Transcript

Return From ISIS

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JOSH BAKER, Correspondent:

South Bend, Indiana, March 2017. I was here to investigate a lead I’d got about an American woman, her young son and ISIS. I’d come to meet the woman’s sister, Lori Sally. They hadn’t been in contact for years.

LORI SALLY, Sam's sister:

I had a feeling that she was in some sort of trouble, but I didn’t know what was going on.

JOSH BAKER:

Then, out of the blue, she received an email.

LORI SALLY [reading email]:

"I really hope you can help me. Moussa brought me and the kids illegally to Syria. I will have to be forward with you because I don’t have a lot of time. Almost every day five to 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." [cries] "I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you."

JOSH BAKER:

Lori had thought her sister, Sam, was in Texas with her husband, Moussa. She was wrong. They were in Raqqa, the city ISIS claimed as its capital.

Attached to the email were videos of Sam’s 9-year-old son, Matthew.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Is that your new toy?

MATTHEW:

Yes, it is. It’s my new toy. Seven hundred of these metal balls, these steel metal balls. Three kilos of TNT. Dual metal plates.

JOSH BAKER:

One of the videos showed Matthew being forced to assemble a suicide bomb.

Off camera, you can hear Moussa, his stepfather, pushing Matthew to role-play an attack.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

What would you do if you hear a helicopter and American pigs come down to kidnap you and your mother? What are you going to do to them?

MATTHEW:

I’m going to hide it under my shirt, I going to walk out and say, "Come save me, come save me! My name is Matthew. I’m American. Come save me, come save me!" And as soon as the helicopter comes on the ground, I’m going to pull my pin.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

You have to wait till they get really close, OK?

MATTHEW:

As soon as the helicopter comes down.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

OK.

LORI SALLY:

How could they do this to a child? Matthew is the sweetest little boy you'll ever meet.

JOSH BAKER:

The videos of Matthew set me off on an investigation that was to take almost four years. Lori told me she’d shared them with the FBI, but they wouldn’t talk to me, saying it was an ongoing investigation.

I’ve covered many stories about ISIS and Westerners who’d joined the group, but this was different. Sam seemed to be saying she’d been taken there against her will. And Matthew was just a child.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

Hey, Lori, I just want to say again I love you and I miss you.

JOSH BAKER:

In the months after the email, I kept filming with Lori as she continued to get messages from her sister.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

I don’t know when I'll be able to talk to you next. It may be a while. I don't—again, I don’t get to go to the internet, so I can only send you messages like this.

JOSH BAKER:

Throughout those months, 6,000 miles away, Raqqa was under attack by a U.S.-led coalition.

Sam’s messages were sporadic. One of them included her 3-year-old daughter.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

Say "how are you."

GIRL'S VOICE [on voicemail]:

How are you?

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

Say "can’t wait to see you."

GIRL'S VOICE [on voicemail]:

Can’t wait to see you.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

Say "make me food."

GIRL'S VOICE [on voicemail]:

Make me food.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

Hey, Lori. I just want to say it really does help me to hear your voice. And keep making your prayers for us. You don’t understand, here, instead of just leaving us be, all the time we hear the jets and bombs, and it’s part of daily life here. I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to you next. It may be a while.

JOSH BAKER:

By the middle of October 2017, Raqqa had fallen. ISIS was in retreat. Thousands had died. Lori feared her sister and the children were among them.

Then a news agency published a brief video clip of some women and children who’d escaped the city.

November 2017

LORI SALLY:

There’s Sam. My sister looks—bad. There’s Matthew.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam and the children had made it out of Raqqa alive. The video showed them in the custody of a Kurdish militia.

LORI SALLY:

I just wish I was there. I just want to give them all a hug. I just hope my sister knows how much I love her and how much this whole thing has just killed me and that she’s brave. She’s brave for getting out. I don’t agree with what she did, but I just hope she knows I love her. I wish I was there.

MALE NEWSREADER:

ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa. Clearance operations continue—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Over the last few days, hundreds of Islamic State group fighters have surrendered in a deal negotiated between local tribal chiefs and Kurdish forces.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Thousands were allowed to leave here, but foreigners didn't escape.

