid-2015, and that he left in December from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Turkey in December 2015, according to the affidavit. He sold his car before departing.
“The defendant was inspired to join ISIL because he saw that they had established an Islamic caliphate and were in the process of expanding it,” FBI agent Victoria Martinez wrote in her affidavit. “The defendant stated that he knew ISIL used violence in its expansion of the caliphate, but he also stated that ISIL engaged in peaceful and humanitarian efforts.”
From Turkey, he made contact with Islamic State facilitators who smuggled him and others into Syria, and stayed in Islamic State safe houses in the Syrian city of Raqqa during the month of January, according to the affidavit.
At one of the safe houses, Islamic State officials said the recruits would be trained to return to their home countries and conduct attacks on behalf of the Islamic State, according to the affidavit. Khweis told investigators he never agreed to participate is such an operation.
The affidavit states that Khweis received the majority of his religious training in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is controlled by the Islamic State. The imam in those lessons ended every session by saying “May God destroy America,” according to the affidavit.
According to the affidavit, Khweis admitted burning his laptop and destroying two mobile phones before surrendering to the Kurds.
Khweis’ attorney, John Zwerling, said after Thursday’s hearing that he was not able to comment on specifics of the case and that he had only briefly met with Khweis to discuss it. Asked if there is a legal distinction between moving to the Islamic State to live there as opposed to actively taking up arms to fight on its behalf, he said the distinction is an important one.
Merely living in the Islamic State “may get you indicted but may not get you convicted,” he said. “Mosul is Mosul. A lot of people live there.”
He also cautioned that the government’s narrative in the FBI affidavit is its interpretation of his remarks.
“Everything is not as it appears in the government’s pleading,” he said.