ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) — After a federal judge heard a not-guilty plea Friday from a Virginia man who defected from the Islamic State group, an expert in extremism noted in an interview that the defendant's cooperation could help counter terrorism-recruitment efforts.
The son of Palestinian immigrants, 26-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis is reportedly the first American captured on the Islamic State battlefield. He surrendered himself to Kurdish forces in March after apparently becoming disillusioned with ISIL's ideology after a month.
"He believes that whatever he did was not a crime," the defendant's attorney, John Zwerling, told reporters after the Friday morning arraignment.
During his three-month detention in Irbil, Iraq, Khweis told Kurdish television that he followed a girl to Mosul, which ISIL has controlled since 2014. Khweis had called his temporary allegiance to the group a "bad decision."
At George Washington University, the case has captured the attention of Seamus Hughes, who directs the school's Program on Extremism.
Hughes has intensively studied
Americans who have tried to join the Islamic State and noted the possibilities for counter-terrorism efforts if Khweis cooperates with authorities.
"Instead of the normal suggested [sentence of] 15 years, they may decide to lessen it if he's willing to do counter-messaging," said Hughes. "If he continues to talk about how he was wrong and how he made a wrong decision, he may have a reduced sentence."
"You don't get off scot-free for joining a terrorist organization," Hughes added.
The indictment charges Mohamad Jamal Khweis with conspiracy and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Hughes said Khweis has an interesting case.
"The U.S. government clearly wants to throw the book at him," Hughes said in a phone interview. "I think there's a variety of factors. Khweis had made a decision to join ISIS late on, meaning here's an individual who clearly knew what ISIS was about and still decided that he wanted to join."
But Khweis "has a powerful story to tell," Hughes added. "There is a powerful counter-narrative to that."
Discussing the government's interest in indicting Khweis, Hughes noted that "he was clear-eyed when he made the decision."
"It wasn't a fog-of-war moment," Hughes continued. "It was clear who ISIS was."
U.S. Attorney Dennis Fitzpatrick spoke to this point at a June detention hearing
"He did ample research, watched the videos, and he knew the nature of the organization that he wanted to join," Fitzpatrick had said of the defendant. "He had the wherewithal to make it to that part of the world, deceiving those closest around him. When he left in December of 2015, his family had no idea where he was until he was picked up in March."
Khweis entered the courtroom Friday morning unshackled, wearing a long-sleeved, white shirt underneath his green, short-sleeved jumpsuit, stamped on the back with the words "Alexandria inmate."
Before sitting down, Khweis shook hands with defense attorney Chris Leibig.
Khweis appeared upbeat and clean-shaven with a short buzz cut. He chatted with his attorneys while waiting for U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady to enter the courtroom. As the attorneys rose when the judge arrived, Leibig nudged Khweis to join them standing.
Zwerling asked the judge to allow Jessica Carmichael with Harris & Carmichael to replace Leibig. After O'Grady agreed, Leibig gave Khweis a pat on the back and left the table. Carmichael took his seat to the left of Khweis.
Khweis told the judge at the arraignment that he did not wish to waive his right to a speedy trial. Fitzpatrick countered that the complexity of the case qualifies it for exclusion from the Speedy Trial Act. The case involves alleged conduct that occurred overseas, and the prosecution will have to work with the Iraqi government to secure witnesses, Fizpatrick said.
O'Grady agreed that it qualifies as a complex case, noting that there is no way for a speedy trial because multiple law-enforcement agencies had interviewed Khweis and because he was held overseas.
After conferring with the prosecution and defense, O'Grady proposed a tentative trial date of April 3. Fizpatrick said he anticipates a three to four-day trial.
Zwerling said in court that the defense will file a motion to suppress evidence from interrogations of Khweis that took place in Iraq.
Before U.S. marshals escorted Khweis out of the courtroom after the hearing, he shook hands with Carmichael and Zwerling.
The Alexandria man's family was not present in court Friday morning. Against the hopes of his family, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ivan Davis denied Khweis bail in June. Zwerling said after the arraignment that his parents are "not well."