JOSH BAKER:

By the winter of 2017, it was safe enough for me to travel to Syria. I now had a chance to find Sam and her family.

If you can confirm that you're on the other side before we cross, that would be great, thank you.

Almost seven years of war had left the country devastated and divided. I was heading to an area controlled by a Kurdish militia. A local journalist had told me Sam and her children were being held in a detention camp run by the group. I made contact with a commander who had the authority to grant me access to them.

Could we meet in the morning? This could be really good, potentially.

The meeting went well, but the commander told me it would be some time before I got permission to interview Sam.

While I waited in my hotel, I got a call from Lori saying that someone with an Iraqi number was trying to contact her.

FEMALE TRANSLATOR:

Hello?

FEMALE VOICE [on phone]:

Hello?

FEMALE TRANSLATOR:

Salaam aleikum.

JOSH BAKER:

My translator called the number. It was an Iraqi woman who said she knew Sam. She told us there was an 8-year-old boy who’d lived with Sam in Syria and was now back in his village in northern Iraq.

FEMALE TRANSLATOR:

Yalla bye-bye.

FEMALE VOICE [on phone]:

[Speaking Kurmanji] Bye.

FEMALE TRANSLATOR:

[Speaking Kurmanji] Bye! [Speaking English] Bye! Good!

JOSH BAKER:

I set out to find him and eventually tracked him down to a village near the Syrian border.

Hello. What’s your name?

AYHAM:

Ayham, what's yours?

JOSH BAKER:

I’m Josh. Your English is amazing.

AYHAM:

My English not learn from you.

JOSH BAKER:

Where did you learn your English?

AYHAM:

Next from one family American.

JOSH BAKER:

American family?

AYHAM:

Yeah. Come.

JOSH BAKER:

I'm coming.

Ayham was now living with his uncle. They’re Yazidis, a religious minority persecuted by ISIS. I was told that when Ayham was 4, ISIS attacked his town and took him as a slave. His mother is still missing.

JOSH BAKER:

So I want to show you some pictures and I want you to tell me if you recognize them. Do you recognize this lady?

AYHAM:

Yeah, that’s her.

JOSH BAKER:

Ayham recognized Sam from the photos I showed him. I discovered that Moussa and Sam had bought him as a slave from an ISIS fighter. But he told me Sam had treated him like a son.

AYHAM:

She was like my mother. I want to go next to her.

JOSH BAKER:

You want to go next to her?

AYHAM:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

Do you want me to show you some other pictures?

AYHAM:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

Ayham told me he became close with Matthew, who he knew by another name: Yusef.

This is Yusef.

AYHAM:

Yeah, that's Yusef.

JOSH BAKER:

Can you tell me about Yusef? Is he your friend?

AYHAM:

He’s like my brother.

JOSH BAKER:

What did you two do together in Raqqa?

AYHAM:

We were playing all the time. All the time.

JOSH BAKER:

Did living with ISIS scare you?

AYHAM:

Yes.

JOSH BAKER:

Why did it scare you?

AYHAM:

It scared everybody, not just me. Every day they’re killing people. Yeah, every day, every time.

JOSH BAKER:

Ayham had been separated from Sam and Matthew soon after they fled Raqqa.

I was still trying to get permission to film an interview with Sam. Shortly after leaving Ayham’s village in Iraq, the Kurdish commander who I’d been negotiating with contacted me again. He told me to come to a military base, where I waited for hours before finally Sam was brought in.

Are you happy for me to start?

The Kurdish guards insisted on monitoring the interview.

So obviously, there's a long history to this, and what I would like to do is sort of start at the beginning.

SAM ELHASSANI:

OK.

JOSH BAKER:

How did an American lady end up in Syria with ISIS?

SAM ELHASSANI:

I don’t even know where to start answering that question. I met my husband, Moussa. About a year after we met each other we got married.

August 2013

SAM ELHASSANI:

We’d been seeing each other and we were living together but we weren’t married. Which shows you he was not a strict Muslim.

JOSH BAKER:

At that time, Matthew was almost 5 years old. Moussa became his stepfather.

Moussa was from a wealthy Moroccan family, the Elhassanis. He came to the U.S. to study and stayed on to work in the family business, a shipping company.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Are you recording?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Yup.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

All right!

