How Did an American Mom Go From Indiana to ISIS Territory?

Share:
December 15, 2020

In November 2020, Sam Sally, also known as Sam Elhassani, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for financing terrorism — making her the first American woman brought back from Syria or Iraq and convicted on ISIS-related terrorism charges.

How did this American mother go from a comfortable life in Indiana to the heart of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, with her husband a sniper for the terror group and her 10-year-old son forced to threaten President Donald Trump in an ISIS propaganda video shown around the world?

FRONTLINE tells the inside story in Return From ISIS, a documentary in association with the BBC that has been nearly four years in the making.

It’s a saga in which truth is stranger than fiction: “I’ve covered many stories about ISIS and Westerners who’d joined the group,” says the documentary’s director, writer and producer Josh Baker (Battle for Iraq, I’m Not A Monster). “But I’ve never encountered anything quite like this.”

Baker first received a tip about an American woman trapped in ISIS territory with her kids in early 2017. At that time, he was recovering from injuries sustained in an ISIS suicide bombing in Iraq, where he had been filming a documentary on the fight against the terror group. Sam’s trail soon led Baker to South Bend, Indiana. In the above excerpt from the film, Baker sits down with Lori Sally, Sam’s sister, who shares a desperate email she had received from Sam after losing touch for several years.

“‘Moussa [Sam’s husband] brought me and the kids illegally to Syria,’” Lori says, reading a message her sister sent from Raqqa, Syria. “‘I’ll have to be forward with you because I don’t have a lot of time. Almost every day, 5-10 bombs are dropped around us. The shockwaves are insane. It rains shrapnel, everything from rocks to metal sheets to glass shards. This could be my last time online.’”

Attached to the email was a home video of Lori’s son, Matthew, being forced to assemble a suicide bomb as his stepfather, Moussa, coached him on how to role-play an attack.

“How could they do this to a child?” Lori asks, crying.

Return From ISIS follows Baker’s nearly four-year-long effort to uncover the truth about how Sam and her children ended up in Syria, the federal prosecution that ultimately put Sam behind bars and the quest to bring Matthew home safely. It’s a story that grows more shocking at each turn and includes the first interview with Matthew since his return to the United States.

“It’s all behind me now,” he tells Baker.

Return From ISIS premieres Tues., Dec. 15 on PBS (check local listings) and online. The documentary is part of a multiplatform investigation that also includes a 10-episode podcast series, I’m Not A Monster, in collaboration with BBC Panorama and BBC Sounds. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

A Timeline of Domestic Extremism in the U.S., from Charlottesville to January 6
According to data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there were 405 terror attacks or plots in the U.S. from 2015 through 2020 — more than double the total number in the previous decade. A timeline of significant incidents tracks how domestic extremism has evolved in recent years.
April 21, 2021
Derek Chauvin is convicted of killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, cuffed and sent to prison
The conviction, almost a year after a bystander video captured Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, was the first time in Minnesota history that a white police officer was convicted of killing a Black civilian on the job.
April 20, 2021
Chauvin Trial Lawyers Bring Everything Together in Closing Arguments on Floyd's Death
After 45 witnesses and 14 days of testimony in the Hennepin County District Court trial, two lawyers will make their closing arguments, the final words the jurors hear from them before retreating behind closed doors to deliberate.
April 17, 2021
Of the 5 States with the Most Farmworkers, Only 3 Are Prioritizing Vaccines — and Not All Means of Prioritizing Are Equal, per the CDC
Months after the July 2020 film "COVID's Hidden Toll," FRONTLINE checked in with farmworkers in California and four other big agricultural states and found vaccine rollouts have been uneven.
April 16, 2021