Last December, 26-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis told his family he was setting off on a European vacation. He fell out of touch not long after his departure, but his parents didn’t worry too much – they figured he was sightseeing in London or Amsterdam.
The next time they heard of him was just after dawn on March 14, when reporters showed up on their suburban Virginia doorstep with devastating news: Khweis was in Kurdish custody in northern Iraq after fleeing the Islamic State. Khweis had promptly disavowed the group on Kurdish television, becoming the first known American to defect from the extremists’ self-proclaimed caliphate.
“All of us and all of his friends are shocked. He wasn’t even religious,” said his younger brother, Tamer, 21, in the family’s first extended interview. “He’s always a happy person, making other people happy. This is not who he is.”
The unusual circumstances of Khweis’ brief time with the Islamic State make for a test case that’s being closely watched by U.S. officials and researchers involved in the fight against the extremists’ propaganda. With Khweis, the Justice Department faces a controversial choice: Prosecute him for terrorism, which typically leads to a long stay in federal prison, or strike a deal and use his experience as a cautionary tale to deter other would-be recruits?
“He could stand up and say, `I’m from Virginia. I’m 26, I went there and it was a huge mistake. It wasn’t what they told me it was going to be. I was lied to. Don’t make the same mistake,'“ said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and formerly of the government’s National Counterterrorism Center.
There’s little U.S. precedent in terrorism-related cases for such a proposal, which boils down to authorities going easy on Khweis in exchange for his services as an American voice in the Obama administration’s multimillion-dollar “counter-messaging” operation to discredit the Islamic State’s distorted brand of Islam.
In more than 80 domestic cases since 2014, U.S. citizens with even tenuous links to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, face charges under the broad statute of providing material support to a designated terrorist group. Authorities approve interventions or less severe punishment in only a tiny subset of cases, usually involving minors.
How to treat ‘formers’
The treatment of “formers,” authorities’ slang for ex-militants, is far less clear-cut in Europe, where nations struggling with homegrown jihadists are cautiously trying out rehabilitation and prevention programs in some cases. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands have enlisted formers to undermine jihadist recruiting; Denmark has a program to rehabilitate and reintegrate returning fighters. In Germany, families can call a hotline to get advice on how to deal with a loved one who’s already left or who’s considering a trip.
Hughes belongs to a cadre of U.S. specialists in violent extremism who recommend similar tactics here, saying that former militants have the street credibility that’s missing from the government’s programs to combat ISIS. And, the reasoning goes, there’s the added benefit of winning the trust of parents who might suspect their children are flirting with radicalism but are hesitant to consult authorities for fear of prosecution rather than intervention.
Hughes said in the United States the use of reformed defectors traditionally has been reserved for cases of former white supremacists or ex-gang members. When it comes to Islamist extremism, Hughes said, “it becomes this loaded thing that no one wants to touch.”
According to the account Khweis gave Kurdish TV, he spent only a couple of months in Islamic State territory before enlisting a friend to help him flee. If that’s true, Hughes said, he wouldn’t object to some kind of prosecution, but he’d like to see the government find a more creative use for Khweis than sticking him in a federal prison cell.
“You don’t get to join ISIS and get off scot-free,” Hughes said. “But I don’t think the best use of him is 20 years at Terre Haute or a SuperMax. I think he’s much more powerful than that. There’s a role for formers that hasn’t risen in the U.S.”
Anne Speckhard, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown University and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said she once watched a joint lecture given by an FBI agent and one of the Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni-American friends from upstate New York who were convicted of providing material support to al Qaida after attending a training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.
Speckhard said the former militant’s story was valuable because “insider voices are very powerful to discredit the group and the ideology.”
But before considering Khweis for such a role, she warned, investigators must determine how far along in training he got and whether he participated in any atrocities.
Speckhard and research partner Ahmet Yayla, former chief of counter-terrorism in Turkey, have interviewed 27 ISIS defectors for a forthcoming multimedia project. Some of the men said they were forced to execute prisoners to show their commitment early in the training phase. In the video, Khweis said he didn’t complete his Sharia training and doesn’t elaborate.