SAM ELHASSANI:

For five years we had a great life. We worked together. We did everything together. He was very relaxed.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

You can see my pregnant little wifey. Hi, beautiful.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam and Moussa had a daughter together.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Man, what a mess.

JOSH BAKER:

Home videos posted online gave the impression of a happy family.

SAM ELHASSANI:

He was really good at giving me attention, giving the kids attention.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Hi! Hi!

SAM ELHASSANI:

He was really good at it. There was not one dollar he wouldn’t spend on us.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Do you like it?

MATTHEW:

Yeah!

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

It’s a dinosaur bicycle.

SAM ELHASSANI:

Matthew, are you riding?

MATTHEW:

Yeah, I feel like it!

SAM ELHASSANI:

All right, rev it up! Thank you Moussa, thank you so much!

After a while he became bored, I think, with his life.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

And I want a drink and I want this and I want that.

SAM ELHASSANI:

One time he took off for three days. I found out from people in the neighborhood he was on a cocaine binge.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

And you be quiet. Be quiet! Be quiet!

SAM ELHASSANI:

So my husband was doing a lot of the talking—

JOSH BAKER:

Sam then started to give me her account of how she and her family ended up with ISIS. She claimed she was tricked by her husband. According to Sam, Moussa persuaded her to start a new life with him in Morocco.

SAM ELHASSANI:

So my husband was like, "OK, we're going to get the money together for this," and we get busy. He's selling—he's got expensive watches, he's selling his expensive watches. He sold his Porsche. I sold the BMW.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

This car is a good buy, definitely, for how much it's selling for. All right? Bye.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam told me the family packed up their home and sold everything. It was March 2015. They had tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gold. She said they then met up with Moussa’s brother Abdelhadi and took a vacation in Turkey. After two weeks, they headed to the border with Syria.

SAM ELHASSANI:

I didn’t know what was happening. I assumed that I was being lied to. In my bag I had all of our cash, all of my jewelry, all of our passports.

JOSH BAKER:

She said that Moussa then took the bag and her daughter.

SAM ELHASSANI:

And he just goes; he knows—he knows I’m going to follow him. What am I going to do? I see my husband cross through a fence, and this time my heart is beating so fast. I know, I know, I know what’s happening now, and I’m thinking, OK, I’ll just make it to the other side, take my bag and my kid and walk back across again. It’s just that simple.

But it wasn’t that simple. We made it across. I followed him.

JOSH BAKER:

There were holes in her story that I wanted to press her on, but I didn’t feel free to push her too hard. I was worried that she would say something that would get her and her kids in trouble with the Kurdish authorities who were holding them.

Did you know you were in Syria at this point?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Yeah, yeah, I knew I was in Syria.

JOSH BAKER:

And did you know who you were with?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

How did you first come to know that you were with ISIS?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Well, when you walk up and you see a bunch of guys with beards and guns, what do you—what else do you think?

ISIS video

JOSH BAKER:

By May 2015, the family was in Raqqa. Sam said she tried to give the children some sense of normal life. Family photographs show them playing in local parks and swimming in a river. Soon after they arrived, Sam said Moussa was sent for military training.

ISIS video

SAM ELHASSANI:

It wasn’t too long after he made it back from training camp he had to go fight. Usually when he would go, he would go about a month at a time.

JOSH BAKER:

Moussa was one of around 40,000 foreigners from approximately 120 countries that joined ISIS. That included roughly 5,000 Europeans and more than 250 Americans.

It was after his military training that Moussa began forcing Matthew to make the videos.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

Without a single mistake, take apart this loaded AK.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam told me that Moussa planned to use the videos to get money out of her sister, Lori.

SAM ELHASSANI:

He was trying to sell me back to my family, and he did a video with Matthew, with weapons and this explosive belt and things like this. For three days Matthew had to practice, Matthew had to practice, Matthew had to practice, because Matthew thought we were going home.

MOUSSA ELHASSANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Well done. [Speaking English] It’s ready to shoot. Nice.

JOSH BAKER:

There will be people who feel you’re an American who was with arguably the world’s worst terrorist organization, you should go to prison. What would you say to that?

