Conflict

He's the first American ISIS defector. Will he become a US asset?

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"I made a bad decision."

That's how 26-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis described the time he traveled from his home in Virginia to Iraq to join ISIS.

Last month, the Kurdish peshmerga forces found Khweis in the mountains near the city of Sinjar, in northern Iraq. They took him in. On Kurdish television, Khweis spoke about going through London, Amsterdam and Turkey and ending up in ISIS territory in Iraq.

In Turkey, he had met an Iraqi woman whose sister was married to an ISIS fighter. She arranged for them to go to Syria and later on to Iraq.

"I made a bad decision to go with the girl and go to Mosul," Khweis said. "I made the decision to go because I wasn't thinking straight."

It didn't take long for Khweis to became disenchanted with life under ISIS. “I couldn’t see myself living in such an environment," he said.

So he ran.

"He's very lucky to have escaped because oftentimes the Islamic State beheads people who try to escape," explains Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and a professor at Georgetown University Medical School.

The Kurdish authorities in Iraq are still holding Khweis, and it's not clear whether he will be sent back to the US. But if he is, there are many questions US authorities will have to consider. One is whether Khweis is truly a defector, or if he was dispatched by ISIS to plan attacks or find new recruits.

Speckhard, who has researched and written about extremism extensively, doesn't believe Khweis is still in contact with the group. But Belgian police and counter-extremism sources have told her about cases in which defectors turned out to be supporting ISIS and intending to take part in attacks. These kinds of threats could lead authorities to hand Khweis and other radicals long prison sentences.

But defectors could also provide valuable firsthand information about ISIS — something that's very hard to get. And their experience could serve as a cautionary tale for others.

Speckhard thinks US authorities should keep that in mind when deciding how to punish Khweis.

"I do believe that these cases should be prosecuted," Speckhard says, "but then you might want to offer some kind of a plea bargain or reduced sentencing in exchange for going out and speaking to the public."

The US has done this before. Speckhard gives the example of the Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni-Americans who went to train with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. One of the members now speaks to the public about his experience, all the while accompanied by an FBI agent.

"[He] gives a very good talk about why he went in and that it wasn't a good choice," Speckhard says.

Speckhard thinks every city in the US should have a hotline and a rapid intervention team in place to prevent Americans from joining ISIS. They would help parents who worry that their sons or daughters could become victims of the group, she says.

"They want someone to come and say, 'You know, you got Islam all wrong,'" says Speckhard. "'We understand that this extremist group is meeting your needs. Can we redirect you to other things that will meet your needs in a more useful way?'"

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