Canadian Man Who Narrated ISIS Videos Flown to U.S. To Face Terrorism Charge
WASHINGTON — A Canadian man who narrated two infamous propaganda videos that the Islamic State used to recruit Westerners and to encourage terrorism attacks was secretly whisked to the United States to face federal prosecution in Virginia.
The man, Mohammed Khalifa, 38, a Canadian who traveled to Syria in 2013 and later joined the Islamic State, was charged with material terrorism support that resulted in death, according to a criminal complaint made public on Saturday. He was captured in early 2019 by a Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is backed by the United States.
The militia handed over Mr. Khalifa to F.B.I. agents this week, and he was flown to the United States. Mr. Khalifa, who was born in Saudi Arabia, appears to be the first foreign fighter to be prosecuted in the United States during the Biden administration. He is scheduled to make an initial appearance in court early next week.
“Mohammed Khalifa not only fought for ISIS on the battlefield in Syria, but he was also the voice behind the violence,” said Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Mr. Parekh added that Mr. Khalifa “promoted the terrorist group, furthered its worldwide recruitment efforts and expanded the reach of videos that glorified the horrific murders and indiscriminate cruelty” of the Islamic State.
Mr. Khalifa was the voice of a 2014 ISIS video known as “Flames of War.” The unit he worked for was responsible for publicizing such brutal footage as the beheading of the American journalist James Foley and other Western hostages.
Prosecutors said Mr. Khalifa “played an important role in the production and dissemination of ISIS propaganda across multiple media platforms targeting Western audiences.”
In a 2019 interview with The New York Times conducted from a prison in northeast Syria, Mr. Khalifa claimed he played no role in the actual killings carried out by the Islamic State.
“I was just the voice,” Mr. Khalifa said. He added in the interview that he did not regret what he had done.
Although Mr. Khalifa played down his contributions to the Islamic State in the interview, prosecutors and the F.B.I. made clear he was a “prominent figure” within the Islamic State media unit, which he joined in April 2014. An F.B.I. agent described him as “essential” because of his fluency in Arabic and English and said he was in charge of the Islamic State’s “English Media Section,” according to the criminal complaint.
Prosecutors said that he assisted in the translation and narration of approximately 15 videos that were created and distributed by the Islamic State. Two of the most “influential and exceedingly violent” propaganda videos, prosecutors said, were called “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun” and “Flames of War II: Until the Final Hour.” The first was distributed in September 2014 and the second in November 2017.
According to court documents, Mr. Khalifa was not just a propagandist but engaged in fighting. In the days before his capture by the Syrian Democratic Forces, he threw “grenades against opposing combatants,” prosecutors said.
F.B.I. agents interviewed Mr. Khalifa in March 2019, just months after he was captured. He said he was motivated to travel to Syria after watching videos of the Syrian government and listening to lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda’s leading voice in English, who was killed years earlier in a drone strike.
In an August 2013 email the F.B.I. obtained, Mr. Khalifa disclosed to a close relative that he had gone to Syria, and not Egypt as the relative had been led to believe, to fight. “I came here to join the mujahideen fighting against Bashar and the Syrian army,” he wrote.
The F.B.I. said that Mr. Khalifa flew to Turkey and then used a smuggler to enter Syria. He joined a battalion led by Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian militant. He received military training and participated in fighting against Syrian government forces in the Aleppo countryside. In about November 2013, he joined the Islamic State, swearing allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While a member of the Islamic State, he was known as “Abu Ridwan al-Kanadi” and “Abu Muthanna al-Muhajir.,“ the F.B.I. said.
Mr. Khalifa thought he would be sent to an Islamic State training camp but instead he was recruited to join the media unit. The F.B.I. said Mr. Khalifa’s recruitment into the media unit would mark an almost five-year period in which he would become “a leading figure in ISIS’s English-language propaganda creation and distribution operations.”
While working for the media unit that publicized and exploited the killings of hostages, Mr. Khalifa was asked in a series of Gmail chats how he could justify the beheadings and executions of aid workers, journalists and prisoners of war. The chats occurred after Mr. Foley’s gruesome execution, which the Islamic State filmed and released, shocking the world.
Mr. Khalifa justified the treatment of them, saying “free them, ransom them, or execute them,” according to one Gmail chat. The F.B.I. said the statement demonstrated Mr. Khalifa’s knowledge of the “objectives, purposes and scope” of the Islamic State’s hostage taking scheme.
Mr. Khalifa was finally captured after a brief firefight with the Syrian Democratic Forces. The F.B.I. said that, at one point, he threw a grenade onto the roof of a house where Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers were positioned.
Mr. Khalifa’s arrest is the latest example of F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria pursuing Islamic State terrorists and bringing them to Virginia to face charges despite the many complications associated with these types of international terrorism cases.
Last month, Alexanda Kotey, 37, who was part of an ISIS cell of four Britons called “the Beatles,” pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death and conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens outside the United States.
Another member of the same cell, El Shafee Elsheikh, has pleaded not guilty.