ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A jury on Wednesday convicted a Virginia man on terrorism charges after he traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State group and volunteered to serve as a suicide bomber.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mohamad Khweis of Alexandria left the U.S. in December 2015 for Turkey, looking for a way to get across the Syrian border and join the militant group.
He eventually spent three months in Islamic State(ISIS)-controlled territory before reconsidering his choice and escaping. He was captured in March 2016 by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.
Khweis took the unusual step of testifying on his own behalf at the trial, telling jurors he just wanted to "check things out" in ISIS and then realized it was not for him.
"He wanted to find out how they could justify some of this stuff," like suicide bombings, said defense attorney John Zwerling, who asserted there was no evidence his client ever expressed a desire to harm America. "It's not a crime to explore, to try to see some of this information for yourself," he said.
Prosecutors ridiculed the notion that Khweis had himself smuggled across the Syrian border on some sort of curiosity tour. They noted that Khweis expressed a willingness to be a suicide bomber on an official ISIS intake form.
"Nobody joins a terrorist organization like ISIS, that is renowned for its terror and its ... murderous agenda, just to check things out," prosecutor Raj Parekh said.
Khweis, 27, is one of more than 100 people charged in the U.S. in recent years with helping or trying to help ISIS. But most cases involve sting operations. His is among a small handful that involve individuals who actually evaded the U.S. intelligence apparatus and reached ISIS territory.
Khweis lived in ISIS territory from December 2015 through March 2016. According to trial testimony, he became intrigued with ISIS in 2015. He told FBI agents who questioned him after his arrest that he was interested in the establishment of a caliphate and wanted to tell his grandchildren he had been a part of it.
He quit his job as a bus driver in the D.C. region and booked a one-way flight to Istanbul, via London and Amsterdam. Once in Turkey, he established social media accounts using the moniker GreenBird, which is associated with martyrdom by ISIS.
Khweis used his social media accounts to reach out to people he thought could help smuggle him across the border to Syria, including one person known as the "Mad Mullah."
Finally, in late December, he got the call: He should leave his hotel room and enter a waiting taxi if he wanted to join. He did, and was smuggled across the border along with several Frenchmen. At one point, he received text orders to get out of the car and alternately walk and run across the border territory, taking care to avoid land mines.
He was processed by ISIS during a short stay in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The processing was formal, with blood tests, intake forms, and issuance of an ID card. It was on these intake forms that he expressed his willingness to serve as a suicide bomber.
During the next three months, he bounced among several safehouses in Syria and Iraq. He received religious training, and he met an American with a unit called Jaysh Khalifa, which trains people to go back to their home countries and conduct attacks.
Prosecutors pointed out that Khweis was interrogated multiple times before mentioning the American, which they said was shameful, given the risks to the United States.
Khweis testified that he came to believe he was destined for military service, but he never seemed to gain the trust of ISIS officials, who suspected he was a spy.
Khweis said he only expressed a willingness to serve as a suicide bomber because he would otherwise be labeled a spy.
Defense lawyers had emphasized that, under the law, Khweis could not be convicted of providing support to terrorists if he were being coerced or acting under duress. His freedom ended once he entered that taxi outside his Turkish hotel room, they said.
"From that point forward, ISIS took control of his life," defense attorney Jessica Carmichael said. "Whatever expectation he had about being able to walk the streets of Raqqa and see what life was like, that wasn't going to happen."
Prosecutors countered that Khweis knew exactly what he was getting himself into.
"It takes a highly dedicated and highly motivated individual to get to the Islamic State," prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said.