The 26-year-old Virginia man who was taken into custody in Iraq after he purportedly deserted the Islamic State told a Kurdish TV station Thursday that he decided to escape after he grew dissatisfied during intensive religious training in Mosul.
Mohamad Khweis told Kurdistan 24 that his life under the Islamic State in Mosul was a “very strict” regimen of prayer, eating and eight hours of daily instruction in religion and sharia law. He said he soon came to realize that “I didn’t really support their ideology.”
Khweis said he stayed only about a month, then reached out to someone who could help him make his way toward Turkey. He said he planned eventually to return to the United States.
“It was pretty hard to live in Mosul,” he said. “It’s not like the Western countries, you know, it’s very strict. There’s no smoking. I found it hard for everyone there.”
Khweis spoke haltingly but in fluent English in the roughly 17-minute video, which was edited and showed him sitting against a backdrop that included a Kurdish flag. Kurdish peshmerga forces took him into custody Monday near the town of Sinjar, about 80 miles west of Mosul. What will happen to him next remains unclear, although the FBI — which did not previously have Khweis on its radar — is investigating the matter.
In the video, Khweis said he is the son of two Palestinians who came to the United States more than 25 years ago and was born and raised in Virginia. Friends have said he is a 2007 graduate of Fairfax County’s Edison High School. Khweis said he attended college in Virginia and studied criminal justice.
Khweis said he attended American mosques only infrequently, and his friends from high school have said that he showed no signs of religious fanaticism.
It was unclear from the video why Khweis decided to travel to Islamic State territory in the first place. He said he left the United States in December, traveling to Turkey via London and Amsterdam. He said he met an “Iraqi girl” in Turkey who said she knew someone who could take them into Syria.
“So I decided to go with her,” Khweis said.
Khweis said he took a bus from Istanbul to Gaziantep in southern Turkey, then took a taxi from there toward the Syria border. He said the sister of a woman he met had previously been married to an Islamic State fighter, and she made some arrangements for the trip.
At some point after crossing into Syria, Khweis said, he and his female companion were split up, and he was eventually driven to a house where foreigners seemed to stay. He said he turned over his identification papers to those in charge and soon headed to other houses for foreigners in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in north-central Syria.
Khweis said he was surrounded by people from countries such as Russia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan but did not encounter any other Americans. Each person, he said, was given a nickname.
He said he waited in Raqqa for about a week until he was transferred to Mosul for religious training, which he did not complete. The timeline of when he arrived and when he fled was not exactly clear. Mosul is the largest city in northern Iraq and the Islamic State’s main stronghold in the country.
“I didn’t agree with their ideology, and that’s when I wanted to escape,” he said.
Khweis said a friend told him the way to Sinjar, and he tried to stay near territory he knew was under Kurdish control.
“I wanted to go to the Kurd side because I know that they’re good with the Americans,” he said.
Khweis said he “wasn’t thinking straight” when he decided to travel to Syria and regretted his decision.
“Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, they don’t represent the religion,” he said, using other names for the Islamic State. “I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
A congressional report released late last year said that more than 250 people from the United States had joined or attempted to join extremist groups fighting overseas. It warned that “many of them are only a plane-flight away from our shores.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.