A 26-year-old Virginia man had only been in the ranks of ISIS for a few weeks before he apparently decided he’d had enough of life in the caliphate and wanted to return home.
Mohamad Jamal Khweis, who was apprehended on Monday by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, has claimed that he traveled to Iraq in late January to fight with ISIS and later fled, according to a statement released by the Kurdistan Region Security Council on Wednesday. Khweis was reportedly carrying three mobile phones and Turkish currency. The Kurdish authorities said he was trying to make his way back to the U.S. when he was apprehended near the town of Sinjar while leaving the ISIS stronghold of Mosul.
Khweis’s apparent defection from ISIS comes as U.S. officials are seeing mounting anecdotal evidence of disillusioned fighters leaving the terror group’s ranks, a U.S. intelligence official who is not authorized to speak publicly told The Daily Beast.
State Department spokesman John Kirby addressed the rising number of defections in comments this week, noting, “Fighters are becoming... certainly disenchanted with the effort that they signed up for.”
The mystery surrounding Khweis’s journey into the heartland of ISIS was heightened with the revelation that he’d been traveling with an unidentified Iraqi woman, who accompanied him as he traveled through Turkey and into Syria in December 2015, according to Kurdish authorities.
A State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast that they had no information on the Iraqi woman. It’s not clear if she was a member of ISIS helping Khweis travel. But the group has a network of women responsible for recruiting and retaining new members, U.S. officials have said.
The State Department had no comment about Khweis beyond an earlier statement that officials were aware of reports that a U.S. citizen had been captured and “are in touch with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to determine the veracity of these reports.”
Khweis didn’t go to Iraq directly via Virginia. “His journey from the United States included stopovers in a number of European countries,” the Kurdish statement said, without naming them.
“He is in the Kurdistan Region being questioned by relevant security authorities and is provided the care afforded to him under international and local law,” the statement said.
What happens to Khweis next will likely depend on whether U.S. officials want to prosecute him.
The easiest charges to bring would probably be for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization or receiving military-style training from ISIS, Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told The Daily Beast.
Khweis could also be charged under laws that make it illegal for U.S. citizens to join in the overthrow of a foreign sovereign. (ISIS is trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as are rebel groups in the country.) Chesney said, however, that such a prosecution would be politically awkward since the Obama administration is also seeking Assad’s ouster.
Nevertheless, it seemed unlikely that U.S. authorities would not seek to question Khweis and ultimately return him to the United States. There was no obvious reason why Kurdish authorities would want to imprison a U.S. citizen, or that the Obama administration wouldn’t want to see an American who joined ISIS face justice in a U.S. court, Chesney noted.
The U.S. has captured and interrogated at least two members of ISIS, each of whom has provided valuable intelligence about the group’s inner workings. Most recently, a former official in Saddam Hussein’s government who was instrumental in ISIS’s chemical weapons program provided information that led to U.S. airstrikes.
While Khweis may not have been a senior ISIS member, he could still provide details on how Americans and other foreigners are recruited and make their way overseas to fight.
“I would think he’d be a huge priority for intelligence collection,” Chesney said, adding, “I’d be surprised if he were not prosecuted.”