ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Mohamed Khweis, the Virginia man captured on the Islamic State group’s battlefield in Syria, was convicted Wednesday of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
After a two-day trial, marked by lengthy rounds of often emotionally charged testimony, the racially diverse but female-majority jury spent less than one day deliberating.
“Khweis knew exactly what he was doing, knew exactly who ISIS was, and was well aware of their thirst for extreme violence,” U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said in a statement after the verdict, using the abbreviation for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
A 27-year-old Fairfax native, Khweis testified for roughly 13 hours, over the course of two days on the witness stand, that his ISIS membership had been something of a misunderstanding. He claimed that he surrendered at the first opportunity to Kurdish Peshmerga military forces.
But the defendant’s explanation for his actions did not settle well with prosecutors. They said ISIS intake forms proved that Khweis had joined with the objective of becoming a suicide bomber.
The forms featured Khweis’ name, age, skills, specialty before jihad and status as a fighter, alongside the details of 19 additional ISIS fighters.
“Khweis is not a naïve kid who didn’t know what he was doing,” said Boente, the prosecutor with the Eastern District of Virginia. “He is a 27-year-old man who studied criminal justice in college. He strategically planned his travel to avoid law enforcement suspicion, encrypted his communications, and planned for possible alibis.”
Khweis chalked up his actions to natural curiosity, however, testifying that he had wanted to “see it for myself.” In December 2015, the Edison High School graduate bought one-way plane tickets from the United States to London, and from London to Turkey, where he hooked up with human smugglers to cross the border into Syria.
Boente, the prosecutor, emphasized that voluntarily joining the Islamic State’s ranks “is a federal crime, even if you get scared and decide to leave.”
Though Khweis denied that he was a committed jihadist, Justice Department attorney Raj Parekh walked the jury through the litany of propaganda found on Khweis’ phone, depicting gory scenes like a U.S. soldier engulfed in flames, the World Trade Center at moment of impact on Sept. 11, 2001, and Islamic State soldiers toting AK-47s and ISIS flags.
Defense attorney John Zwerling, of the firm Zwerling/Citronberg, had moved unsuccessfully to suppress the phone evidence before cross-examination was underway on Tuesday.
In addition to counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support, Khweis was convicted of a related firearms county. The charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, with a five-year mandatory minimum.
Andrew Vale, assistant director at the FBI’s Washington field office, emphasized that Khweis had intentionally joined the Islamic State “to further their radical ideology.”
“When ISIL leaders questioned Khweis’ commitment to serving as a suicide bomber to carry out acts of terrorism, Khweis stated that he agreed and recognized that ISIL uses violence in its expansion of its caliphate,” Vale said, using an alternate abbreviation for the Islamic State.
Unraveling the defendant’s claims of misunderstanding, prosecutor Parekh confronted Khweis with binders of evidence on his phony email accounts, his use of covert browsing apps over multiple phones, and his social-media posts aimed at luring communications with ISIS facilitators.
On Twitter, Khweis had used the coded handle, @IAGreenBirdIA — a reference to the symbol in Islamic tradition of the vehicle that can lift a soul to heaven and a common detail on ISIS-friendly social media pages.
During one of Khweis’ more emotional moments on the stand, he told the jury that he feared for his life during his detention in Iraq by Kurdish officials. He quoted one Kurdish official as threatening to poke out his eye before eating it, but the government called FBI Special Agent Victoria Martinez as a rebuttal witness to contradict these claims.
Martinez said Khweis never told her, whether in Iraq or on the long plane ride home to the U.S., that he felt under threat during the days-long interview process.
Khweis will be sentenced on Oct. 13. U.S. District Judge O’Grady presided over the trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.