An American who said he defected from the Islamic State has admitted he "wasn’t thinking straight" when he decided to go to the Middle East and join the militant group earlier this year.
"I made a bad decision to go with [a] girl and go to Mosul. ... I wasn’t thinking straight," Mohamad Jamal Khweis told an interviewer in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The 26-year-old surrendered to Kurdish peshmerga fighters near the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar and has been held by them since Monday.
Khweis, who was born in the United States and grew up in a Virginia suburb of Washington, was interviewed by Kurdistan24 television station in Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq.
No mention of fighting
Khweis spoke in English during an extensive interview that was boiled down to 16 minutes. It contains no mention of fighting or other violence, though it reveals some of the man’s background and his travels as of December, when he set out to join the extremist group.
U.S. officials and analysts are taking a close look at the interview, focusing on Khweis’ answers and demeanor. While parts of his story seem plausible, holes in the account raise concerns.
"The answers he is giving don't appear to be satisfactory," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation to Protect Democracies, told VOA. "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?"
The interview shows a bearded young man in khaki pants and a short-sleeved, collarless gray-blue shirt, speaking calmly and occasionally smiling.
Khweis said he studied criminal justice while in college, though he did not say where. He also attended mosques, but "not that often," he said in the interview, which does not indicate what motivated him to join the Islamic State.
In an interview with VOA on Monday, a woman identified as his mother said the family "thought he was in Canada lately. We also know he has been traveling to Turkey."
After leaving the United States in mid-December, the alleged IS defector said he traveled from London to Amsterdam to Turkey, where he met an Iraqi woman and "we spent some time together."
The woman, whose sister was married to an IS fighter, arranged for a trip for herself and Khweis by bus and taxi from Istanbul to Syria and then Iraq, where they were separated.
Khweis described a series of transfers among residences, most of which sheltered foreigners. In one, there were "a lot of Asians, Russians and people from the surrounding area, like Uzbekistan." He also mentioned Middle Eastern residents.
However, he noted, "During my whole trip there, I didn’t meet any Americans."
Eventually, Khweis and other recruits began religious studies at "a house of worship" in the IS stronghold of Mosul. He said "a few Russians were in charge," but he may have been referring to IS recruits from Russia’s republic of Chechnya, which has sent many fighters to the Islamic State.
"There was an imam who taught us about sharia," Khweis said, later noting that "our daily life was basically prayer, eating and learning about the religion for about eight hours."
Khweis said he did not complete the full training program and "didn’t agree with their ideology." He told his interviewer, "That’s when I wanted to escape."
"It was pretty hard to live in Mosul. It’s not like Western countries. It’s very strict. There’s no smoking," Khweis said during the interview, which also showed him puffing on a cigarette. "The lifestyle in Mosul was very difficult – not just for me, for everybody there. ... I stayed there for about a month."
"After things didn’t work out," the young man said, "I didn’t see myself living in that environment. I wanted to go back to America."
A friend helped arrange his travel from IS-held territory toward an area defended by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, and other contacts advised him how to reach the main road to the Iraqi town of Sinjar, under Kurdish control since November. The area has seen fighting between peshmerga and IS fighters since 2014.
"They told me which side [of the road] is Daesh side and which side is peshmerga, the Kurd side," Khweis said. "I wanted to go to the Kurd side because I know that they’re good with the Americans."
After he surrendered, the Kurds "treated me very well and I’m happy I made that decision."
In the video, Khweis denounced the Islamic State and summed up his experiences in Mosul:
"My message to the American people is the life in Mosul – it’s really bad. The people [who] were controlling Mosul don’t represent the religion. … I don’t see them as good Muslims."
Jeff Seldin, VOA's national security correspondent, contributed to this report.