An Alexandria, Va., man who in 2015 quit his job as a Metro Access bus driver and traveled to Islamic State territory has been found guilty of supporting terrorism.
Mohamad Khweis, 27, was captured in northwestern Iraq last March by Kurdish forces, surprising American counterterrorism officials. He had no known record of extremism and was on no law enforcement radar; he made his way from Fairfax County to Syria undetected.
“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,” Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement.
Khweis insisted he was not in league with the terrorist group. He went to trial in federal court in Alexandria and testified in his own defense, saying he wanted only to see the situation in Syria with his own eyes. He was convicted Wednesday of providing and conspiring to provide material support to the terrorist group, along with firearm possession in connection with those crimes.
“It was very stupid,” defense attorney John Zwerling said in closing arguments. His client, he argued, was “a little off” and “childlike . . . the kind of person who could and did think” that Islamic State supporters would smuggle him into Syria and then let him explore on his own.
Instead, Khweis testified that he was essentially forced from safe house to safe house, where he saw and heard about Islamic State fighters but did little himself.
“He had to play along,” Zwerling argued.
Khweis made that point fairly clearly in his testimony, but even on uncontested details he was inconsistent and self-serving. When being questioned by his own attorney Khweis appeared easily confused, struggling to follow questions and saying at one point that he had “zoned out.”
Though defense attorneys never disputed that a Twitter account he created with the name “IAgreenbirdIA” referenced jihadism, Khweis testified first that he was inspired by Twitter’s blue bird and then that martyrdom could be nonviolent. He also claimed he had downloaded multiple encryption apps to his phone, not to hide his movements and conversations abroad, but out of fear of getting hacked.
Likewise, he said he made a new email account only because he had forgotten his old password. He suggested he burned his laptop and two of his five cellphones before escaping an Islamic State safe house because he did not want his personal information, such as his credit score, falling into terrorist hands.
He said he spent much of his 10 weeks with the Islamic State suffering from a stomach illness, but there was no record that he told that to the FBI agents who questioned him in Erbil, Iraq.
Khweis blamed his own past lies, including his initial claim that he was in Iraq because he was dating a local woman, on his fear of Kurdish authorities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick, in his closing arguments, called the testimony a “word salad” and “nonsense.” He suggested that Khweis was distorting the facts just as the Islamic State distorts the Muslim religion.
“The jihadist mind has a tortured relationship with the truth,” Fitzpatrick said. “Human beings have a breathtaking ability to rationalize their own bad conduct.”
Zwerling countered that, because much of the case rested on Khweis’s own admissions to the FBI, the young man’s own unreliability should exonerate him.
“You cannot find Mohamad Khweis guilty because you cannot believe Mohamad Khweis,” he argued. “It was in his interest to exaggerate in Erbil and to mitigate here.”
There were records that confirmed Khweis’s involvement with terrorists, including an Islamic State intake form found by Iraqi Army forces in Mosul earlier this year. Prosecutors also pointed to flight purchases showing his irregular path from Baltimore to Turkey via one-way plane tickets, Twitter records of his conversations with Islamic State supporters, and data from his phone proving that he had looked at violent pro-jihad content.
On the stand, Khweis said he was drunk in Istanbul when looking at those photos and could not recall many.
Clearly, Khweis had researched the Islamic State and wanted to get into Syria undetected, Zwerling said. But he argued that if Khweis was truly “in cahoots” with the terrorist group, they could have snuck him back into the United States.
“Nobody, knew he was there,” Zwerling pointed out. Instead, Khweis fled and offered authorities information about the radicals he had met.
But jurors sided with prosecutors, who found Khweis’s motivations incredible. His sentencing is set for Oct. 13.
“No one joins an organization like the Islamic State, that is renowned for its terror, its lethality, its brutality, just to check it out,” Raj Parekh, a Justice Department trial attorney, said in closing arguments. “This is not a tourist destination; this is not an amusement park . . . He knew exactly what he was getting himself into.”