SAM ELHASSANI:

If they could live a day in my shoes, they would understand why I don’t care if I go to prison or not. If they want to put me in prison, they can put me in a prison for a year, 50 years, it doesn't matter to me. As long as I get to see my kids and I know my kids are good.

JOSH BAKER:

The interview came to an end and Sam was taken back to the detention camp.

I still had so many questions about her story. And I wasn’t the only one: She told me that a few weeks earlier, the FBI had been here and questioned her about her links to ISIS.

The FBI still wasn’t talking to me, but back in the U.S. I continued trying to find out more about Sam. She grew up in rural Arkansas. Her father, Rick, was a truck driver.

RICK SALLY, Sam's father:

Well, Josh, this is our family home—our mansion, as we'd call it. Over here is the swing set for Samantha and Lori, we built for them back in '92.

Come on in the house. Here's my wife, Lisa, doing the morning dishes.

LISA SALLY, Sam's mother:

Hey!

RICK SALLY:

Here's a picture of Lisa and I, Samantha and Lori when they were little-bitty. Here's a picture when they got a little older. That’s Samantha. That’s Lori.

Sam has always been one to be in trouble. In her younger days she used to sneak out of the house at night, and it just—we always had trouble.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam and Lori were brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

RICK SALLY:

My wife and I took the way we were raised and tried to incorporate it in with them. Very strict parents. And they were brought up to be very close to each other.

Then when they got older, they, especially Samantha, kind of went off the deep end. Her whole demeanor changed. Who could ever give her the most. So she would be with this guy for a while and she’d meet somebody that can offer her a little more money, she’d go with that guy. She’d break it off with this guy, and go with this guy.

Half the time you can’t tell what the truth is and what's not the truth. So you have to read between the lines.

JOSH BAKER:

I told Rick what Sam had said to me: that Moussa had tricked her into going to Syria.

RICK SALLY:

I believe that she knew where she was going.

JOSH BAKER:

You don’t think she was tricked?

RICK SALLY:

No. No, I don’t.

JOSH BAKER:

At all?

RICK SALLY:

I don’t think she was tricked. I feel she went over there voluntarily. Her children are involved. I feel sorry for the children.

JOSH BAKER:

I moved on to Idaho to meet Matthew’s biological father, Juan. It was elk-hunting season, and he invited me to join him and his brother.

Juan had served in the Navy.

JUAN, Matthew's father:

There's a herd over there. Look through the trees, you'll see their tan butts.

When I first met Sam she was very adventurous, outgoing. She—fast cars, motorcycles. Sam was real big on to like stunts, trying to pop wheelie on her motorcycle or racing cars. She was just very adventurous.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam was coming out of a failed marriage when she got together with Juan. In 2007, Matthew was born.

Did you ever go hunting with Matthew?

JUAN:

Matthew went with me about two times and slept the whole time in the blind. He didn’t come out into woods like these; I took him to a deer blind and he just slept.

JOSH BAKER:

Was it fun?

JUAN:

Always fun. He loves it. It’s irreplaceable time.

JOSH BAKER:

Juan said he and Sam split up when Matthew was 3.

She doesn’t practice Islam, she doesn’t seem to be an extremist. Why would she go to ISIS?

JUAN:

For the thrill. Just to go and to be around the environment and because it probably just to her seemed like something fun to do.

JOSH BAKER:

Do you really think she would go all the way to ISIS for the thrill of it?

JUAN:

Yeah, I do.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

They are the people no country wants.

MALE NEWSREADER:

This camp has become a center where so-called ISIS families are now being gathered. The women and children of ISIS fighters who either came from outside this country to live under ISIS rule or were born in ISIS territory.

JOSH BAKER:

By July 2018, Sam had been in the Kurdish detention camp for almost eight months. She had four children with her—two had been born in Raqqa.

And she was still sending messages to her sister.

SAM ELHASSANI [on voicemail]:

I’m sending this voice message—sorry, I've lost my voice. But I just want you to know that things are getting really tough here, and I don’t have any way to provide for my kiddos and things are—things are hard. We just need to get out of here. We need to get out of here, we need to get out of here quick.

JOSH BAKER:

What Sam didn’t know is that the FBI was preparing to bring her home for prosecution.

John Demers is the assistant attorney general for national security.

