In December 2015, Virginia-born Mohamad Khweis bought one-way plane tickets from the United States to London, then to Turkey. By November 2016, he had been indicted on terrorism and weapons charges.
In between, Khweis had been smuggled into Syria, joined ISIS, fled the group, and was captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq. And last week, after contradicting himself on the witness stand and failing to provide a credible story as to his time with ISIS, Khweis was sentenced to 20 years in prison. What happened?
Khweis gave varying accounts of his three months with ISIS forces, at times claiming he just wanted to experience the "caliphate," that it was a drunken impulse, or that he had followed love across the Turkey-Syria border. And yet his Twitter handle was lifted from ISIS-friendly social media pages, his phone was littered with anti-American imagery, and a detailed intake form listed his shoe size, skills, and "specialty before jihad."
Federal prosecutors methodically picked apart each of Khweis' excuses over 13 hours of testimony during his two-day trial. Justice Department attorney Raj Parekh confronted Khweis with evidence of phony email accounts, covert browsing apps downloaded onto multiple phones, and social-media posts allegedly aimed at baiting ISIS facilitators. The most damaging evidence may have been the propaganda found on Khweis' phone, including photos of a U.S. soldier engulfed in flames, the World Trade Center at moment of impact on 9/11, and Islamic State soldiers toting AK-47s and ISIS flags.
Ultimately, Khweis was convicted of providing and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization and one weapons charge. "He obstructed justice from Day 1 and during his cross-examination," U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady noted during sentencing. "All of the counts were met."
While those charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison and prosecutors asked for a 35-year sentenced, O'Grady showed some leniency. "I believe you left because you became disillusioned," O'Grady said, handing down the 20-year sentence. "You didn't harm anybody. You didn't kill anybody. You left of your own volition."
"Because Mr. Khweis will not be the only young man to engage in this travel," his lawyers maintained in a sentencing memo to the judge, "it is imperative to ask -- when those youth change their minds, do we want them to turn themselves in and provide valuable intelligence information, or do we want them [to] stay under ISIS control, possibly causing harm to themselves or others?"