American ISIS defector faces terror charge

Kurdish Peshmerga forces moving in to Mufti village after it was recaptured from Islamic State, Kurdistan region, north Iraq, on May 29.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces moving in to Mufti village after it was recaptured from Islamic State, Kurdistan region, north Iraq, on May 29. PHOTO: EPA

ALEXANDRIA, US (AFP) - An American who joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and escaped after becoming disillusioned appeared in US court on Thursday (June 9) to face federal terror charges in a case that could provide insight on the extremist group.

Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a 26-year-old facing charges of providing material support to ISIS, was ordered held without bail at the hearing in his home state of Virginia.

The case could shed new light on a trend that has seen ISIS successfully recruit disenchanted youths, including from Europe and the United States, to fight on its behalf.

Khweis voluntarily gave himself up to Kurdish peshmerga forces on March 14 near Sinjar Mountain in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq, according to an affidavit submitted by a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Looking timid and not saying a word, Khweis looked over to his relatives seated in the courtroom, just hours after the unsealing of a federal criminal complaint against him.

"It was good to see him," Khweis's father said.

Khweis returned to the United States from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil late Wednesday, when he was placed in US custody.

Defence attorney John Zwerling suggested he may seek to throw out the government's evidence, which is based on statements his client gave to Kurdish and FBI officials.

"Everything is not as it appears in the government's pleadings," Zwerling told reporters.

Asked whether Khweis had been treated well while detained by Kurdish authorities, Zwerling simply responded "now he is," after being taken into US custody.

Khweis is due back in federal court in Alexandria, just outside Washington, on Tuesday for a detention hearing and on June 21 for a preliminary hearing.

Through a search of his electronic devices, investigators found that Khweis had been researching ISIS since December, with images of the World Trade Center burning on September 11, 2001, ISIS fighters and leaders, as well as maps of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, including known ISIS bastions.

During an interview with federal investigators, Khweis "stated he 'gave himself' to ISIL and that they controlled him," the affidavit read, using another acronym for ISIS.

"The defendant stated he was aware that ISIL wants to attack and destroy the United States. The defendant stated that ISIL wants America to be taken over."

In a video released online days after his arrest, Khweis describes his contacts with ISIS before stating that he had renounced the group's violent, extremist ideology.

Khweis later told the FBI that he had "provided misleading information in the video for self-protection," according to the affidavit.

During his interviews, Khweis said he was initially inspired to join ISIS because he believed they were engaged in "peaceful and humanitarian efforts." In Turkey, on his way to ISIS territory, he used the code phrase "green bird" indicating his support for violent jihad, or holy war, in order to make ISIS recruiters feel at ease in dealing with him.

While staying in an ISIS safe house in Raqqa, Syria, Khweis said he told another ISIS member he wanted to become a suicide bomber, though stressing he had believed the question was intended as a test of his commitment to ISIS, according to the affidavit.