Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations
The case of twenty-six-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis—the American-born son of Palestinian immigrants living in Alexandria, Virginia—found by Kurdish Peshmerga forces escaping ISIS-controlled territory near Sinjar, Iraq this past week raises many questions, as well as confirms what we have been learning in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project over the past six months—Interviewing dozens of recently defected ISIS fighters.
That Khweis traveled to Istanbul, and was facilitated to enter Syria via the Turkish border by someone he met in Turkey, follows a common pattern according to our research. Most foreign fighters still travel to Istanbul to join ISIS and are met either in Istanbul or along the Syrian border with a facilitator. Khweis arrived in Istanbul as almost all other Westerners who joined ISIS have done.—although we do not know his precise intentions upon arrival.
We still await learning exactly what motivated him the in the first place. Khweis admitted on Kurdish television that he left the United States in December, travelled first to London, then Amsterdam and ended up in Istanbul, Turkey—where he met either an ISIS seductress or pre-arranged facilitator—or someone acting in both roles—who took him into ISIS-controlled territory.
What we still need to learn: Was Mohamed Khweis’ original intent upon departing the United States, to join jihad and become an ISIS cadre—or was he seduced by this mystery woman who took him into ISIS?
In a television interview, Khweis explained that he met this young Iraqi woman, whose sister was married to an ISIS fighter, in Turkey and she invited him to travel home with her to the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul. “We spent some time in Turkey, got to know each other. She knows somebody who could take us from Turkey to Syria, then from Syria to Mosul. I decided to go with her.” When we analyze his statements which were made public by the Peshmerga, we can easily understand that he is clearly trying to cast doubt upon his acts and diminish his position with ISIS and basically trying to portray his story of travel to ISIS-controlled territory as a simple act of love.
That ISIS would use its female members to seduce potential members, or enticing men with the promise of marriage or sex is nothing new although using them to seduce in a face-to face interaction would be. Our ISIS defectors tell us a group of Western women go daily to a house in Raqqa to try to seduce others, via the Internet, into joining. According to news sources, over five hundred women on Twitter claim to be residents of ISIS and the ratio of men to women in the group is estimated at ten to one.
The woman Khweis met in Istanbul had most likely been promised to him as his ISIS wife and meeting him in Istanbul after an Internet pledge would have solidified his recruitment—particularly if they then married and consummated their union. Khweis gives no evidence that they were ever married and instead says the two were separated upon arrival in ISIS. It’s possible they met by chance—although unlikely given her brother-in-law was already fighting for ISIS and once traveling in ISIS-controlled territory together they would also have had to show a valid marriage certificate or suffer severe repercussions. Thus circumstantial evidence points to an ISIS marriage. If they had married, they still would have been separated as he claims—she going to the safety and shelter of a sisters’ house while he went for his shariah and military training. The most likely thing is their marriage was prearranged and this is why she met him in Istanbul.
Certainly the promise of being set up with a wife, and possibly even being granted a sex slave, is a powerful motivator for some young male foreign fighters to come and join ISIS. We are told the Tunisian foreign fighters and some Turkish males in particular resonate to this promise of what I like to refer to as “sex now” versus the claim of virgins in paradise that await those who “martyr” themselves, according to their ideology.
The woman Mohamad Jamal Khweis met certainly seems to have known how to cross into Syria and may have even used an ISIS- controlled smuggler to cross. According to Khweis they traveled from Istanbul to Gaziantep (a Turkish town on the border of Syria) and then on to Mosul by bus and private vehicle. That she met him in Istanbul and they then ended up in ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, makes it appear prearranged and likely to have involved a marriage.
To join ISIS, a foreign fighter would normally have arranged ahead of time to be met by someone on the Turkish side who either takes or who arranges for an ISIS controlled smuggler to take him into ISIS controlled territory. In his case the young female “recruiter” accompanied Khweis and we are not told if he legally crossed the Turkish border—but it’s highly unlikely he did.
