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ISIS recruit from Virginia testifies: 'I just wanted to see the other side'

Mohamad Khweis, 27, of Alexandria, Va.

U.S. DISTRICT COURT, ALEXANDRIA

By RACHEL WEINER | The Washington Post | Published: June 6, 2017

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An American who traveled undetected into Islamic State-controlled Syria and fled three months later says that he was "curious" about life under the terrorist regime.

The news media showed only their atrocities, he testified in federal court this week, but their online supporters also touted the possibility of a peaceful life in the caliphate. He loved Syria when he visited with his family as a teenager, when it was gripped by civil war. He wondered if the ruling government was more violent than the Islamic State.

"I know there's always two sides to a story," said Mohamad Khweis, who was born and raised in Alexandria and captured in Iraq last March. "I just wanted to see the other side."

Khweis's testimony, along with documents used during his trial, offer an unusual view into the world of the terrorist group. Khweis described a detailed form the group filled out with questions he answered, including his shoe size, last job and skills. He was required to give a blood sample. And he was asked whether he'd be a suicide bomber or commit a terrorist attack at home.

Khweis, 27, told jurors he was emulating journalists, such as the VICE News reporter Medyan Dairieh, who spent three weeks embedded with the Islamic State.

"Coming from a Muslim background . . . I thought that I could just blend in," he said. "I wanted to go real quick and come back out; I wanted to see it."

Prosecutors say he was a willing member of the terrorist group who gave himself over to the Islamic State.

It was after a night of drinking at bars in Istanbul, Khweis testified, that he got up the courage to make that journey. He started using Twitter to contact Islamic State supporters who appeared to be in Syria. His first handle, "fearislove1," did not get much of a response. So he created an account with the handle "IAgreenbirdIA," a reference to martyrdom that he thought would be more "appealing."

Khweis appears to have followed many of the suggestions given in an Islamic State manual on traveling for Westerners published online in 2015. Khweis testified that he stopped in two European countries before flying to Turkey, and took photos of tourist sites in Istanbul. He took a bus to the border city of Gaziantep. He used several encrypted phone apps to communicate and was picked up at a hotel in the middle of the night, as the manual suggests would happen.

From the hotel, he was taken in a cab that held four other recruits - three from France and one from Tunisia. They were driven to the border, where they were told to walk across to avoid detection. Around the time Khweis crossed into Syria, Turkey was building walls along the border and bulking up patrols to stem the tide of Islamist militants.

Because of land mines, the group was told to walk in the tracks of cars, FBI agent Brian Czekala testified.

Once in Syria, the group were picked up in an SUV by a Turkish man who told them to put their phones on airplane mode and remove the batteries to avoid detection.

Khweis, like other recruits, was asked upon arrival in Syria for his date of birth, blood type, kunya or nickname, country of origin, citizenship, "occupation before jihad" and other details. He was asked if he had any dependents or female slaves with dependents. One Islamic State member filled out his answers on a handwritten form, while another entered them into a computer, according to testimony.

The terrorist group kept meticulous records, many of which were seized during the Iraqi Army's capture of Mosul earlier this year. A copy of the computerized spreadsheet shown in court included an "allowance" for every fighter.

"It's a treasure trove for researchers who are trying to understand this," said Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. "It's important to the public, and it provides a level of nuts and bolts of joining a terrorist organization that you haven't seen before in the U.S. court system. This stuff usually doesn't see the light of day."

Khweis was also asked if he would be a suicide bomber - a question he said he interpreted as a test, or an attempt to determine whether he was a spy.

He said he chatted with other recruits, who told him they had heard it was impossible to be Muslim in the United States and that Syrian Muslims in the country had been killed over a parking space.

"I told them no, that's not how it is," Khweis testified. "That there may be a few incidents, but Muslims are allowed to pray; there are even officers that walk them into the mosque."

He was then taken to a second safe house, where he met recruits from Australia and Russia. Their blood was taken, and they were told it would be tested for hepatitis B, HIV and other diseases, he said.

When his blood test came back negative, Khweis was given a medical identification card with his kunya on it, according to the FBI agents' testimony.

The recruits were visited by a group called Jaysh al-Khalifa asking for volunteers to commit terrorist attacks in their home countries, Czekala testified. They were told that the volunteers must be single, uninjured, willing to train in remote locations and able to live an isolated life on their return home.

Khweis said he met one American who had been part of Jaysh al-Khalifa but was sent back due to kidney problems.

Hughes said that others who have defected from the Islamic State describe being approached by the elite commando unit only after religious and weapons training, and that in the past all recruits were asked more detailed and frequent questions.

"It sounds like it's not as coordinated as it used to be," he said. "It was much more systematic in the 2013 to 2014 time frame."

Khweis was transferred to Mosul for religious training, living with a largely Russian-speaking group in a church that had been converted into a mosque.

According to Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency, Russian passport-holders comprise as much as 8 percent of the Islamic State's foreign fighters. They come largely from the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region.

For about 25 days, they were instructed in proper prayer and the terrorist group's interpretation for Islam. Khweis said he often missed prayer as he was experiencing a severe stomach illness. So were many other recruits, he recalled, in part because some were drinking water meant only for hand-washing, eating with their hands and not using toilet paper. An Islamic State leader visited the house to lecture them on hygiene.

Fellow recruits left for military and sniper training; some were put at checkpoints. Khweis got trash and cleaning duty, went grocery shopping, and accompanied wounded soldiers to the hospital. He said he was given basic medical training. He would also supplement fellow recruits' allowance with the money he had brought, FBI agent Victoria Martinez testified.

He was then taken to a final safehouse in Tal Afar, a northwestern Iraqi city still controlled by the Islamic State. Again, he was surrounded by people who did not speak his language, although he was told there was a community near Mosul of Westerners.

"The people in the house, they were suspicious of me, they asked why I wasn't sent to be with other English speakers," he said. When he asked a member of the leadership, he said, "I was told that I was still under investigation."

Martinez testified that Khweis recalled fleeing from the Tal Afar safe house on his third attempt and heading toward Kurdish territory, where he was arrested by local soldiers on March 14.

He is charged with providing material support to the terrorist group, conspiracy to provide material support and possessing a firearm in a crime of violence.

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