ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — The first American to be convicted in a U.S. jury trial of joining the Islamic State had his prison term reduced Tuesday from 20 years to 14 years after an appeals court ordered a new sentencing hearing.
Mohamad Khweis was convicted back in 2017 of providing material support to terrorists, as well as a weapons charge. He traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria in December 2015, even obtaining an official IS membership card. But he left after a few months and surrendered in northern Iraq to Kurdish forces.
In 2020, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the weapons charge — many defendants had similar charges tossed out in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling — and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
Prosecutors urged Judge Liam O’Grady at Tuesday’s hearing to again sentence Khweis to 20 years. They cited the need for deterrence in a high-profile terrorism case and reminded O’Grady of the significance of Khweis’ conduct.
While there is no evidence that he fought for the Islamic State, there was evidence at his trial that he volunteered to be a suicide bomber and that he cared for injured fighters at safe houses.
He also admitted at trial that he burned his laptop and multiple phones, and deleted contact info from another, before he fled the Islamic State. He testified at trial that he was worried the laptop contained financial data like his credit score, which the judge said was implausible.
Khweis, 32, has been in custody in one form or another since March 2016, and on Tuesday again renounced his allegiance to the Islamic State and apologized for his conduct.
“It’s still mid-boggling to me that I made this terrible decision,” said Khweis, who grew up in northern Virginia and had worked as a Metro Access bus driver for disabled passengers before departing to the Islamic State.
Khweis’ attorney, Jessica Carmichael, highlighted his exemplary behavior in the Bureau of Prisons after his conviction and said he’s done all he can to show he’s matured.
“We do want to send a message” with this sentence, she told the judge. And she said the audience paying the most attention is “the people he left behind in prison. We want to encourage others to engage in this type of rehabilitation, to not wallow in self-pity.”
In a statement after Tuesday’s hearing, Carmichael said, “Mohamad worked exceptionally hard for years while incarcerated to show that he was taking this seriously … and was more than the poor decisions he made six-and-a-half years ago. I am proud of him for that, and hope that others in custody can receive an opportunity to show the same.”
Still, while the reduction to 14 years is significant, it is far less than Khweis’ request that he be released with time served.
O’Grady said Tuesday that Khweis deserved credit for his good conduct in custody, but that he struggled with how to evaluate Khweis, given how quickly he became radicalized and how easily he lied about his actions on the witness stand at his 2017 trial.
“I don’t know what your inner thoughts are,” O’Grady said.