Turkish officials claim to have recently tightened security protocols along the border. However, our ISIS defectors tell us its still entirely possible—and even easy—to smuggle oneself across the Turkish border into ISIS controlled areas, and vice versa. Certainly the November 2015 Paris attackers acting in behalf of ISIS found it possible to leave Syria and reenter Europe via Turkey.
In the case of joining ISIS, a foreign fighter should not arrive unannounced, but should arrive with a personal recommendation—someone on the inside who knows and can vouch for him as a true “believer.” Those who arrive without such a voucher are suspected as spies. They may also be accepted over time—ISIS needs all the foreign fighters it can get—but they are, according to our Syrian ISIS defectors reports, held and investigated for some time, or separated from their female family members and sent directly to the front to see if they are sincere in their willingness to join ISIS, fight valiantly or even survive. A Belgian ISIS joiner who I interviewed last month, who had returned from Syria, arrived to Turkey without recommendations. He was still smuggled from Turkey into Syria, but once there was held for some time to be investigated and observed.
Khweis who is currently under investigation by the FBI and American authorities who suspect he plotted to join ISIS, claims he “made a bad decision” and was trying to return to the United States when he was captured by Kurdish forces this week. However, his story seems to indicate that he not only wanted to, but did actually, join ISIS. For instance he appears to have willingly travelled to Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate where he was then put into a house with up to seventy other foreign fighters all also joining ISIS. There, according to Khweis, they were ordered to hand over their IDs and passports and take a bayat, or oath of allegiance to ISIS as happened with all of our interviewees.
This would have been the first of many bayats that Khweis would have been asked to make. He was then given his Arabic kunya or fighting name, Abu Omar, and put into shariah training. This is the normal progression of ISIS indoctrination—according to our ISIS defector reports. And these are the steps by which ISIS begins to take over the identities and minds of those who join—freeing them from past affiliations and loyalties; creating new family ties via arranged marriages; and renaming them while also introducing them into to the ISIS militant Takfiri ideology and mindset to which they must now display absolute loyalty. “Hear and obey,” is the ISIS tenant that all fighters are taught in their training and they are expected to demonstrate complete and total obedience to any ISIS declared order. Sometimes—our defectors tell us—young inexperienced teens are even temporarily put in charge of older battle hardened recruits in order to test them in this principle of absolute obedience.
Khweis was most definitely on the conveyer belt into ISIS foreign fighter or mujahid (holy warrior) status. After making his first bayat, he was put into the ISIS shariah training, but according to him did not complete it. Perhaps he realized late, that upon graduation from shariah training his new trainers would bring to him an ISIS prisoner that he would have to behead as a sign of his complete and total indoctrination and loyalty to the terrorist group.
Khweis claims he fled ISIS control before that occurred. Indeed, just like gangs indoctrinate their young members by demanding they commit a crime, ISIS puts a knife in their new members’ hands and demands they bloody them them early on—behead their prisoner in order to graduate shariah training. And all the while, the video cameras are recording. It’s not a crime one can later easily escape from and evidence of it may appear broadcast over the Internet. ISIS trainers are no fools and know well how to manipulate and control their new recruits.
Khweis also claims he didn’t see or interact with any Americans although two hundred fifty Americans are there according to security estimates. Our Syrian ISIS defectors routinely mention running across American ISIS cadres although language barriers prevent them telling us much about them other than what can be observed. Khweis also recounts being mixed in with a mélange of foreign fighters—many from central and south Asia. There are currently estimated to be twenty-seven thousand foreign fighters from eight-six countries in ISIS with the terrorist organization continuing to draw over one thousand per month into the battle—seducing them from around the world via social media.
The unanswered questions are: Was Mohamad Jamal Khweis one of these? Had he left the United States in quest of joining ISIS? Did he already have a recruiter working with him via the Internet before he departed the U.S. and a prearranged marriage with a young woman who met him in Istanbul and facilitated him into the group? And if he had been fully trained and indoctrinated could he have been turned back to attack inside the United States or sent to attack some other Western target?
