American Mom Who Pleaded Guilty to Terrorism Charges Sentenced to 6.5 Years

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November 9, 2020

In an Indiana courtroom, a federal judge today sentenced Samantha Elhassani — an American woman who, in 2015, traveled to Syria with her family, where her husband and brother-in-law joined the Islamic State terrorist group — to six and a half years in prison and three years of supervised release for financing terrorism. 

After being repatriated to the U.S. in July 2018 along with her children, Elhassani was indicted on two counts: conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS and aiding an individual to provide material assistance; a third count, on lying to the FBI, was later dropped. But in November 2019, Elhassani pleaded guilty to concealing financial support intended to help her husband, Moussa Elhassani, whom she had met and married in Indiana seven years prior, and her brother-in-law in order to help them join the terrorist group.

“Once again, the Justice Department has held accountable an individual who turned her back on her country to support a terrorist organization,” John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, told FRONTLINE after the sentencing.

For almost four years, FRONTLINE and the BBC have been following Elhassani’s journey for an upcoming documentary and podcast. Elhassani first traveled to Raqqa, Syria, in April 2015, with Moussa, her children and one of Moussa’s brothers. After Moussa was killed fighting for the terrorist group, Elhassani fled in late 2017 and was captured by Kurdish forces. FRONTLINE and the BBC found her in Syria in December 2017 and spoke to Elhassani for her first interview. 

Elhassani’s guilty plea capped her maximum prison sentence at 10 years. In pressing for the full penalty today, the prosecution — the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Indiana and the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section — argued that Elhassani knowingly provided financial assistance to Moussa and his brother by making several trips to Hong Kong and “pre-positioning” over $30,000 in cash and gold she knew they would use to support ISIS.

“If you know there’s even a remote chance your children could end up in a war zone halfway around the world, why would you ever get on the plane?” Abizer Zanzi, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, asked today in the courtroom.

Elhassani’s lawyer, Tom Durkin, asked for only four to five years, arguing that Moussa had been abusive and coerced her to travel with him. In previous interviews with the media and in conversations with federal agents, Elhassani maintained her innocence, saying her husband had tricked her into traveling into Syria.

Those factors had a clear influence on Judge Philip P. Simon, who presided over the sentencing hearing. “There is no question the defendant was manipulated by her husband,” Simon said in court today. “There is no conceivable way the defendant would be sitting in this courtroom but for the actions of her husband, Moussa Elhassani.”

Simon said he believes Elhassani suffers from mental health issues, including diagnosed PTSD and major depressive disorder, and that she is genuinely remorseful.

While reading a statement in her own defense, Elhassani — wearing a standard red prison jumpsuit, glasses, and a patterned face mask — broke down crying.

The prosecution had also called Juan, the father of Elhassani’s oldest son, Matthew, to serve as a witness. Juan currently maintains custody of 13-year-old Matthew, who appeared in an ISIS propaganda video while Elhassani and her family were in Raqqa. In her statement, Elhassani apologized to Juan, who had already left the courtroom, and addressed the judge: “I hope one day he’ll allow me to ask my son for forgiveness.”

Elhassani also apologized to the U.S. government and to her parents. Her father was present for today’s proceedings.

“She was prosecuted as a proxy for her husband and her brother-in-law,” Durkin, her attorney, told FRONTLINE after the sentencing. “If you would have seen how hard the prosecution was pressing for 10 years today, you would have thought that we had the two terrorists in the courtroom.” 

Pleading guilty to aiding and abetting a U.S.-designated terrorist group usually leads to a lighter sentence than standing trial, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

Hughes tracks U.S. citizens who have returned or have been repatriated to the U.S. after joining ISIS and provided a copy of his list to FRONTLINE. Eight of the approximately 25 Americans on the list, including Samantha Elhassani, have pleaded guilty to charges.

“It’s the same reason that a top-level guy will get a better sentence than a street guy,” Hughes, who was not involved in the case, told FRONTLINE. “They have information to offer about the network. The folks that came back basically give up evidence.” 

Women also typically face more lenient sentences than men who return from ISIS, Audrey Alexander, a researcher and instructor at West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center, told FRONTLINE. Cooperation with U.S. authorities, combined with other factors — such as a tumultuous past, children and domestic abuse — can contribute to lighter sentences.

“Women occupy nuanced space between victim and perpetrator,” said Alexander, who has been tracking Elhassani’s case for several years. Elhassani, she said, “falls somewhere in between.”

Josh Baker contributed reporting. 


Lila Hassan

Lila Hassan, Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Twitter:

@lilahass

Max Green, Podcast Producer, The FRONTLINE Dispatch

Twitter:

@maxraphaelgreen

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