The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently took custody of Mohammed Khalifa, a Saudi-born Canadian citizen whose role as a combatant and propaganda producer with the Islamic State allegedly resulted in death, according to a complaint made public on Saturday. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia backed by the U.S., had captured him following a firefight with ISIS in January 2019.
Court documents filed in February accuse 38-year-old Khalifa of joining ISIS after traveling to Syria in 2013. He later served as an English-speaking narrator and translator for ISIS, according to the complaint and, up until his arrest in Syria nearly five years later, was a fighter for the terrorist organization. In emails obtained by the FBI, Khalifa allegedly told a close family member that he was in Syria to join the mujahideen to fight against the Syrian government.
Khalifa found inspiration in Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born terrorist killed by an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Khalifa watched the Islamic State terrorize Syria in early 2013 and decided to join the fight sometime that summer, according to Justice Department documents. Khalifa told the FBI that he swore allegiance ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and fought in Aleppo through the end of 2013.
Some months later in 2014, ISIS capitalized on Khalifa’s linguistic abilities and rerouted him to the group’s media department, where he spent the next five years producing propaganda videos, many of which portrayed murder and beheadings.
The Canada native surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces on or around Jan. 13, 2019, after he assaulted militia forces Abu Badran, Syria, wounding SDF soldiers before ultimately running out of ammo and grenades.
According to the DOJ, Khalifa told Western media outlets that he was a low-level ISIS media member who served as a translator. However, in a September 2014 Gmail chat, he stated, “Free them, ransom them, or execute them,” to justify a brutal period of beheadings and executions of aid workers, journalists and prisoners of war.
The FBI first began its search for Khalifa, though they didn’t know him by name at the time, in October 2014, shortly after the release of one of the Islamic State’s most nefarious videos, “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun.” The 55-minute-long propaganda piece released in September 2014 showed an individual wearing a black mask obscuring his face, speaking English and Arabic as men in the background are seen digging below him — what the narrator describes as “digging their own graves.”
The video and its 2017 sequel, “Flames of War II: Until the Final Hour,” were two of the group’s most influential videos and were designed to radicalize and recruit Western viewers to the fight, according to the FBI. Khalifa admitted to the FBI that as the head of the English section of the al-Hayat Media Center, ISIS’s multilingual media brand, he assisted in the translation and narration of approximately 15 videos.
During his more than five years of service to ISIS, mostly within the propaganda media department, the Justice department said, the terrorist group’s broadcasts included images and videos depicting: the beheadings of American hostages James Wright Foley, Steven Joel Sotloff and Peter Edward Kassig; an announcement about the death of American hostage Kayla Jean Mueller; the beheadings of British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning; the decapitated body of Japanese citizen Haruna Yukawa; and the beheading of Japanese citizen Kenji Goto.
Khalifa was charged with conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death. If found guilty in federal court, Khalifa faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“As alleged, Mohammed Khalifa not only fought for ISIS on the battlefield in Syria, but he was also the voice behind the violence,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Raj Parekh for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Through his alleged leading role in translating, narrating, and advancing ISIS’s online propaganda, 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 ISIS.”