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PERSPECTIVE: Who Is Accused ISIS Propagandist Mohammed Khalifa?

Khalifa was looking for action and was prepared to die, having been convinced of the need for endless jihad and “martyrdom” by Anwar al Awlaki’s poisonous teachings.

Mohammed Khalifa, otherwise known as Abu Ridwan al-Kanadi, is a Canadian citizen now facing federal prosecution in the United States for his participation in ISIS, particularly for his role in the terrorist group’s media department. The New York Times reported that Khalifa was transferred from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) custody to that of the FBI at the end of September. Although in interviews with media outlets Khalifa has denied engaging in actual violence, he is charged with being an active combatant in addition to providing the English voiceovers for ISIS’s propaganda videos. Since his capture by the SDF in 2019, Khalifa has granted interviews to numerous academics and news outlets. Most of these interviews focused on his role within ISIS, but in May 2019 Khalifa participated in an in-depth psychological interview with Dr. Anne Speckhard of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Khalifa said he had already admitted his crimes to U.S. interrogators and therefore consented for his story to be recorded on video and to be shared using his real name and agreed to feature in a counternarrative video speaking against ISIS practices, including torture and brutality.

Mohammed Khalifa was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to an Ethiopian family. At age 5, he moved to Toronto, Canada, by way of Italy. Khalifa describes his family, which consisted of his parents and older sister, as “happy.” He enjoyed playing basketball and graduated from university with a degree in computer systems. At 18, Khalifa became more religious, and at 23 he watched news of the Toronto 18, an undercover operation which thwarted what has been referred to as Canada’s 9/11: a multi-level plot to detonate truck bombs around the city of Toronto and to storm the Canadian Parliament.

In 2013, Khalifa was working in tech support and closely watching the conflict in Syria. He recalls, “I started following Ahrar al-Sham on websites and videos. [I saw] footage of going out to battle, shooting a tank, firing off a tank artillery, stuff like that. I knew what was going on there. I supported the cause.” Khalifa wanted to join the fighters but was nervous. Like so many other foreign fighters, it was the charismatic voice of Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been killed in a U.S. drone strike two years prior, that ultimately pushed him to action: “I was listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki and his lectures had an impact on me. [They] kind of pushed me to make the decision to move the date forward. It’s in general, just the fact that he was approaching the life of the Prophet Muhammad and bringing it into like a modern context and interspersing it was like, like a jihad narrative.”

Khalifa started planning his travel. He saved his money and started searching for different groups active in Syria on social media, contacting them via Facebook, Twitter, and email. None of them responded. Then, he recounts, “And then I came across an article written by, I think it was an American newspaper, and I think it was ‘Frontline,’ but I’m not one hundred percent sure. It talked about […] how in the city of Reyhanli, along the border, [the author] was in a hotel where he basically like was at a, I guess observing like a meeting with like Libyan financers […] He would notice in the hotel that there were guys that had like long beards and, you know, the typical jihadi look, and he said those are the Salafis and they’re coming through here to try and get into Syria. So that was basically like a clue.” As an aside, we were unable to find this specific article.

In the spring of 2013, Khalifa decided to leave Canada: “I was following the news and, you know. You can’t basically like just sit by and not do anything. I flew first to Cairo and took a connecting flight to Istanbul. My cover story to like friends, family, and so there was that… I was going to Egypt because I had plans to move there, and I wanted to kind of check out the scene and see if I could maybe do some investing, or start businesses, something like that.”

Next, “I took a connecting flight to Hatay […] From Hatay, because it was itself fairly close to the border, I thought maybe I’d look around and see if I could find anyone, but I didn’t, so I just I took a taxi. I was going to go to the town I was thinking of initially, which is Reyhanli. On the way I talked to the driver. He made it seem like it was easy to get through the border, so I just had him take me straight to the border gate. And when I showed up there, there’s guys that come right up and see that you’re a foreigner and they ask, ‘What do you want,’ I told the taxi guy to tell them […] they were smugglers.” In August 2013, Khalifa was taken in a bus over the border into Syria, where he joined a group of foreign fighters. In November 2013, he swore allegiance to ISIS: “I was there just to fight against the Syrian regime. Islamic State wasn’t even on my mind until it actually came up itself. They had already at the time expanded into Syria, but even then it wasn’t really on my mind at all. And then it was only after the group I was with actually went and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. That’s when I made the decision, and basically stayed with them and pledged allegiance as well.”

Khalifa was looking for action and was prepared to die, having been convinced of the need for endless jihad and “martyrdom” by Anwar al Awlaki’s poisonous teachings. “If I were killed, I mean, that would be martyrdom,” he says. But, he was not assigned to a combat unit, instead being sent first to take care of a group of families (likely women whose husbands were either in battle or had been killed, who were not permitted to leave their home without a male chaperone). He volunteered to attend a weapons course for civilians and was sent to do guard duty in January of 2014. Scholarly by nature and interested in Islamic study, he then requested permission to attend a religious course in Manbij, where word got out to ISIS’s media department that he spoke English and Arabic. He was recruited to join the media department in Raqqa by Abu Mohammed Furkan. In the media department, Khalifa started by translating “books, pamphlets, videos, the daily news […] I was learning a lot. That’s how eventually my Arabic got very much improved […] It can be tedious.” Later, he recounts, “They used me for voiceovers in the English language videos, and also for recording the news, daily news […] In the beginning, I’d actually have go to the studio and they’d have a professional recording me. But later [when the bombings made it too dangerous to use the studio, I would use a] recorder, record yourself, and send the file.”

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.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@hstoday.us. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
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. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.

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