Exclusive: Va. terrorism suspect seeks to avoid prison, warn others

WASHINGTON — Mohamad Khweis was deceived by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Now he wants to get revenge by spending the rest of his life warning others to avoid the trap he fell into.

The problem, however, is that he faces decades in federal prison for allegedly providing material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

In an exclusive interview, Khweis’ attorney, John Zwerling, told WTOP his client “would like to try to discourage other people from making the same mistake he did.”

“He would like to try to help educate them as to why going over there is a bad idea, why the organization that is running the Syrian caliphate is not a particularly good group, how they’ve perverted the religion and how they’e tricking people, himself included,” Zwerling said.

Khweis, 26, is hoping that stories about his nightmare can save other vulnerable people from ISIL’s trap — and himself from a long prison term.

Quoted in court documents, Khweis said that, even though he had seen videos of ISIL’s violent acts, he was seduced into thinking he could join the organization and engage in “peaceful and humanitarian efforts.”

The documents say he stated that “he frequently watched videos of ISIL members conducting terrorist operations and the execution of ISIL prisoners, including the burning of a Jordanian pilot.”

Khweis somehow imagined a different life for himself. But it never materialized.

When he arrived in ISIL territory, he was shuttled between safe houses, sent through a series of extremist indoctrination sessions and prepared to become a suicide bomber.

Court documents say he told authorities each of the sessions ended with the same phrase: “May God destroy America.”

But after making a rare escape from the organization and giving himself up to Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq, he was turned over to U.S. authorities and is facing 20 years in prison for his crime.

But Khweis is hoping to avoid prison, and Zwerling believes a similar terrorism case sets a precedent for that to happen.

“There is a very similar case up in the Eastern district of New York, in Brooklyn, that was just unsealed this week,” Zwerling said.

A 26-year-old, referred to in court documents as John Doe, went to Syria.

“Once you get to Syria, you get caught up — you know, you lose your ability to make decisions. You’re under the control of the people who are up running [ISIL],” Zwerling said.

But Zwerling said John Doe “eventually escaped and came back and turned himself in to the U.S. government.”

Court documents from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York indicate that John Doe “pled guilty to two terrorism offenses on November 26, 2014.”

But the documents indicate the U.S. Justice Department agreed to spare him from prison.

According to a request to unseal John Doe’s case, the following details about his cooperation with the U.S. government were revealed:

As the Court knows, the parties, at the defendant’s request, had for some time been exploring the possibility of providing the defendant with an opportunity to speak publicly against ISIL, possibly through a media outlet and/or outreach groups. The parties made arrangements for NBC News to interview the defendant after learning that NBC had identified the defendant and was preparing to broadcast a story about him.

The story, which aired on NBC television in May, included “excerpts of an interview with the defendant — identified only as “Mo” — and referenced the defendant’s guilty plea to terrorism offenses and efforts to cooperate with U.S. authorities, court documents say.

Zwerling is hoping his client is afforded the same opportunity.

“We’re also looking into whether what he did amounted to a crime based on the information that we have. Quite frankly, I don’t think he qualifies for the harsh charges that have been brought,” Zwerling said.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment on Khweis’ case.

Zwerling expects Khweis will be indicted in the next few weeks.

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