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

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



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