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Screen image of ISIS propaganda video

What happens to the American families of Islamic State fighters?

Sam El Hassani, an American woman from Indiana, said her husband tricked her into going to Turkey on a vacation in 2015.

“We ended up in Raqqa,” which was the declared capital of the Islamic State terrorist group, she said in an exclusive interview with Frontline and the BBC.

“’You’re crazy and I’m leaving,’” El Hassani said she told her husband, who replied, “’Go ahead. You can try, but you won’t make it.’”

For two years, El Hassani and her husband Moussa, a Moroccan national, lived in Raqqa with their four children. Moussa became a sniper for the terrorist group. Their oldest son, Mathew, appeared in an Islamic State propaganda video appearing to handle weapons.

After her husband’s death in an airstrike in 2017, El Hassani and her children escaped Raqqa, were captured by Kurdish forces and brought to a refugee camp in northern Syria where they still reside. Sam El Hassani said she is wary of returning to the U.S., where she worries her children will be taken away from her.

“Will the government try to take my kids away from me, when I have done nothing but try to protect them, when here they give them school, they give them food, they give them everything?” she said.

Special correspondent and filmmaker Josh Baker reported for BBC and Frontline about El Hassani’s story.

Back in Indiana, her sister, Lori El Hassani, who is married to Moussa’s brother, said there should be a process in place to bring back American families of ISIS fighters. “I mean, should people be punished for going to Syria and doing what they’re doing? Absolutely. But should we abandon them over there? No.”

Sam El Hassani probably faces some terrorism charges, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour. But “the sins of the mother shouldn’t be the sins of the child. And we should figure out a way to get them back into society.”

Watch Hughes’ full interview with PBS NewsHour correspondent Amna Nawaz.

Hughes’ team released a report earlier this year that recommends the U.S. government set up a process to bring families of ISIS fighters back to the U.S.

The report identified 64 Americans who joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2011. Although there was no single profile of Americans who travel abroad to join ISIS, they tended to be male of an average age of 27. They already were affiliated with the Islamic State before they arrived in Syria or Iraq, and most came from Minnesota, Virginia and Ohio. Some died in the fight and those who returned were arrested – some serving up to 20 years in jail, Hughes said. About 11 percent were women.

Hughes said his program knows of about a dozen American families in El Hassani’s situation. “You’re hoping you can bring them back into a loving society, into a safety net, that you can bring in mental health professionals, social workers, a loving family that can kind of bring them back into where they used to be,” he said.

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