Islamic State figure pleads guilty to aiding terrorist group

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A Canadian citizen who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group nearly a decade ago pleaded guilty Friday to serving as one of the organization’s more prominent English-language propagandists.

Mohammed Khalifa, 38, pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death, at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III accepted the plea.

According to court records, Khalifa left Canada for Syria in 2013 after being inspired by the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. cleric who later became a leading figure in al-Qaeda.

Prosecutors said Khalifa narrated two notorious Islamic State propaganda videos — “Flames of War” in 2014 and “Flames of War II” in 2017 — designed to recruit Westerners to join the Islamic State or to kill Westerners as part of an international holy war campaign.

Khalifa also fought on the battlefield, according to prosecutors. He was captured by Syrian Defense Forces in 2019 and held overseas until he was brought to Virginia earlier this year to face charges.

According to an FBI affidavit, Khalifa told FBI agents he expected to be sent to an Islamic State training camp when he joined the organization in late 2013. Instead, he was recruited to join the organization’s media department because of his English language skills and spent nearly five years as a leader in their English-language propaganda unit, it said.

The affidavit said Khalifa narrated numerous videos besides “Flames of War” and its sequel, which show prisoners being executed and decapitated. In another video, titled “Inside the Khilafah,” Khalifa urges listeners, if they aren’t able to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, to instead “terrorize the disbelievers with your jihad outside the khilafah by targeting them and shedding their blood.”

Khalifa told agents he was captured in January 2019 when he defied an Islamic State order to flee from advancing forces in Shafaa, Syria. Instead, he said, he launched a solo attack of sorts on Syrian Defense Forces, surrendering after his AK-47 rifle jammed.

In a news release announcing the guilty plea, federal prosecutors said the “Flames of War” videos include scenes of a masked Khalifa executing a different Syrian soldier in each of the two videos — while other masked ISIS members also shoot the prisoners kneeling in front of each of them.

Khalifa is scheduled to be sentenced on April 15. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

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