An American Mom Who Lived Under ISIS Rule Speaks Out
The boy first appeared in the ISIS propaganda video in late August 2017, handling a firearm.
Slight, with large dark eyes and a buzz cut, he introduces himself as Yusuf, a 10-year-old resident of the Islamic State. Then, in fluent American-accented English, the boy threatens President Donald Trump and vows that ISIS will be victorious.
Few knew who he really was — or his full story.
For the past 18 months, FRONTLINE and the BBC have been investigating the boy and his family’s saga. It is an extraordinary tale of one American family’s journey from a comfortable life in Indiana to Raqqa, the bombed-out capital of the Islamic State, and ultimately into Kurdish detention, where filmmaker Joshua Baker recently found the boy and his mother, Sam El Hassani, along with her three younger children.
In her first interview, El Hassani said that her husband Moussa, a Moroccan national, tricked her into traveling to the 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 a lengthy interview supervised by Kurdish guards last month. “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.'”
It wasn’t the life she’d expected when she and Moussa first met in Indiana in 2011, and married after a whirlwind romance. “For five years we had a great life,” she said. “We worked together, we did everything together. …He bought me nice things. I drove a BMW, he drove a Porsche.”
She added: “After a while he became bored, I think, of his life.”
The El Hassanis lived in Raqqa for more than two years, during which time they had two more children. El Hassani said she was accused of being a spy and tortured after trying to find a smuggler to help her escape. She said her husband repeatedly raped two Yazidi girls who were kept as slaves in their home. She said her eldest son — whose real name is Matthew — was forced to appear in the ISIS propaganda video.
In 2017, Moussa was killed in an airstrike fighting for ISIS, and Raqqa fell shortly afterward. Sam fled with her children and was taken into custody by Kurdish forces.
She said she is 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.”
The family’s story raises broader questions about how the U.S. should deal with Americans who lived under the Islamic State. It’s not known how many there are, although one recent study said that 300 Americans had attempted or traveled to join the conflict in Iraq or Syria since 2011. Most were young men who planned to fight, although about 11 percent were women, according to a 2018 sample study by George Washington University’s extremism program.
So far, according to those who have studied the issue, the U.S. doesn’t have a consistent policy on how to handle such cases, perhaps in part because they are so rare.
Back in the U.S., her sister Lori says Sam deserves some blame, but doesn’t think her children should suffer further. She is trying to get the U.S. government to bring them home. “There should be some sort of structure, a plan to help families get out of Syria,” said Lori, who was married to Moussa’s brother. “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.”
The FBI declined to comment on the case. The State department said in a statement that it was aware of media reports about the family, but offered no further information.
—Joshua Baker contributed reporting to this story.