ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Islamic State deserter Mohamad Khweis was on the verge of tears Tuesday as he insisted to jurors, after almost six hours on the witness stand, that he loves America.
In the grueling lead-up to the 27-year-old’s emotional outpouring, Justice Department attorney Raj Parekh showed jurors slide after slide of images found on the cellphone Khweis was carrying when U.S. authorities picked him up in Iraq.
Among the photographs were black-clad ISIS recruits and soldiers wielding AK-47s; mass graves; maps of Islamic State-held territory; dead men covered in dust and blood; the body of a U.S. solider engulfed in flames, lying beside his vehicle; and even the World Trade Center at the moment of impact on Sept. 11, 2001.
With each turn of the slide, Parekh first asked Khweis if he knew how the photos ended up on his phone. Khweis struggled to answer, often attempting to explain every piece of evidence instead of following instructions by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady to simply answer yes, no or I don’t know.
Repeatedly, Khweis said that several of the images “accidentally” ended up on his phone. Some appeared after a drunken night of scrolling, Khweis said. Others were there because of general searches he conducted on Google that brought up related material, he claimed. And in one case, Khweis said that perhaps some of the content on his phone, particularly images found under encrypted browsers, ended up there because he momentarily allowed an ISIS facilitator to use his phone in Turkey.
“And after looking at these photos, did any of these deter you from traveling to Syria?” Parekh asked after each slide.
“No,” Khweis said each time he was asked.
A native of Fairfax, born to Palestinian immigrants, Khweis has been held without bail pending his trial on a charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
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.
I wanted to “see it for myself,” see the “real Islamic State,” Khweis testified Monday under direct examination.
Khweis said it was only at a safe house littered with weapons that he realized he made a mistake. He claims he engineered an escape, managing after the third try to surrender to Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, but prosecutors note that Khweis never attempted any contact with the U.S. prior to his capture.
After an hour of hammering Khweis on the contents of his cellphone, Parekh began contrasting Khweis’ testimony with what he told FBI agents days after his capture.
Khweis admitted on the stand that his initial story to FBI agents, that he followed a girl over the Turkey-Syria border, was a lie. There was never a girl.
He also failed to tell U.S. authorities that, while staying in an ISIS safe house, he met another American who received training from Jaish Khalifa, an offshoot of the emergent Syrian terrorist group Jaish al-Fatah, which encourages would-be terrorists to return to their home states after receiving ISIS training to wreak havoc.
Khweis’ meeting with the American came during times the two men were attending prayer ceremonies.
“And at the end of the ceremonies, these people would say ‘And may God destroy America,’ correct?” Parekh asked.
“There were lessons there where the children and parents [of those there] had been killed by [U.S.] airstrikes, and sometimes they would say it,” Khweis said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “I love my country, and that’s what I told the agents. It hurt when I heard that.”
Undercutting claims by the defense that Khweis has been fully dedicated to providing the FBI with intelligence he gleaned during his ordeal abroad, Parekh questioned why Khweis failed to give up details about his meeting with the radicalized American.
“You knew an American was out there and you didn’t tell the State Department,” Parekh said. “You had the chance and you just didn’t tell them.”
“Out of fear,” Khweis said. “I was receiving death threats all the time. I could have been killed.”
“Who threatened you?” Parekh asked.
“The Kurds,” Khweis responded.
A Kurdish official sat in on the bulk of Khweis’ interviews with the FBI before they returned with him to the United States. That presence, Khweis said, forced him to lie about details of his journey. At one point, when he was separated from agents after an interview, Khweis said a few Kurds took him into a nearby room and told him: “You’re our property. We can do whatever we want with you, and we could poke your eye out and make you eat it.”
“But you never told authorities this,” Parekh asked. “Not in the interview room. Not on the plane home?”
“No,” Khweis said.
Later Parekh asked FBI Special Agent Victoria Martinez to take the stand, and fired off a series of questions: Did Khweis say he was mistreated by the Kurds while detained; did he ever ask for a lawyer; did he ever tell any agents, including her, about the death threats he received while there? Did he ever offer to recant statements he made under alleged duress — including his own admission that he intended to be a suicide bomber once fully trained by ISIS?
“No, he did not,” Martinez said.
In convicted of providing material support to a terrorist organization, Khweis faces up to 20 years in prison.
Closing arguments begin Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia at Alexandria.