JOHN DEMERS, Asst. Atty. General for National Security:

We have made it a principle that any American who left here to go to fight for ISIS should be brought back to face justice in the United States, to be held accountable here in the United States.

JOSH BAKER:

When did you start building a case against Samantha Elhassani, and what led you to do that?

JOHN DEMERS:

The FBI began its investigation into Elhassani after she traveled to Syria with her family. I can’t go into what leads caused the FBI to begin the investigation, but they were ones that they learned of after she left.

I think we as a nation have a responsibility for our citizens, regardless of where they do the wrong that they do. So that’s why we’re bringing individuals like Samantha home. That’s why we’ve bought nine other Americans home to face justice as well. The cases are not easy; oftentimes the evidence is in a war zone like Syria, or it’s classified evidence and it needs to be declassified, but it’s worth the work.

JOSH BAKER:

In July 2018, Sam and her children were suddenly put on a military flight and taken back to the United States.

Matthew and his siblings were placed in the care of Indiana Child Protective Services. Sam was put in the Porter County Jail.

FEMALE VOICE:

Your video visit is about to begin. This video call may be monitored and recorded.

JOSH BAKER:

As the Justice Department built a case against her, Sam agreed to speak to me again.

So you obviously told me that you were tricked and you thought you were moving to Morocco, right?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Right. Now, I don’t think I can talk about this.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you know you were going to join ISIS?

SAM ELHASSANI:

No.

JOSH BAKER:

Does Matthew really understand where he’s been and what’s happened to him? What’s been the effect on him?

SAM ELHASSANI:

It’s hard to say if he understands or not because the last couple of years, things have become normal for us that should not be normal for anybody. He is a child. He is a child, and he’s a very strong child, and anybody that would spend two minutes with him would know that there is absolutely not a violent bone in his body, absolutely not.

JOSH BAKER:

After returning to the U.S., Matthew received counseling and support to help him with what he’d been through. He eventually moved in with his father.

For months I’d been talking to them about doing an on-camera interview.

You only have to talk about what you want to talk about, Matt. You’re in charge.

MATTHEW:

Yeah, it’s OK, I’m good.

JOSH BAKER:

Matthew and his dad decided it was important for him to tell his own story.

MATTHEW:

When we first arrived in Raqqa we were in the city. It was pretty noisy—gunshots, normally, and once in a while a random explosion, far away, though. So we didn’t have much to worry about.

JOSH BAKER:

What’s it like seeing ISIS around you?

MATTHEW:

Normally when you’re talking to someone, you don’t necessarily have to really think about what you’re saying. But it’s like thinking of someone that basically has your life in their grasp. Say one wrong thing and they could easily just kill you.

JOSH BAKER:

I asked Matthew about the videos his stepfather made him record.

If you said no to Moussa, "I don’t want to do this," what would have happened?

MATTHEW:

I don’t really know. I don’t know. Because I was generally pretty obedient as far as that goes.

At that point I could already tell that he was starting to lose it. He was mentally unstable—very, very mentally unstable.

JOSH BAKER:

Was he ever angry towards you?

MATTHEW:

More than enough.

JOSH BAKER:

Do you feel comfortable telling me what he would do, or would you rather not?

MATTHEW:

I’d rather not.

JOSH BAKER:

That’s OK.

MATTHEW:

It was pretty bad.

JOSH BAKER:

Yeah?

MATTHEW:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

After a few months of living in Raqqa, Matthew said his mom was arrested by ISIS.

Winter 2015

MATTHEW:

They came to the house, kicked down the door, stuff like that. Blindfolded us, and I don’t remember much from there.

JOSH BAKER:

In her interview with me, Sam said she was taken to an ISIS prison as a suspected American spy and tortured.

How long were you in prison?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Two and a half months. It just doesn’t feel real, do you know what I mean? It doesn’t feel—I remember it, and I can almost feel the pain today and I look at the scars on my body and I know it happened, but—I don’t know—

JOSH BAKER:

I wasn’t sure what to believe.

I headed back to Syria to check Sam’s account—this time, to the ruins of Raqqa. I found the prison where she said she was tortured—a converted football stadium. The layout matched the description she gave me.

I’d also seen a document thought to be an ISIS communication which supports her story. It mentions the brutal interrogation of an American woman—Umm Yusef al-Amrikiya, the same Arabic name Sam was known by in Syria.

I later spoke to a woman who admits she used to be a member of ISIS. She told me she’d been held in a cell next to Sam. She’s asked us to conceal her identity because she’s still afraid of the group.

Actor's voice

FEMALE SPEAKER:

When she was in the prison, they really tortured her so badly, and we always heard her screaming. We heard them beating her so badly. She’s screaming, "I'm pregnant!" They're beating her, they're tugging her by her hair and trying to move her from one room to another.

JOSH BAKER:

After Sam was released, her story took an even darker turn. She and Moussa started buying slaves.

SAM ELHASSANI:

My husband—OK, this is going to sound really bad, OK, but I’m going to be honest with you—

JOSH BAKER:

Sam tried to portray it to me as a rescue mission.

SAM ELHASSANI:

She was wearing a red dress that was like a velvet texture that was too big for her and made her look incredibly skinny, and—God, I just fell in love with her. She had short hair and she looked so scared and I wanted to do anything I could that she wouldn’t look scared anymore, and it just broke my heart, absolutely broke my heart.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam told me that this girl had eventually escaped Raqqa and returned to what was left of her family in Iraq. So I headed there and found her in a small village in the north of the country. Her name is Suad. She’s a Yazidi and was 15 years old when she was first sold into slavery. She told me how she met Sam.

SUAD:

[Speaking Kurmanji] I was in the slave market. They beat us and made us wear revealing clothes. Sam came and saw that I was in a bad way. She told me I could get some rest in her house. Sam and Moussa bought me and I went to their house. She told me I wasn’t her slave, I was going to be like her daughter.

JOSH BAKER:

But Sam told me she knew all along that Moussa had other plans: He wanted a sex slave.

SUAD:

[Speaking Kurmanji] Moussa was beating Sam a lot and she was pregnant. He was telling her to hand me to him.

Sam knew he forced me for sex. And every time I went to her and told her what happened she would cry and say, "I’m against it but I can't do anything."

JOSH BAKER:

Moussa then bought a second Yazidi girl, who was just 14 years old.

SUAD:

[Speaking Kurmanji] He used to sleep with us whenever he wanted. [cries]

JOSH BAKER:

How do you feel about the fact that you played a part in bringing Suad to the house?

SAM ELHASSANI:

I feel extremely guilty about it because I thought—when I was meeting her, I thought I was going to be able to protect her. I felt extremely guilty for everything that she was going through because it was the same rape and the same abuse that she had been through in every other house, and I wasn’t able to protect her.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam also claimed she had little control over what was happening to Matthew. In the summer of 2017, he was being forced to take part in ISIS’s notorious propaganda.

MATTHEW:

My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews. Allah has promised us victory and he’s promised you defeat. This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul. It’s going to end in your lands. By the will of Allah we’ll have victory. So get ready, for the fighting has just begun.

JOSH BAKER:

The video made headlines around the world.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

We’ve seen Americans speaking for ISIS before, but never a child.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The boy mentions the president by name.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

This little boy is an American.

JOSH BAKER:

So how did it come about with Moussa? Did you want to do it?

MATTHEW:

No. I just wanted to go on with my life. [laughs] Just wanted to get back home, do my thing.

JOSH BAKER:

Sounds like you worked out that you had to do this to keep going.

MATTHEW:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

Some people will have seen the ISIS propaganda video of you. What was it that you would want people to understand?

MATTHEW:

That not all kids actually want to do that. That a lot of times they’re forced.

JOSH BAKER:

There was someone else in the video: Ayham, the Yazidi boy who Sam and Moussa had bought as a slave.

AYHAM:

I live with Yusef in the same house. We are like brothers. Islam is what unites Yusef and I together.

JOSH BAKER:

When I met him, he showed me the video.

Is that you?

AYHAM:

Yes.

JOSH BAKER:

So ISIS taught you to shoot guns?

AYHAM:

Yeah, they learned me to shoot one. They put the gun on here. He told me, "We’re going to—" One, he’s doing like that to me and Yusef. If we don’t talk, he’s going to kill us.

