Mohamed Khweis, a non-descript Virginian who sporadically attended mosque, briefly joined the Islamic State (ISIS) but surrendered himself to Kurdish forces in March, saying he was glad to escape the radical Islamist terrorist group. He was flown back to the United States early Thursday morning to face trial. Charges have not yet been made public.
“My message to the American people is — the life in Mosul, it’s really, really bad,” Khweis told Kurdistan 24 News. “The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS] does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
Khweis told Kurdistan 24 the story of his brief flirtation with the terrorist organization. “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,” the man said.
He went from London to Amsterdam, and finally to Turkey. There, he met an Iraqi woman whose sister was married to an ISIS fighter. The two smuggled themselves to Syria and then to Mosul, a major city under control of the Islamic State. They arrived in Mosul on January 16.
Once in ISIS terroritory, Khweis was stripped of identification and was given the nickname “Abu Omar.” He lived with 70 foreign fighters in one house before being taken to Mosul.
Despite Khweis’ declaration that Islamic State militants are not good Muslims, they made him attend religion classes all day. “Our daily life was basically prayer, eating, and learning about the religion for eight hours,” he said.
Khweis did not agree with the teachings, however. “I didn’t complete the whole Sharia [the Islamic law]. I didn’t agree with their ideology. That’s when I wanted to escape.”
But his disagreements went beyond religion. “It is not like Western countries,” Khweis explained. “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.”
Khweis spent about a month in Mosul, and “found it very, very hard to live there. I decided to return home.” He found a friend who promised to take him to Turkey, but he could not go all the way. He crossed the Kurdish lines and contacted the Peshmerga forces.
“I made a bad decision to go…to Mosul. At the time I made the decision, I was not thinking straight,” he said. “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.”
Khweis said he decided to go to the Kurds’ side “because I know that they are good with the Americans.” He recalled that “when I met with the Kurds, they treated me very well. And I am happy with that decision.”
Next Page: Are there other Americans charged with ISIS-related crimes? Does Khweis’ case show any “telltale signs” of terrorist involvement?
Although U.S. prosecutors have charged at least 85 people across the country with ISIS-related crimes, Khweis is the first American to have been captured on the battlefield.
His story has no easy answers for people looking for “telltale signs” of a conversion to ISIS. Born two two Palestinian parents who came to America over two decades ago, he attended schools in northern Virginia and worked as a teller at a bank. The 26-year-old son of a limousine driver and a cosmetologist, Khweis was a Muslim, but by his own account he was not very devout.
While Palestinians may be more bitter than other Middle Easterners about Western dominance (with Israel as a symbol of it), Khweis’ past shows very little connection to the sort of anger associated with radical Islamic terrorism. A history of traffic infractions does not a terrorist make.
A yearbook from his senior year at Edison High School (he graduated in 2007) listed no extracurricular activities. Friends told The Washington Post he was a soft-spoken teen who showed no signs of a devout commitment to Islam. “He was a good, kindhearted person,” an anonymous family friend said. “He was a really good kid.”
Nevertheless, court records show Khweis was charged with over a dozen traffic and other minor offenses, between 2007 and 2012. He paid hundreds of dollars in fines and costs, and even completed community service for one trespassing case. His old attorney, B.R. Hicks, said, “I just don’t remember a thing in the world about him.”
New information might come to light, but it is entirely possible that this American Muslim was attracted by the historic phenomenon of ISIS, went there on a whim, and discovered that the organization’s ideology and lifestyle were not to his liking. He may even have been attracted to the girl who helped him get there.
This does not excuse him from serving terrorists, but it does suggest that Khweis was something less than a true believer. Now, it is the court’s duty to see if his story checks out. Here’s hoping this young man’s cautionary tale convinces other Americans not to get involved with the horrors of ISIS.
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