ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – A federal judge handed a 20-year prison sentence Friday to the Virginia man who told captors on a battlefield in Syria that he had defected from the Islamic State group.
Mohamed Khweis opted not to speak during his sentencing — “due to nervousness,” his defense attorney told the court — but U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady showed little trouble this afternoon relying on the contradictory testimony Khweis gave at his June trial.
“He obstructed justice from Day 1 and during his cross-examination,” O’Grady said. “All of the counts were met.”
A 28-year-old Fairfax native, Khweis testified for roughly 13 hours, over the course of two days on the witness stand, insisting that his ISIS membership had been something of a misunderstanding.
Khweis claimed that he surrendered at the first opportunity to Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, but prosecutors undermined such claims with scores of evidence.
Arguing that Khweis had joined with the objective of becoming a suicide bomber, prosecutors pointed to intake forms featuring the Edison High School graduate’s name, age, skills, specialty before jihad and status as a fighter. Details for 19 more ISIS fighters appear on the same forms.
Khweis struggled at trial to persuade the jury that it was natural curiosity that caused him in December 2015 to buy one-way plane tickets from the United States to London, then from London to Turkey, where he hooked up with human smugglers to cross the border into Syria.
The cover story that Khweis claimed to have concocted for ISIS recruiters rang a little too true, however, for prosecutors. They showed the jury a 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.
Other binders of evidence laid out Khweis’ phony email accounts, his use of covert browsing apps over multiple phones, and the social-media posts intended to bait 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.
Judge O’Grady on Friday rejected assertions by defense attorney Jessica Carmichael that the failure by Khweis to post about his desire to become a suicide bomber merited leniency.
“He chose to join ISIL,” O’Grady said, using an alternate abbreviation fort the group. “The fact that he didn’t advocate for ISIL prior to leaving was a decision he made because he knew if he did, it would have thrown up red flags.”
Defense attorney John Zwerling lamented Friday that Khweis should not have lied on the witness stand about his intent in creating the Twitter handle.
“I realize it now,” said Zwerling of the firm Zwerling/Citronberg. “It was the shame of admitting, in front of his mother, that he had an evil purpose [to travel to Syria]. The lies were pathetic but they weren’t particularly material to guilt or innocence.”
In addition to counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support, Khweis was convicted of a related firearms county. The charges carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, but Judge O’Grady opted Friday to quadruple the five-year mandatory minimum.
O’Grady also refused to toss the defendant’s conviction for obstruction of justice, noting the “wild goose chase” Khweis sent federal agents on.
Khweis, who had never contacted the U.S. government for help prior to his capture, initially concocted a back story about a unrequited romance to explain his travels.
O’Grady noted that agents spent five days, in dangerous territory and at great risk, looking for the nonexistent girl Khweis claimed to have followed across the Turkey-Syria border.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick urged the court to consider one question in light of Khweis’ dishonesty and the “arrogance” of his lies.
“What does his future look like?” the prosecutor asked. “We have no idea and the best evidence of future behavior is predicated on past behavior. I can’t say with moral certainty that he was fully radicalized before or during his time there, but there is a radicalism in him.”
Fitzpatrick sought to expel any notion that Khweis joined ISIS out of naivete or impulsivity, saying the planning that the defendant put into his plan showed attention to detail and “moxie.”
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente applauded the harsh sentence for Khweis after the hearing,
“The evidence at trial demonstrated that Mohamad Khweis is an unpredictable and dangerous person who was radicalized towards violent jihad,” said Boente, who is also the acting assistant attorney general for national security
Andrew W. Vale, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, joined in the prosecution’s applause.
“Today’s sentencing of Mohamad Khweis demonstrates the relentless efforts of the FBI and our partners within the Joint Terrorism Task Force, whom work 24/7 to identify individuals who pose a risk or harm to U.S. persons or interests,” Vale said in a statement.