Speckhard said that Khweis’ high-stakes escape from the Islamic State also should be taken into account and, perhaps, used in the future to underscore how traveling to the caliphate is most often a one-way journey.
“Anybody that smuggles himself out is well aware that anyone who gets caught gets his throat slit, so he really wanted to get out,” Speckhard said. “And that’s a powerful voice: `I risked my life to get out of this group.’”
In Kurdish custody
The Justice Department, State Department and Kurdistan Regional Government, which oversees the mostly autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq, all declined to comment on the record. Privately, U.S. and foreign officials as well as nongovernmental figures with knowledge of the Khweis case said he remains in northern Iraq as the FBI, CIA and Kurdish security continue their investigations. So far, there have been no charges in the case, and it’s unclear whether the Kurds have formally handed over custody.
Most of what’s publicly known about Khweis’ time with the Islamic State comes from his own account in a heavily edited 16-minute interview with the Kurdistan24 television channel shortly after his apparent surrender. Khweis, who has green eyes and a thick black beard, appears without handcuffs and at times can be seen smoking a cigarette – a practice that’s banned under the Islamic State.
In a calm, measured tone, Khweis gives this account to his off-camera Kurdish interviewer: In mid-December, he left for London and then Amsterdam and eventually made his way to Istanbul, where he met an Iraqi woman “who I got to know a little bit.” She was from the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul and her sister was previously married to a fighter. They took a bus to the Turkish frontier town of Gaziantep and then a taxi that got them even closer to the border.
“At the time, I made the decision to go because I wasn’t thinking straight,” Khweis said. “And on the way there, I regretted. I wanted to go back.”
Khweis and the woman traveled into ISIS territory in Syria together but were quickly separated, he said in the interview. She disappeared into another car. He was dropped off to join other foreigners at a house where he had to relinquish his passport. He was also assigned a nom de guerre: Abu Omar. After a brief stay in Syria, Khweis said, he and other men were taken on a 10-hour van ride to Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold in Iraq.
In Mosul, he said, he began lessons in the Islamic State’s merciless interpretation of Sharia law. He spoke with disdain about the group’s teachings and said he began plotting his escape. He got a friend to help him arrange transportation for a life-or-death dash to the border. When his unidentified helper said it was impossible to get all the way to Turkey, Khweis said, he “made contact” with the nearby Kurds, who took him into custody. In no time, Khweis’ Virginia driver’s license was all over the news.
“My message to the American people is: the life in Mosul, it’s really, really bad,” Khweis said in the video. “The people who are controlling Mosul don’t represent the religion. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, they don’t represent the religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
Nightmare for family
Khweis’ journey has plunged his family into a nightmare. His parents are Palestinian Americans who said they came to the United States more than two decades ago to build a life away from war and occupation. They spoke to McClatchy on condition that they could review their quotes before publication, a practice journalists reserve for only the most sensitive stories.
Jamal Khweis said he was a strict and attentive dad to his sons, Mohamad and Tamer, and worked long hours as a mechanic, a hotel worker and a driver to rear them in tranquil neighborhoods with good schools.
Mohamad was born in Prince George’s County in Maryland and was still an infant when the family moved to Northern Virginia. The family is Muslim but wasn’t enmeshed in the local community; they went to a mosque only occasionally for the Friday congregational prayer.
Where Khweis ended up came as such a shock to both parents that they’re still struggling to accept it three weeks later. Jamal Khweis said he cornered his other son, Tamer, demanding to know if he’d been aware of anything about his brother’s travels – the answer was, “Dad, I swear to God, no.”
“If I knew there was even 1 percent that he would go there, I’d punish him myself,” Jamal Khweis said. “They get these young kids, brainwash them, and they’re not good Muslims. Looking at my boy, I know he would never, ever go that far.”