American Mom Who Lived Under ISIS May Be Prosecuted

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Sam El Hassani in March 2018, interviewed in Kurdish detention.

Sam El Hassani in March 2018, interviewed in Kurdish detention.

July 20, 2018

The story of an American woman who lived under ISIS rule for more than two years with her four children has a new twist: she’s reportedly been charged in a sealed indictment and will be returned to the United States from a Kurdish detention camp.

In March, in her first interview, Samantha El Hassani told FRONTLINE and the BBC that her husband Moussa, a Moroccan national, tricked her into traveling to the so called Islamic State. She said he took her and her two children at the time on a vacation in Turkey in 2015, and then forced them over the border into Syria.

“We ended up in Raqqa,” she said in the interview, which was supervised by Kurdish guards. “The first thing I say to him is, ‘You’re crazy and I’m leaving,’ and he said, with a big smile on his face, ‘Go ahead. You can try, but you won’t make it.’”

She said in the March interview that she was wary about returning to the United States and losing custody of her children. “Will the government try to take my kids away from me, when I’ve done nothing but try to protect them? When here they give them school, they give them food, they give them everything. I’ll go there, I’m broke, I have nothing.”

But it now looks like any such decision will be out of her hands. Her sister Lori told FRONTLINE and the BBC that as of Friday, the FBI said it believed her sister was still in the Kurdish camp, though it would not say anything about the indictment. “Right now we don’t know what’s going to happen. I am frustrated that I’ve not been told more by the U.S. authorities,” she said. “If Sam and the kids are coming back, where are they going? … My priority is the kids, but if there’s evidence against Sam, it’s important she faces that and is held accountable if found to have committed crimes.”

A friend of the family, who asked that her name be withheld, told FRONTLINE and the BBC on Friday that she didn’t believe El Hassani would have brought her children willing into ISIS’ hands. But she said she had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in May about Facebook messages the two exchanged before El Hassani left for Syria. She said she was also asked to confirm that she had met with the FBI on several occasions after El Hassani left.

The Justice Department and State Department declined to comment. But according to a report in The New York Times, El Hassani is expected to be returned on a military plane soon along with another American to face charges.

For the past 18 months, FRONTLINE and the BBC have been investigating the El Hassani family’s journey from a comfortable life in Indiana to Raqqa, the bombed-out capital of the Islamic State and then into Kurdish detention. They are one of only a handful of American families that have lived under ISIS rule, making her case — and potential prosecution — a further test of how the U.S. handles those who have traveled, willingly or not, to the Islamic State.

During her interview, El Hassani told FRONTLINE and the BBC that her life under ISIS was harrowing. She said she tried to escape, but was captured and tortured on suspicion of being a spy. She said her husband repeatedly raped two Yazidi girls who were kept as slaves in their home. Her eldest son — whose real name is Matthew — was forced to appear in an ISIS propaganda video. Her husband, who was an ISIS sniper, was killed fighting for the terror group. Once he was dead, El Hassani fled with her children and the Yazidi girls, where they were ultimately picked up by Kurdish authorities.

Clive Stafford Smith,* an attorney acting for El Hassani and her family in the U.S., had been working to bring her and the children back to the states. On Friday, he said he welcomed the news of the possible indictment. “As we have said all along, it is obviously fine to investigate her for any crime that anyone may think she has committed,” he said. “Although she is presumed innocent, and from what I know about her, she is innocent of any offense.”

—Nick Verbitsky contributed reporting.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Stafford Smith is acting for El Hassani as well as her family.


Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Senior Editor & Director of Local Projects, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@sarah_childress

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