He ultimately led ISIS’s English-language media arm, prosecutors allege, whose output included videos, audio statements and an online magazine. Prosecutors say Khalifa narrated over a dozen ISIS recruitment videos, including two of the group’s most influential efforts at luring Westerners: “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun,” in 2014, and “Flames of War II: Until the Final Hour,” in 2017.
In the videos, according to court records, Khalifa encouraged supporters to try to join the Islamic State abroad or, if they could not, to launch attacks in their home countries. One video included a voice recording of the man who declared his allegiance to ISIS before committing a massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Others showed brutal executions, including of Syrian prisoners who were forced to dig their own graves and a Jordanian pilot being burned alive.
“As alleged, Mohammed Khalifa not only fought for ISIS on the battlefield in Syria, but he was also the voice behind the violence,” Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who also is one of the prosecutors handling the case, said in a statement. “Khalifa promoted the terrorist group, furthered its worldwide recruitment efforts, and expanded the reach of videos that glorified the horrific murders and indiscriminate cruelty of ISIS.”
Khalifa, who was born in Saudia Arabia, also was responsible for translating material from Arabic to English, prosecutors said. He is charged with conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization resulting in death. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.
It’s the second case involving the Islamic State’s propaganda arm recently brought to the federal court in Alexandria, where many high-profile international terrorism cases are prosecuted. Parekh and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick also are handling the case against two men accused of helping to kill American and British hostages on behalf of the Islamic State, executions that were featured in gruesome propaganda videos. One of the pair pleaded guilty last month; the other is to go to trial next year.
At the time the “Flames of War” videos were released, American authorities had no idea who the narrator was; the FBI sought the public’s help in identifying him in 2015. After his capture, Khalifa identified himself to multiple news outlets as the mysterious propagandist.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. after his capture, Khalifa said, “I had a normal life back in Canada, I was doing very well for myself, and I decided to give it up knowing … what I was sacrificing in the process. That was a decision I made, and I stuck to that decision.”
According to the CBC, Khalifa was an information technology specialist in Toronto when he joined the Islamic State. He said he was himself radicalized by propaganda videos — ones narrated by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who joined al-Qaeda and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
“I came here to fight jihad not just to defend Syrians, but because it’s an obligation to fight the tyrants, remove them from power and establish the Shariah, all with the aim of reestablishing the Islamic caliphate,” he wrote in an email to a close relative just after leaving Canada, according to court records.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian extremism researcher at Queen’s University, was the first to identify Khalifa as the voice of violent ISIS videos.
People said he was crazy, Amarasingam recalled, when he said the man calling himself Abu Ridwan al-Kanadi sounded “distinctly like people I grew up with in Toronto.”
Now, Amarasingam says he hopes to learn whether Khalifa held any higher position in the Islamic State beyond being producer of English propaganda.
“He’s a significant person, in that, whenever Westerners interacted with ISIS media, ISIS claims, ISIS radio, he was the voice we heard,” Amarasingam said. “He also went with ISIS to the last holdouts.”
As the Islamic State was collapsing in 2018, Khalifa told FBI agents, he was ordered to flee but chose to stay and fight. In a gun battle with the Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2019, his AK-47 jammed and he surrendered, according to prosecutors.
Court records did not indicate whether Khalifa has a lawyer.