ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The Kurdish peshmerga forces patrolling northern Iraq in March 2016, Mohamed Khweis looked for all the world like an Islamic State suicide bomber. They are definitely not peg him as a bus driver from the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D. C.
When they saw him approach the stretch of no-man’s-land separating the Islamic State from the Kurdish-controlled parts of Iraq, they fired warning shots in the air. They ordered him to strip to his underwear. They seized money and canned fish, thinking that it might be a bomb.
CAPTURED AMERICAN ISIS FIGHTER SAYS, “I WAS NOT THINKING STRAIGHT’
They were surprised to see he was an American, wearing a Virginia driver’s license. The officials of the V. S. were surprised as well that they had no idea Khweis had left Virginia to travel to the Islamic State.
Now Khweis, 27, is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, for the provision of material support to a terrorist organization.
While more than 100 Americans have been charged with terror-related offences linked with the Islamic State, most are charged in sting operations, where the defendant only thought he had a connection with the Islamic State.
Khweis is among a small number of Americans who actually made it to the Islamic State, and then fled after realizing they had made a mistake.
Khweis told Kurdish television that life in Mosul was hard and “I found it very, very difficult to live there.” He noted that there are non-smokers and mandatory religion classes.
Khweis grew up in northern Virginia and is a graduate of Edison High School in Fairfax County in 2007. According to court records, he served as a driver for the region’s Metro system.
In 2015, he left the U.S. for Europe. After stopovers in London and in the Netherlands, he arrived in Turkey, and the Islamic State facilitators smuggled him across the Syrian border to Raqqa, prosecutors say.
In Raqqa, the Islamic State and the capital, prosecutors say Khweis went through a formal intake process, in which he declared his willingness to serve as a suicide, prosecutors say. He was sent to live in Mosul, where he spent a number of weeks taking long classes in the Islamic law.
He spent three months in the Islamic State, and Khweis’ lawyers say that he tried a few times to escape. Finally, he was able to escape after an all-night walking tour of the Iraqi city of Tal Afar. He walked miles before reaching a Kurdish military checkpoint in the vicinity of Sinjar mountain.
The Kurdish leader who was arrested Khweis testified during a pretrial hearing about the arrest.
“We thought he might be a suicide bomber,” the peshmerga official testified through an interpreter. “For anyone who approached us would blow himself up.”
Many details of Khweis’ the case came in a pro forma session in which his defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought to have his confession tossed out of court. The defense lawyers argued that the US government abused a common practice in questioning terrorism suspects. Governments often conduct separate interrogations, beginning with intelligence interviews. The right to silence is not explained to him. After those discussions are concluded, a second “clean team” of interrogators will return to the question of the suspect, read him his rights, and who wish to make use of the information in a criminal prosecution.
The defense argued that the intelligence interrogators deliberately shaped Khweis’ answers into something that can be abused by the clean team. At one point, the intelligence interrogator wrote in an e-mail that Khweis was “a row of perfect for the cleaning team.”
Attorney John Zwerling said Khweis was desperate to return to the US. after weeks in a Kurdish prison, even if that meant facing criminal prosecution in the US. He said that the FBI interrogators exploited that, which suggests that Khweis required to self-incriminate, it is sufficient that the prosecutors would bring charges and seek his extradition.
Prosecutors acknowledged that the e-mails to discuss Khweis is prepared for a criminal trial is a pity, but said Khweis was eager to talk.
In the press of a terror investigation “sometimes you have to not say things with a queen’s English precision,” prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said.
Ultimately, prosecutors say, Khweis was more than willing to talk about joining the Islamic State and agreed to be interviewed, even after he is informed that his family had hired a lawyer for him.
“This is a defendant who simply wanted to talk,” said prosecutor Raj Parekh. “He wants his story to get out there. He wants his time with ISIS to be known.”