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US charges jihadist behind IS propaganda clips, including journalist beheadings

Canadian Mohammed Khalifa narrated videos as part of cell that filmed murders of James Foley and American-Israeli Steven Sotloff

Steven Sotloff next to his Islamic State captor, 'Jihadi John,' in a video released September 2, 2014. (Screen capture: SITE/Twitter)
Steven Sotloff next to his Islamic State captor, 'Jihadi John,' in a video released September 2, 2014. (Screen capture: SITE/Twitter)

A Canadian jihadist who fought for the Islamic State group and narrated violent propaganda videos has been taken into custody by the United States and charged, the United States Department of Justice said on Saturday.

Mohammed Khalifa, who is 38 and was born in Saudi Arabia, was captured during a firefight in January 2019 by Kurdish-dominated Syrian forces allied with the US.

He was handed over “recently” to US authorities and charged in Virginia with conspiring to provide material support to IS resulting in death, said a Justice Department statement.

Khalifa left Canada in 2013 to join the IS group in Syria, and by the next year had become a key member of its propaganda team because of his fluent English and Arabic, according to the statement.

He allegedly served as a lead translator in Islamic State propaganda production and as the English-speaking narrator on two violent recruitment videos.

This cell was behind videos showing the beheadings of foreigners including the US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, an Israeli-American who died in 2014.

Khalifa faces a possible life sentence in the US. Canada additionally hopes to charge him, according to Canadian media.

In an exchange of emails cited in the charge sheet, Khalifa defended the IS killings he was associated with.

“Mohammed Khalifa not only fought for ISIS on the battlefield in Syria, but he was also the voice behind the violence,” said Acting US Attorney Raj Parekh for the Eastern District of Virginia, using another acronym for the Islamic State group.

According to the indictment, Khalifa’s “primary focus” was “enticing ISIS supporters to travel to ISIS-controlled areas to join ISIS or to conduct attacks in the West, including in the United States.”

The jihadist group, classified as a terrorist organization by US authorities, is responsible for a wave of deadly attacks in Western countries.

Its emergence prompted intervention by a US-led international military coalition, which succeeded in defeating the self-proclaimed “caliphate,” even though IS is still present in many additional countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, and continues to pose a threat, according to US and European intelligence services.

In a 2019 interview with Canada’s CBC from his Syrian prison, Khalifa showed no regret for his actions. He said that he wanted to return to Canada with his wife and their three children, but on the condition that he would not be tried there.

In this May 27, 2011 file photo, American journalist James Foley, of Rochester, NH, poses for a photo in Boston. (AP/Steven Senne)

“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,” Parekh said.

This is the first known indictment of a foreign IS fighter in America since US President Joe Biden took power in January.

Two members of the notorious IS kidnapping cell dubbed the “Beatles,” Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, are currently in the hands of US authorities after being transferred to the US from Iraq nearly a year ago.

The pair are accused of involvement in the murders of Foley and Sotloff, as well as those of relief workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.

Kotey, a former British national who was stripped of his citizenship, pleaded guilty in early September to charges of conspiring to murder the four American hostages.

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