A 26-year-old man fighting with the Islamic State group gave himself up to Iraqi Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on Monday and when asked, said he is a Palestinian from the United States.
His driving license, posted on social media, had Alexandria, Virginia, as his home address and though U.S. authorities have yet to confirm whether he is an American citizen, the incident marked a rare voluntary surrender in Iraq of a militant fighting with the extremist group.
The IS fighter had been “lurking near the peshmerga lines” since late Sunday night, according to Maj. Gen. Feisal Helkani of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces who play a key role — along with the Iraqi military and Shiite militia forces — in battling the IS extremists.
Helkani said his troops first tried to shoot the man, assuming he was a would-be suicide bomber.
“Then in the morning, he walked across and gave himself up,” Helkani said, adding the man is a Palestinian-American who was fighting with IS in Iraq.
The surrender took place on the front lines near the town of Sinjar, which was retaken by Iraqi forces from IS militants late last year.
Helkani identified the man as Mohammed Jamal Amin and said he was carrying with him a large amount of cash, three cell phones and three forms of identification, including a U.S. driving license. The IS fighter is currently being held by the peshmerga troops for interrogation, Helkani added.
The Iraqi Kurdish general did not provide further details or a hometown for the man but a photograph of an American driving license said to belong to the IS fighter was posted on social media, identifying him as Mohamad Jamal Khweis, 26, from Alexandria, Virginia.
The discrepancy between the fighter’s family name on the license and the one provided by the Kurdish general could not immediately be reconciled. His first name was also spelled differently.
In grainy cell phone footage, also posted on social media shortly after the surrender, the man is seen on a hillside, standing with his hands behind his back, head slightly bowed. He is surrounded by Iraqi Kurdish troops and responds to an officer’s questions. He says he is from the United States and that he is Palestinian. In response to the interrogator’s question, he says he was in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been under IS control since the jihadi group blitzed across Iraq to capture much of the country’s north and west in the summer of 2014.
In the Kingstowne neighborhood of Fairfax County, listed as Khweis’ home on the driver’s license, a man who said he is Khweis’ father said he was leaving to meet with authorities to find out what they knew. He became angry when a reporter tried to ask him about his son and suggested it was unfair to ask him to account for his grown son.
“He’s 26. Almost 27. He’s a grown man, just like you,” he told a reporter.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said he could not verify that the individual is an American or that he defected from IS.
“We are aware of the reports, aware that a U.S. citizen allegedly fighting for ISIL has been captured by peshmerga forces in northern Iraq,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. “We’re in touch with Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to determine the veracity of these reports. I don’t have any further information to share at this time.”
“We’re just learning of it,” Davis added.
Though rare in Iraq, Syrian Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State in neighboring Syria have told The Associated Press that they are seeing an increase in the number of IS members surrendering following recent territorial losses.
Last week, Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, announced that IS had lost more than 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) of territory in Syria and more than 600 fighters over the past month.
In Iraq, the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a series of suicide attacks that have killed more than 170 people over the past few weeks. Officials also say the group has launched a number of chemical weapons attacks.
Local officials in the town of Taza in Iraq’s north say a recent attack injured more than 600 people. The attacks follow a string of advances by Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, including in the western city of Ramadi, which was declared fully “liberated” by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition officials last month.
Yet despite the U.S.-led airstrikes, the Kurdish peshmerga troops, Shiite militia units and pro-government Sunni fighters, IS still controls large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and has declared an Islamic “caliphate” on the territory it holds. The extremist group also still controls Mosul, as well as the city of Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad.
But as the militants lose territory, U.S. officials predict there will be more desertions.
“As bad things start to happen, the less motivated, less disciplined, less radical elements of the force break and run,” said U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren. He added that coalition strikes targeting IS leadership and finances have triggered increased desertions.
The United Nations estimated that around 30,000 so-called foreign fighters from 100 countries are actively working with the Islamic State, al-Qaida or other extremist groups. An earlier estimate by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a think tank at King’s College London, said IS fighters include 3,300 Western Europeans and 100 or so Americans.
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Balint Szlanko