It should be extremely chilling for law enforcement officials that Khweis is a “clean skin” jihadi—that is he had no extremism-linked past, nor were law enforcement officials even aware that he had departed the United States much less was being trained inside ISIS. They only learned of his ISIS affiliation after his defection and capture from the group. According to officials his family had not shared any concerns, if they had any, with law enforcement after he left the United States in mid-December 2015. After his arrest, his parents told journalists they thought he was in Canada but the were also aware that he’d travelled to Turkey. By January 16, 2016—only a month after his departure—he was already inside ISIS controlled territory and may have been there as early as December. Khweis had been studying criminal justice in Virginia and only occasionally attended mosques and there is no evidence of him having given any outward signs of radicalization to violent extremism.
Given the fact that as soon as ISIS starts indoctrinating and recruiting someone they have learned now to put extreme emphasis on secrecy and operating clandestinely. Thus it is very viable and expectable that Khweis was told by his recruiters not to change his daily routines and not to let anyone sense that he was flirting with the terrorist group. In fact, his criminal justice education in Virginia may also have provided him some tactics as well to stay out of the radar of the American intelligence. Therefore, he was very successful in hiding his recruitment to the people around him. Often, ISIS operatives are taught to use encrypted means of alternative social media communication methods which makes the job of the law enforcement agencies even more difficult. Furthermore, there is a clear sign that he was instructed how to stay out of the radar of the intel as when we look at his travel arrangements, he did not fly to Istanbul directly, rather changing places and airplanes twice before his arrival in Istanbul.
In terms of the law, Khweis, was not completely “clean.” He did have a record of run-ins with the law for numerous alcohol-related and driving offenses. For instance, he had been cited in Virginia for driving a car with tinted windows, speeding, and driving without a safety belt and in 2010 he was arrested for driving while intoxicated—an incident in which he refused blood and breath tests. He had also been arrested a year earlier for appearing drunk in public. None of these are arrests that one would normally link to an Islamic extremist, although groups like ISIS often appeal to Muslims who are trying to clean up their acts and use an extremist Islamic mindset to do so. The Chattanooga sniper Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as well as plenty of European jihadis share a similar profile in this regard—they were drug and alcohol abusers up to the time they found extremist Islamic literature or a group that offered them the opportunity to reform and possibly even become “martyrs” thereby ensuring their past “sins” would, according to terrorist ideology, all be forgiven.
Had Khweis been fully trained and indoctrinated by ISIS, as many foreigners are—to “hear and obey”—he could very easily have had his “clean” American passport handed back to him and been sent back to the United States by ISIS with orders to attack, without anyone realizing beforehand. Given the easy availability of assault rifles inside the United States, someone like Khweis, after spending time with ISIS and taking on—or already secretly harboring a militant ideology and hatred for Americans—could very easily have mounted a horrific terror attack right here, back home, among us. Furthermore, with the training he received in the ISIS military camps, he could very easily lead a home grown ISIS terrorist cell formed of already established extremist youth here in the United States, which would give ISIS to possibility to carry out a massive, 9-11 type, attack without moving any operatives except him and using Khweis as the commander of a cell here in the United States. Thankfully Khweis did not like what he saw on the inside of ISIS and quickly defected.
As an ISIS insider, and now defector, he joins a chorus of voices that we also have been collecting—of discouraging words for other potential joiners, “Life in Mosul is really very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”
His case however highlights how we are currently losing the battle—at least in social media space—with Islamic State’s ability to reach out to young men and women all over the world to convince them to travel to Syria and Iraq, believing ISIS has anything good to offer them, or to the world in general. We need to totally discredit both the group and its ideology—something we are working very hard on at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. : is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com
Ahmet Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is the Deputy Director of ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.