News / USA

    Captured American IS Fighter's Story Raising Red Flags

    Mohamad Jamal Khweis, an American who allegedly joined and then defected from the Islamic State group, says he 'made a bad decision to go with [a] girl and go to Mosul' in Iraq. This screen grab was taken from a Kurdish24 video released March 17, 2016.
    Mohamad Jamal Khweis, an American who allegedly joined and then defected from the Islamic State group, says he 'made a bad decision to go with [a] girl and go to Mosul' in Iraq. This screen grab was taken from a Kurdish24 video released March 17, 2016.

    Intelligence officials are taking a close look at what an American Islamic State (IS) fighter is telling Kurdish media; parts of his account raise as many questions as answers.

    Mohamad Jamal Khweis, the 26-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, spoke just days after he claims to have fled from the IS-held city of Mosul.

    Kurdish forces saw him wandering near the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar Monday and fired upon him before he surrendered.

    During the heavily edited version of the interview released by Kurdistan24 television, Khweis seems relaxed and, at times, smokes a cigarette, something he said is prohibited in the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.

    “I made a bad decision to go with [a] girl and go to Mosul,” Khweis said in English. “I wasn’t thinking straight.”

    Journey to Mosul

    He described how the Iraqi girl, the sister of a woman married to an IS fighter, made arrangements for the fairly uneventful journey.

    “First, we took a bus from Istanbul to a city, Gaziantep,” he said. “From there, a driver picked us up and took us to the border and then [we went] from Syria to Iraq.”

    U.S. intelligence officials hope to learn more about Khweis’ travels and, if possible, to validate his accounts of IS, including information on foreign fighters in the Mosul area.

    For now, current and former intelligence officials, as well as analysts, are approaching the account with caution.

    “There are a ton of holes in his story,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    “The answers he is giving don't appear to be satisfactory,” he added. “The question then becomes whether he's lying, obfuscating, or just doesn't want to talk about aspects of his story. And then the next question is why?”

    A driver's license of an American identified as Mohamed Jamal Khweis, accused of being a member of the Islamic State group, who has surrendered to Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.
    A driver's license of an American identified as Mohamed Jamal Khweis, accused of being a member of the Islamic State group, who has surrendered to Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.

    How did he get ID and cash?

    One of the red flags is Khweis’ account of his escape.

    In the interview, he described how upon arriving in IS territory he was stripped of his identification papers.

    “All the foreigners had to give their IDs and passports to one of the person in charge there,” Khweis said. “From there, after we gave all our IDs and passports, we got picked up… we drove into Raqqa.”

    Yet when Khweis surrendered to Kurdish forces, he was carrying his Virginia driver’s license, as well as a stack of what appears in photos to be U.S. $100 bills, Turkish money, debit and credit cars and three cell phones.

    One former intelligence officer who watched the interview called that part of Khweis’ story – “magically getting his docs and cash” – odd.

    “It doesn’t make sense,” said Patrick Skinner, now with The Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence consultancy.

    “I've interviewed lots of people like that and if you don't ask for details you don't get them -- get the old 'every time frame is a week' spiel and generic 'went to a house,'” he said. “But odd from an educated person.”

    Why was his escape so easy?

    Skinner also wondered why Khweis never speaks to a basic question.

    “What made him travel in the first place, not just to Mosul but the whole trip?” Skinner asked.

    The ease of Khweis’ escape also raises questions given IS’s reputation for executing fighters and others who try to flee.

    “About a month [after] I was there, I decided to return back home,” Khweis said.

    “At first [a friend] said he could help me, but then he said it will be difficult to take me all the way to Turkey,” he said. “He told me he will take me close to Turkey’s border.”

    According to his account, though, his escape from Mosul is seamless.

    The Iraqi girl?

    Another claim that has raised suspicions is his story about the Iraqi girl who escorted him from Turkey to Syria.

    IS has long used the promise of women or brides to lure would-be foreign fighters. And intelligence officials have said IS does make use of unofficial networks, like family relations, to help bring in more recruits.

