ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A Virginia man who joined the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq for three months, all the while evading the scrutiny of U.S. intelligence officials, was convicted Wednesday on terrorism charges despite his protestations that he was only there to "check things out."
The jury in U.S. District Court took only four hours to deliberation before convicting Mohamad Khweis, 27, of Alexandria, on all charges. He could potentially face 20 years or more in prison when he is sentenced in October.
Earlier Wednesday, the jury heard closing arguments in which Khweis' lawyers acknowledged that Khweis left his home in Virginia in December 2015 to join the Islamic State group. He even got an official membership card. But they argued those facts don't automatically make him a terrorist.
Khweis took the unusual step of testifying on his own behalf at the trial, telling jurors he just wanted to see for himself what the militant group was like. After a few months, he 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 that there's 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 IS intake form.
After the verdict, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente said in a statement that "Khweis is not a naive kid who didn't know what he was doing. He ... knew exactly who ISIS was, and was well aware of their thirst for extreme violence. Nonetheless, this did not deter him. Instead, Khweis voluntarily chose to join the ranks of a designated foreign terrorist organization, and that is a federal crime, even if you get scared and decide to leave."
Khweis is one of more than 100 people charged in the U.S. in recent years with helping or trying to help the IS. But most cases involve sting operations. His is among a handful that involves individuals who actually evaded the U.S. intelligence apparatus and reached IS territory.
Khweis lived in the Islamic State territory from December 2015 through March 2016. According to trial testimony, he became intrigued with the Islamic State group 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 the Islamic State group.
Khweis used 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. 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 IS 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. On these intake forms, he expressed his willingness to serve as a suicide bomber.
During the next three months, he bounced among several safehouses in Syria and Iraq.
Khweis testified that he came to believe he was destined for military service, but he never seemed to gain the trust of IS 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.