He met a girl, the young man explains, a conventional opening for a saga that soon veers into the realm of the sinister. An Iraqi girl. It was she who led him astray, he implies.
“I made a bad decision to go with the girl and go to Mosul,” he says matter-of-factly, referring to the northern Iraqi city under control of Islamic State extremists. “At the time I made the decision to go, I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Mohamad Jamal Khweis, 26, a native of Virginia, surrendered this week to Iraqi Kurdish forces, saying he had become disenchanted with the militant group.
Khweis is the first U.S. national known to have been taken into custody by U.S. allies after venturing to the self-proclaimed caliphate of Islamic State, whose militants have seized vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
In a 17-minute interview with Kurdistan24 television, Khweis sketches out the story of his singular sojourn. He seems outwardly sincere, yet the only verifiable part of his story is its finale — his surrender to Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Wearing a gray T-shirt and tan slacks, Khweis appears calm as he speaks in fluent English. A Kurdish flag provides the backdrop for the interview, which appears to take place in an office.
Khweis portrays himself as a rather hapless soul, buffeted by a whirlwind of events, falling prey to curiosity, caprice — and, of course, to the girl, who is never named. Still, he doesn’t appear bitter. He did get out alive, unlike many other foreign volunteers who have made similar journeys.
His motivations remain opaque. He told his interviewers he was not particularly religious, and seldom attended mosques at home in the United States. He said he bristled at the religious indoctrination imposed by those he had joined.
“It was pretty hard to live in Mosul,” he said. “It’s not like Western countries, you know. It’s very strict. There is no smoking. … I found it hard for everyone there.”
At no point did Khweis ever say whether he took up arms on behalf of Islamic State. He mentioned nothing about training or fighting, though foreign recruits to the militant organization are often dispatched to the front lines, frequently as suicide attackers.
By some estimates, more than 200 U.S. citizens have traveled to fight with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Their numbers are dwarfed by the thousands of Europeans and possibly tens of thousands of Arabs, Russians, Pakistanis and others who have joined the “jihad” in Syria and Iraq.
For U.S. security officials, American citizens pose a special threat because of their ability to enter the United States without visa or background checks.
Currently in Iraqi Kurdish custody, Khweis could theoretically face charges of joining a terrorist organization if returned to the United States.
In the interview, Khweis spoke in a monotone and sometimes sounded like a wayward traveler explaining how he had distractedly gone off path during a backpacking jaunt. Occasionally, he flashed a subdued smile.
“Things didn’t work out,” he explained of his decision to leave. “I didn’t see myself living in that environment.”
Khweis said his family was from the Palestinian territories, but had lived for almost three decades in the U.S. He attended high school and college in Virginia, studying criminal justice in college. He visited mosques irregularly, “Friday prayers sometimes.”
In mid-December 2015, he said, he left for London, then Amsterdam. He didn’t say why. Next he headed to Turkey, transit route for thousands of militants who have streamed into Syria since the war broke out there in 2011.
“I met an Iraqi girl in Turkey,” he said. “We spent some time together.”
He never specified whether they were romantically involved. Nor did he reveal her name, though he did say she was from Mosul, once a bastion of Baath Party loyalists of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In June 2014, Islamic State militants overran Iraq’s second-largest city and have controlled it ever since. Life in Mosul remains somewhat of a mystery to the outside world.
Khweis said the Iraqi girl he met had a sister who was previously married to an Islamic State fighter. The sister, he explained, helped make arrangements for the pair to go to Syria from Gaziantep, the southern Turkish city that has become a hub for Syrian exiles.
A taxi took them to the Syrian border. The pair met another contact, then walked for half an hour before meeting with “the Daesh guys,” he said, referring to Islamic State by an Arabic acronym. Khweis and the girl split up.
“I went with the Daesh guys, and she went ... into another vehicle,” Khweis says. Whether he ever saw her again is not clear.
His hosts shuttled him and other foreigners from house to house. Everyone had to surrender their passports and IDs, he said. They were all given nicknames. Khweis was now “Abu Omar.” He said he never met another American.
Before long, Khweis said, he and other foreign enlistees wound up in the Syrian city of Raqqah, which the group considers the capital of its caliphate. But one day in January, a van took him and others on a 10-hour road trip to Mosul, across the border in Iraq. They were taken to “a big place, like of place of worship,” where “a few Russians were in charge,” he said.
“That’s when we began to learn about the religion. There was an imam, who taught us, like, the sharia,” Khweis said, referring to Islamic law. “I didn’t agree with their ideology,” he said, without elaboration. “That’s when I decided I needed to escape.”
He asked around, and someone suggested getting in touch with “the Kurds” as a means of fleeing, referring to the inhabitants of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, which borders hundreds of miles of territory held by Islamic State.
“I wanted to go to the Kurds’ side, because I know that they are good with the Americans,” he says.
With help from friends, he made it to Kurdish lines near the Iraqi city of Sinjar, recently retaken by the Kurds from Islamic State.
“When I met with the Kurds, they treated me very well,” he said. “I’m happy I made that decision.”
What would he counsel fellow Americans to do?
“My message to the American people is the life in Mosul is really, really bad,” he said. “The people who are controlling Mosul don’t represent the religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
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