    But the role Khweis described for the Iraqi girl is, at least, unusual.

    “It's surprising that ISIS would allow a woman who is not related to the recruit to travel with him alone,” said terror analysts J.M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism and co-author of ISIS: State of Terror. "It could also be a sign something isn't right with this story.”

    Still, officials and analysts say parts of Khweis’ account are plausible.

    “It is very possible he was lured over through a network that used women to alleviate suspicion of a single male or single female,” said ex-undercover Canadian security and counterterrorism operative Mubin Shaikh. “It does seem that she was indeed part of a network waiting for him.”

    There is also Khweis’ journey from London to Amsterdam to Turkey, where he finalized his travel plans to Syria and IS territory.

    “We've seen this route before,” Shaikh said.

    And his description of the training and the array of foreign fighters is consistent with other accounts.

    Khweis said he spent about a week at a house in Raqqa, spending time with “a lot of Asians, a lot of Russians, people from the surrounding area, like Uzbekistan,” as well as Egyptians, Moroccans and Algerians.


    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 2
        Next 
    by: wigglwagon from: Appalachia
    March 19, 2016 9:56 AM
    The "bad decision" was becoming a terrorist. He will carry out his mission when the opportunity presents itself.

    by: mel perry from: san francisco
    March 18, 2016 11:01 PM
    smells like a half assed attempt to place a sleeper back into the
    u.s., let the kurds do with him, as they want, we don't need no more
    traitors in this country, we already have enough, with the gop and
    the tea baggers in washington

    by: Phyllis from: RI
    March 18, 2016 6:57 PM
    Spy

    by: H Martinez from: CA
    March 18, 2016 6:51 PM
    Anybody else think his personality in the interviews he gave was....just a little...weird? I don't know what it is but his answers are so short and simple and he seems so emotionless

    by: daliya Robson from: WALNUT CREEK CA 94595
    March 18, 2016 6:44 PM
    TAKE AWAY ALL HIS CELL PHONES AND WAIT FOR A CALL FROM HEAD QUARTERS OF ISIS .HE IS A PLANT. THE STORY DOES NOT FIT .

    by: Anonymous from: Anonymous
    March 18, 2016 6:11 PM
    Not even a word on how many innocent people he killed and/or organization he joined by his own free will. He needs to be treated accordingly.

    by: Anonymous
    March 18, 2016 6:06 PM
    ISIS fighters are paid regularly, cash is always needed to survive.
    The parts of the story that don't match up probably means that he's not being open about his situation like the others have said he could be a sleeper, a spy, a plant into the prison system.
    All in all if he doesn't have good info he should just be locked up, GITMO is bad cause it locks up people who aren't from the outside, and the innocent. But for people who are susp like him I wouldn't begrudge such a fate. He is guilty of being a traitor. Once the war is over though and its safe I'd want him out.

    by: anynmous from: usa
    March 18, 2016 5:26 PM
    He said it is a bad decision. for his bad decision , how many innocent people killed on the hand of this criminal. how many beheaded . he has to be rotten in Iraq and his citizenship should be revoked and he should not go back to us under any circumstances

    by: Suzi Saul from: US
    March 18, 2016 5:18 PM
    Clearly he's lying. Saying he didn't know their ideology before he left the US is the reddest flag he's waving. EVERYONE knows their ideology. He's being sent back for a reason/mission.

    by: Ahmad from: Iraq
    March 18, 2016 5:12 PM
    Americans have zero intel on the ground, as usual now they are trying to look smart by trying to beat up on this wannabe ISIS chickenhawk.... Get off your comfortable desks and get on the ground and do some real spy work...This guy was obviously in over his head, he's only 26 for goodness sake, these wannabe intel agents love conspiracy theories....yes sometimes people make dumb choices and yes sometimes they will hide their ID and maybe a sympathizer gave him money and phones to escape, who knows...
    Comments page of 2
        Next 

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora