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Prosecutors: Terror suspect went from couch in Virginia to Syria in two weeks

Mohamad Khweis (Fairfax County Police)

Mohamad Khweis quit his job as a Metro Access driver in Northern Virginia, sold his car and created a new email account to buy a one-way ticket abroad, prosecutors said, traveling a circuitous route to the border between Turkey and Syria before contacting an Islamic State facilitator to take him across. He was undeterred by reports of land mines and bombs along the route.

“He made it from his couch in Alexandria to an Islamic State safe house in Raqqa in about two weeks,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick and Raj Parekh, a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section, wrote in a court filing last week. “This is not a person who frightens or breaks down easily. . . . This defendant knew exactly what he was doing.”

Prosecutors are disputing contentions by defense attorneys that Khweis, 27, who is charged in federal court in Virginia with providing material support to terrorists, was coerced into making incriminating statements when he was detained in Iraq last year. His attorneys claimed this month that he was denied access to the American attorney his parents hired and that authorities took advantage of his intense desire to return home to Alexandria.

At the heart of the dense legal filings on both sides is a fundamental dichotomy. Was Khweis, who allegedly joined and then left the Islamic State early last year, a hapless dreamer or a sophisticated operator?

Khweis, who was born to Palestinian immigrants and raised in Virginia, spent months with the Islamic State before running away and being captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq. While with the terror group, he underwent intensive religious training in various Islamic State safe houses. Videos of terrorist attacks were found on his phone. He told investigators, according to the court documents, that “he thought he was destined for military training because he didn’t have any skills to offer ISIS,” using another term for the Islamic State.

Prosecutors said Khweis was repeatedly offered a Kurdish lawyer, including a free public defender, and declined the offer. He was also regularly visited by a U.S. consular officer.

When interviewed by intelligence agents looking for sensitive national security information, Khweis was treated well, prosecutors said.

“He was often observed smiling, laughing, appearing engaged, answering all questions and willingly volunteering information to assist the interviewers,” the prosecutors wrote.

When he later met with an FBI “clean team” whose interviews could be used in court, prosecutors said Khweis remained cooperative and at each interview signed away his right to remain silent or speak only with an attorney present.

"The defendant was also informed that an American-trained attorney is available to him, but (given that he was in Kurdish custody at the time), the agents' ability to provide the defendant with access to him may be limited by the decisions of the local authorities," the prosecutors wrote.

Khweis was given an information sheet by the State Department, which said that Iraqi lawyers do not argue for either side and that the right to remain silent does not apply, according to court filings.

Khweis was interviewed by the FBI multiple times before his attorney, John Zwerling, was added to his list of contacts. But prosecutors said that even after the State Department official met Khweis and got Zwerling approved as a contact, the prisoner waived his rights and gave an additional interview.

Six times, according to court documents, Khweis signed papers waiving his right to remain silent. He also signed a document consenting to a search of his electronic devices.

His detention was not “secret,” prosecutors add — he was seen by Red Cross and State Department officials and received letters from his family addressed to the Irbil center where was held. He also appeared on Kurdish television, in an interview discouraging others from joining the Islamic State.

The defense filing exposed tension between the FBI, State Department and Kurdish authorities over the American’s detention. Kurdish officials said Khweis needed to be moved out of the country or into their court system. State Department officials complained that they couldn’t get access to the prisoner.

Zwerling said prosecutors chose to “smear the defendant” rather than confront the issues raised in those messages, “because the facts that we used came directly from the communications of government officials.”

Prosecutors acknowledge that some emails “reflect pressure placed on the FBI by Kurdish authorities to bring the investigation to a premature conclusion.” But, they contend, the Kurds were not being manipulated by the FBI into keeping Khweis detained. In fact, the Kurds dictated the schedule of interrogations.

“It is sheer folly to suggest that one FBI Special Agent had the authority or the ability to control the actions of senior members of the Kurdistan Regional Government,” the prosecutors wrote.