Samantha Sally’s parents and friends will never know exactly why, in the spring of 2015, the 30 year-old abandoned her small-town American life to take her children to the heart of Islamic State (IS). Then mother to Matthew, seven, from her first marriage and a daughter, two, with her second husband, Sally worked for a delivery company in Elkhart, Indiana. Facebook home videos show a seemingly normal suburban family, playing hide-and-seek with the children around the living room sofas. But friends describe her as something of a chameleon; a wily, unpredictable operator who could not be placed into any one box.
It was that unknowable aspect to Sally’s character that most struck filmmaker Josh Baker, when he met her in a Kurdish detention camp in early 2018, after searching for her across northeastern Syria for his new, 10-part BBC Sounds podcast, I’m Not a Monster, which starts today, and his Panorama film, Return from ISIS: A Family’s Story, airing tonight.
“When I first met [Sally], her English was slightly broken because it’d been so long since she’d been completely immersed in that environment,” Baker remembers. “When I came back three months later, she had completely changed. She was no longer dressed in the traditional outfit Isis used to make women wear. She was wearing a baseball cap, puffer jacket; had pigtails.”
Baker spent four years in Syria, Iraq, and America, piecing together the details of Sally’s remarkable journey, which until now has been told only in fragments. He is also the first to interview her son Matthew, now 12, about his attempts to re-integrate into Western society.
Sally’s is not just the story of a mother who made a monumentally bad decision, placing her children in mortal danger: aged nine, Matthew was used as a pawn in a widely-shared IS propaganda video threatening President Trump.
It also raises the thorny question of whether Western governments should treat so-called “Isis brides” who decide they want to return as accomplices or victims – an ongoing debate in the case of Shamima Begum, who left east London as a teenager to join IS, and is now fighting through British courts to be allowed home. It was her second husband, Sally insists, who was “the ultimate villain”.
Raised a Jehovah’s Witness in rural Arkansas, Sally was a “normal kid” who always looked out for her younger sister, according to her father, Rick, a lorry driver. After the failure of her first marriage to Juan (Matthew’s father), Sally’s life changed when she met Moussa Elhassani, a university dropout who had moved to the US in the Nineties from a wealthy Moroccan family.
For a few years, he showered them with expensive gifts and attention – but he would often get “bored”, says Sally, and at one point disappeared on a three-day cocaine binge. Still, they married in 2012 (although the couple already lived together, undermining Elhassani’s claim to have been an observant Muslim), and soon had a daughter.
According to Sally’s version of events, in 2015 Elhassani persuaded her to sell their house in Indiana and move to Morocco. With a flight changeover in Istanbul, Elhassani suggested a quick sightseeing holiday, on a whim. But at the end of the week, Sally claims, instead of taking them back to the airport, as promised, Elhassani drove them 800 miles to the Syrian border, where “things started getting a little weird”. She claims he took Matthew and their daughter across the border, leaving her with no choice but to follow with a bag he asked her to bring, containing passports, cash, and jewellery. She says she only truly realised she was joining IS when she saw “guys with beards and guns”.
Her sister, Lori did not hear from her until two years later, when she received an email from Sally saying: “I really hope you can help me. Moussa brought me and the kids illegally to Syria. […] This could be my last time online. Love you and miss you.”
Baker is sceptical of this account – with good reason. Sally recently admitted in a plea deal that before moving to Syria she had taken three trips to Hong Kong, where she deposited gold, precious stones, and cash totalling more than $30,000 (£22,589) in a safe deposit box. Sally claims she was simply trying to help her husband pay less tax. Her father thinks it is unlikely that his daughter was tricked, as does her first husband, who tells Baker that she probably joined IS “for the thrill”.
Whatever her motivation, it is clear that life in Raqqa, the caliphate’s self-declared capital, was hell: public executions were common, and everyday life was punctuated by the background noise of gunshots and explosions. Elhassani, who became an IS sniper, bought two sex slaves, aged 17 and 14. Baker later tracked down the 17 year-old in Iraq, a member of the Yazidi religious minority persecuted by IS. “He used to sleep with us whenever he wanted,” she tells him.
In the winter of 2015, Sally claims she was taken to a converted football stadium and tortured after local leaders discovered she was planning to escape. She says they beat her, tied her from the ceiling by her wrists, and electrocuted her stomach – details that Baker was able partially to verify from IS documents – even though she was pregnant at the time. She had two more children with Elhassani while living in Syria.
Perhaps most disturbing are the videos of Sally’s son, Matthew – described by his aunt, Lori, as the “sweetest little boy you’ll ever meet” – forced to assemble a suicide belt, and play with his “new toy”: a rack of explosives. Behind the camera, Elhassani can be heard egging his step-son on. In 2017, Matthew was made to star in a propaganda broadcast by IS, in which he announces: “My message to Trump, puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory, and has promised you defeat. This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul, it’s going to end in your lands.”
As the US-led military coalition closed in on Raqqa in 2017, Elhassani was killed by a drone airstrike. Sally’s family cried with joy when they heard the news. Once IS were gone, Sally was able to smuggle her children in the back of a lorry to Kurdish territory, where they settled for seven months in the detention camp where Baker found her.
In mid-2018, the family was flown back to the US, where Sally was arrested, and the children placed in foster care. Earlier this month, she pleaded guilty to providing financial support to IS, and was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison, plus three years of supervised release. It was part of a plea deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop a more serious conspiracy charge. Prosecutors say they have never found evidence to suggest that Sally planned to harm the United States, or that she supported IS ideology.
Speaking recently from prison, she told Baker: “I accept that I was unable to make the decisions to protect [my children] better.”
Baker also managed to track down Matthew, who now lives with his father in Idaho. Sally’s other children live with her parents. After two years of psychological support, the gentle-mannered boy, who Baker describes as the most emotionally intelligent child he has ever met, speaks confidently about his horrific experiences, and is fully on the way to re-integration. He enjoys fishing with his dad, and having picked up Arabic in Syria, hopes to work as a translator.
“[In Syria] they always said, ‘One day you’ll be back home’, but it never happened, so I just [thought], ‘Yeah, I’m never coming home’,” Matthew says, poignantly. “The first day I saw my dad I was happy, very happy. It feels sad they would do that to a child, that’s how I feel. It all happened, and it’s done. It’s all behind me now.”
- Panorama’s ‘Return from ISIS: A Family’s Story’ is on BBC One at 9pm on Monday, November 23, 2020
- I’m Not a Monster is available now on BBC Sounds
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