JOSH BAKER:

Shortly after Matthew had been forced to take part in the ISIS video, his stepfather, Moussa, was dead. One of the neighbors broke the news to Matthew.

MATTHEW:

He told us that he had died and that all he had found was a little bit of his beard and his boots. And I was happy because I didn’t like him, obviously. [laughs] And I was happy. I don’t think I should have been, because a person died, but I was. We were all crying out of joy.

JOSH BAKER:

After the eventual fall of Raqqa, Sam and her kids were taken by ISIS to another region of Syria, Deir ez-Zor. Matthew said his mom then found a people smuggler to help them escape from ISIS.

MATTHEW:

We made a deal with this guy. We still had some gold bars. They weren’t that big, but they were worth a couple of thousand. Said, "I’ll give you this."

And then he was like, "OK, my buddy here will help you, but you have to be quiet." So then we got in our positions.

JOSH BAKER:

Matthew said the family was driven out of ISIS territory in the back of a truck, and he hid inside a barrel.

MATTHEW:

We hit a couple checkpoints. It was pretty scary, because then I got nervous and I had to just not move or even make a sound. I had to slow my heartbeat down because of how I was sitting, because if I even moved around just a little bit I would just fall, because I was right on the edge.

JOSH BAKER:

What would have happened if ISIS had found you?

MATTHEW:

Oh, we would just all get killed. It was just that simple.

JOSH BAKER:

The journey to safety across the Syrian desert took several hours. It was then that Sam and the children were taken into custody by Kurdish forces. And later, Sam was questioned by the FBI about her time with ISIS.

SAM ELHASSANI:

I opened up and talked to them because I didn’t feel like they were out to get me, I guess. That’s a poor choice of words, but I was under the impression they were trying to help me. It wasn’t until later that I understood that they weren’t trying to help me.

JOSH BAKER:

In August 2018, a month after being brought back to the U.S., Sam was charged with two counts of conspiring to provide material support for terrorism. The FBI accused her of smuggling cash and gold as part of a conspiracy to help her husband and his brother join ISIS. They also said she bought military-style binoculars and a rifle scope—a very different story from the one she’d been telling me.

FEMALE VOICE:

Your video visit is about to begin.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you provide material support for terrorism?

SAM ELHASSANI:

No, I don’t believe I did.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you provide funding for terrorism?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Absolutely not.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you provide tactical gear?

SAM ELHASSANI:

No, absolutely not.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you support Moussa and Abdelhadi to join ISIS?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Not to support them, no.

JOSH BAKER:

What do you mean by that?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Not to—I didn’t support them to join them, no. Did I support my husband on his stupid ventures? Yes. But had I known what he was doing, I would not have supported it.

JOSH BAKER:

With her story unraveling, I began to find out more about Sam and her family. Sam’s sister, Lori, had been married to one of Moussa’s brothers, Jason Elhassani. She put me in touch with him. He said he’d witnessed Moussa’s growing interest in ISIS.

What do you think drew Moussa and Abdelhadi to Islamic State?

JASON ELHASSANI:

To be honest, I don’t know what really drove them to go there. To this day we all in our family ask why they left. Out of the blue my brother Moussa started talking about ISIS. So he was kind of like obsessed with them.

JOSH BAKER:

Did Sam want to go there?

JASON ELHASSANI:

To be honest, I don’t know.

JOSH BAKER:

According to Jason, his brothers weren’t just talking about ISIS. They were watching propaganda films, too, in Sam’s house.

You would go and watch those with them?

JASON ELHASSANI:

Sometimes when I visit, sometimes they show me some videos, yes.

JOSH BAKER:

Were these videos ever depicting executions?

JASON ELHASSANI:

Yes, they were.

JOSH BAKER:

We’ve been told quite clearly that Moussa, Abdelhadi and Jason were watching ISIS videos in your house. Did you know that was happening?

SAM ELHASSANI:

No, but it’s possible. I mean, when they did their thing, most of the time I wasn’t around. If I was serving dinner or something, then I would have been there, but if they were all there in the house, I probably would have left. I probably would have gone shopping or something.

JOSH BAKER:

Then I got a tip about something even more damning. In the months before the family left the U.S., Sam made three trips to Hong Kong. Each time she put cash and gold in safety deposit boxes—in total, more than $30,000 worth.

