Alexandria, Virginia resident Mohamad Khweis, 27, gained the dubious distinction on Friday of becoming the only American citizen to be convicted in a U.S. jury trial of successfully joining the Islamic State overseas. His prize amounts to 20 years in prison.
More than 100 people in the U.S. have been charged with trying to help or join ISIS, but Khweis actually traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria in December 2015 and even received an official membership card to prove his allegiance with the terrorists. However, after a few months of learning to adapt to the restrictive rigors of Sharia law, Khweis yearned for the comforts of home and decided to escape.
He surrendered in northern Iraq to Kurdish forces in March of 2016, and they broadcast his capture to the world.
Convicted on terrorism charges earlier this year, Khweis has since been awaiting his sentence. Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick had argued for 35 years in prison.
“This defendant executed his plan to perfection. He got into the Islamic State. He was in their machinery. He was providing himself and his services to the organization,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that the unique nature of his crime warranted a stronger sentence.
Once he made it to the Islamic State territory in late 2015, he “became the consummate utility player for the Islamic State,” said prosecutor Raj Parekh. “When ISIS needed his blood, he allowed them to draw it. When ISIS needed him to cook and clean for wounded soldiers, Mohamad Khweis multitasked and filled that role as well.”
One thing Khweis never did, his lawyers said, was take up arms on behalf of the Islamic State.
“While he was there, he did not fight. He did not do harm to another human being,” defense attorney John Zwerling said.
The vast majority of people charged in U.S. courts with Islamic State-related terrorism offenses ran into sting operations in which the suspects thought they had made a connection with the terrorist group, only to find out that their supposed contacts were actually undercover informants or agents.
Zwerling argued that Khweis deserves some credit for leaving the Islamic State on his own and cooperating with authorities by providing them intelligence on the group’s inner workings. He also helped authorities identify four Westerners who had left the Islamic State with intentions to do harm in their home countries.
“He provided valuable, actionable intelligence,” Zwerling said. “And the government has given him zero credit for any of it.”
Zwerling further pointed out that it was counterproductive to punish Khweis with decades in prison, because it sends the message to other Americans who might consider abandoning the Islamic State that they have nothing to look forward to in the U.S. but a prison cell. Zwerling and defense attorney Jessica Carmichael argued for a five-year sentence.
In a letter to the court, Khweis apologized for his actions, calling it “the worst decision I ever made in my life.”
A report released this week revealed that at least 129 Americans have left the country to join ISIS, but only 7 are known to have returned. Concerns are being raised that those not accounted for may have “slipped through the cracks” and could potentially return unnoticed to create additional terror risks.
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