This is part two of a two-part series. Read part I here [Ed.].
By Anne Speckhard And Molly Ellenberg
In the summer of 2014, Khalifa got married to a Somali woman from Kenya whom he met online. She was studying medicine in Sudan before traveling to Syria. At the time of the interview in 2019, Khalifa and his wife had two children and she was eight months pregnant with their third. The first was born in a private hospital in Raqqa and the second in their home in Raqqa with the help of a midwife. In 2016 ISIS leadership was on the retreat out of Raqqa which was under bombardments to Mayadeen. “The guys in media got an order to leave the city and to go to Mayadeen.” The change in their lives as ISIS began to lose power was clear. In Mayadeen, “It was a bit more difficult. Resources weren’t as easy to, like, deal with as they were in Raqqa […] We had to run generators, we had to learn it ourselves, to clean, and change oil ourselves. It was getting into a lot more stuff that was taking us away from our work. And also there were other problems. At times the road would be closed, so there was nothing coming into the market.” He continues, “[The] Syrian regime started bombing. We went to […] a string of villages […] We were sharing a house with a few families.”
Khalifa admits that he was moved by many of the ISIS films for which he provided the voiceovers. One, he says, was about “a boy who was going to do a martyrdom operation […] It tried to give a narrative instead of just showing battle scenes and that sort of thing. It tried to, like, play on your heartstrings […] He did go [to bomb himself] eventually […] It says his father was working at the office of martyrs and their families. His job would be to register people’s names on the list and today he was registering his son’s name.” In 2017, Khalifa and his family went to Hajin, and from there he moved to Baghouz. “We were hobbling along.” In 2018, he recalls, “[Food was] scare [in the] second half of 2018 […] At the time there wasn’t much happening in terms of offensives. Stalemate, nothing happening, we just continued working […] We translated documents, books.” At that time, Khalifa says that ISIS’s central media didn’t make any more videos. Still, each individual team “worked out of their home […] We had a satellite dish […] This was only at the end.” Before that, he went into a physical office to access the internet.
In Hajin, Khalifa started hearing rumors about “a deal to allow anyone who wanted to, like, send their family out […] with the Americans. At the time [I didn’t consider it].” Rather, “I was captured in […] al Badran. Basically, during the last offensive from Hajin to Baghouz […] I made the decision to go out and fight instead of staying in media. During the course of a gunbattle, I was taken prisoner [by the SDF] […] I was pretty much out of ammo, so I came out.” Khalifa says that he was beaten upon arrest but that he agreed to cooperate with the Coalition’s interrogators in exchange for information about his wife and children.
While Khalifa admits to having seen victims of ISIS executions, including dead corpses, he dismissed them as bodies of Syrian government soldiers for whom he felt little sympathy. This actually was a common sentiment among ISIS members who were well aware of the Syrian soldiers’ widespread practices of rape and torture. Some ISIS fighters even told ICSVE that when the Syrian regime soldiers picked up the walkie-talkie channels of ISIS they would interrupt to say, “Listen, brothers, to the screams of your women being raped,” and then play the sounds of women being raped. Khalifa’s coldness in the face of ISIS executions of Syrian soldiers should thus be seen in the context in which it occurred.
However, in prison, Khalifa began to hear things about ISIS’s brutality and unjust rule that he had previously “dismissed as baseless rumors” living his privileged media life in Raqqa: “When I was in prison talking to basically a lot of people, hearing their conversations among each other, for the most part, then I realized, okay, these guys are not making it up […] Lots of injustices at the hands of the emni [ISIS internal security], the security guys […] prisons, torture, false confessions, and that sort of thing.” Without actually denouncing ISIS, he says, “To a certain degree, based on what I’ve heard, the way they operated their prisons was completely unIslamic.” He maintains that the “injustice and oppression [was happening] behind the scenes” and says that “maybe there is hope that they would actually realize what they were doing and change for the better.”
About the possibility of going to prison, which given his transfer to the United States is all but inevitable now, he says rather shallowly, “I imagine at some point, [Canada will] probably take me back and I’ll have to serve my time […] I’m repentant, for basically to a certain extent I feel like I ignored what was going on. I ignored the warning signals. I dismissed [them] prematurely […] I hope I didn’t have anything to do with [the injustices].” He maintains, “If I actually, like, witnessed something and maybe was convinced something was wrong going on, I wouldn’t be afraid to bring it forward through, like, appropriate channels and see if it could get addressed, but at the same time, I wasn’t the type of guy who would go looking for trouble, so to speak; I kind of pretty much just mind my own business.”
What happens next? Mohammed Khalifa has been charged with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization, resulting in death. The information publicly provided by the U.S. Department of Justice is consistent with the information Khalifa provided to ICSVE, particularly that he was captured “following a firefight between ISIS fighters and the SDF” and that he “allegedly served as a lead translator in ISIS’s propaganda production and the English-speaking narrator on multiple violent ISIS recruitment videos.” As such, it is unlikely that he will be able to effectively contest the charges, especially given that his voice was reliably matched to the ISIS propaganda videos by Canadian terrorism scholar Amarnath Amarasingam. He now joins a growing list of foreign fighters from outside of the United States who were captured by the SDF and are now being charged in the U.S. Others include two of the alleged “Beatles,” British-born hostage-takers Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the former of whom was also interviewed by ICSVE. Khalifa was far more forthcoming in his ICSVE interview than was Kotey, who recently pleaded guilty but at the time of our interview was still playing cat-and-mouse about his involvement in the torture of Western hostages. It will be interesting to see if Khalifa takes the same step and if he ever comes to fully admit and atone for the gravity of the role he played in calling others to come join ISIS.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. On Twitter @AnneSpeckhard.
Molly Ellenberg is a Research Fellow at the ICSVE. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland.
This article was originally published on Homeland Security Today, republished here with permission.