Seeking Truth, not Jihad, Islamic State Defector Says

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – The young Virginia man who smuggled himself into an Islamic State safe house in Syria faces cross-examination Tuesday after testifying that it was never his intention to become a terrorist.

“There’s always two sides of a story,” Mohamad Khweis told a jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on Monday afternoon.

Khweis, a 27-year-old Fairfax native, has been held without bail pending his trial on a charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

A graduate of Edison High School, Khweis spent three months detained in Erbil after surrendering to Kurdish authorities. “I wanted to go back to America,” Khweis famously said after a month in Mosul, a region of Iraq that has been under the control of the Islamic State group since 2014.

“What were you thinking?” defense attorney John Zwerling asked his client Monday.

Wearing a pale blue button-down shirt, fitted gray slacks and a fresh hair cut, Khweis said his curiosity had been piqued when he heard about the unrest in that part of the world heating up in 2014.

“I had been to Syria with my family when I was 13 or 14,” said Khweis, whose parents are Palestinians. “We went to fancy hotels, restaurants. I watched a magician in the streets. It was a really good experience. So when I saw what was going on in Syria, I was really curious about what had happened there.”

Khweis said he first began searching about the Syrian regime to understand how they treat civilians there. The searches brought up some unique perspectives, including some videos suggesting that Muslims in the region were getting help from some offshoots of the Islamic State group.

His soft voice filling the courtroom Khweis told jurors that he didn’t intend to smuggle himself into Syria when he bought one-way plane tickets from the United States to London and from London to Turkey.

Once on the Turkey-Syria border, however, he said he wanted to get closer to the action.

I wanted to “see it for myself,” and see the “real Islamic State,” Khweis said.

Hoping to hook up with human smugglers on social media, Khweis said created a Twitter handle @IAGreenbirdIA. Green bird is a code word used for supporters of jihad, but Khweis said he used the word as a lure, not because he supported jihad. 

“You were aware green bird had a connotation for someone involved in ISIS who may be more interested in the violence?” attorney Zwerling asked, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State group. “What if the people trying to help you were helping those members of ISIS?”

Khweis said that it was only at the safe house where he saw weapons on the floor and realized the intent of the smugglers and other ISIS associates in his caravan.

After two unsuccessful escape attempts, Khweis was captured by Kurdish forces.

U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick emphasized in his opening statement, however, that Khweis never attempted any contact with the U.S. prior to his capture.

Khweis was gaunt at his first court appearance last year but has fleshed out considerably since then.

The defendant sold his car and quit his job before he met up with the Islamic State smugglers. Telling the court that curiosity has always come naturally to him, Khweis said he was prepared to study criminal justice. Khweis wanted to become an investigator since he was a child, he said, noting that he had once worked as a loss-prevention specialist.

At his bail hearing last year, Khweis said his temporary allegiance to ISIL was a “bad decision” made after he followed a girl to Mosul.

The defense has emphasized that Khweis has no prior history of violence, with just “small-time marijuana charges” on his record. They also deny that Khweis receive military or firearms training when he landed in Mosul.

Prosecutors note meanwhile that Khweis’ personal computer and phone contained a variety of Islamic State propaganda videos.

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