When I spoke to her again, she claimed it was money for their new life in Morocco and that it was stashed in Hong Kong because Moussa wanted to avoid paying tax.

Did it not seem odd to you, though, to just—I mean, you can take the cash straight to Morocco, you can bank transfer it, you can maybe send it to one of the family members, like Moussa’s father.

SAM ELHASSANI:

Right. This is the part I can’t really get into, but I understand what you're saying. The simple fact is that he was very paranoid, and if you look at anything that he ever did in his past, you would always find strange irregularities that he would go through because of his paranoia. So this is something I was completely accustomed to, it was something I tried to talk him out of, but he was insistent.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam was still trying to explain everything away.

But on one of my trips to Indiana, I met a friend of hers, Jennifer, who remembered a conversation they’d had in the winter of 2014, six months before Sam left the U.S.

She agreed to let me record an audio interview.

JENNIFER, Sam's friend:

There was a conversation that we had. Sam was telling us that Moussa had felt that he was being called to join—I remember she said "join the holy war," something like that.

JOSH BAKER:

And did she seem like she was up for that? Or was she against it?

JENNIFER:

I think it just was like a crazy idea that he had said or something. She was just like, "He’s so crazy."

JOSH BAKER:

He wants to do this.

JENNIFER:

Yeah.

JOSH BAKER:

When did you first become aware that either Moussa or Abdelhadi might want to join ISIS?

SAM ELHASSANI:

I can’t answer that.

JOSH BAKER:

In November 2019, Sam cut a deal with federal prosecutors.

JOHN DEMERS:

Samantha Elhassani pled guilty basically to a terrorism financing charge, and more specifically to taking money from her bank accounts in the U.S., turning them in to gold, turning that gold into necklaces and then smuggling that gold and some other funds to Hong Kong, all the while knowing that that money was going to be used to support ISIS. She wasn’t the instigator in the sense that the idea was not hers, but she was a willing participant, as her plea shows.

JOSH BAKER:

You’ve spent years saying that you are innocent, of everything.

SAM ELHASSANI:

Right. Right.

JOSH BAKER:

And by doing this, you’ve admitted that you are—you’re guilty of terrorism, right?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Well—OK, it states that I am guilty of supporting my husband. It states specifically that my husband and his brother were ISIS members or wanted to be ISIS members.

JOSH BAKER:

Despite signing the plea deal, Sam was still struggling to admit her guilt.

And that means you knowingly provided support for ISIS, who have committed some of the worst atrocities we’ve seen in decades, and you’ve supported that.

SAM ELHASSANI:

You’re putting me in a really difficult spot here. [laughs] I don’t know how to answer your question. As far as my plea agreement goes, yes, I did. If I don’t admit to exactly what they’re saying in that plea agreement, they will take the plea agreement back away from me, OK? So yes, I knew, I knew it; I knew exactly that he was going to fight for ISIS and that he was a terrorist.

JOSH BAKER:

So you have supported terrorism then?

SAM ELHASSANI:

Yes.

JOSH BAKER:

There was one final revelation in the case against her. Sam had told me it’d been Moussa’s idea to film Matthew assembling a suicide belt.

MOSSUA ELHASSANI:

Is that your new toy?

MATTHEW:

Yes, it is.

JOSH BAKER:

Now it turns out she’d been much more involved: It was her holding the camera.

MATTHEW:

Seven hundred of these metal balls, these steel metal balls—

JOSH BAKER:

Do you accept that the choices you made put your children through some of the worst experiences you could imagine for a child to have, for years?

SAM ELHASSANI:

I accept that I was unable to make the decisions to protect them better.

JOSH BAKER:

Sam was ultimately sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Her three younger children are now living with her parents.

As for Matthew, it’s been more than two years since he came home. He’s 13 and settling into life with his father.

MATTHEW:

The first day I saw my dad, I was happy, very happy.

JOSH BAKER:

Did you ever imagine after all that time you’d be back here?

MATTHEW:

No. [laughs] I’ll be honest, I never did.

JOSH BAKER:

You never thought you’d come home?

MATTHEW:

No. They always said, "One day you’ll be back home, one day you’ll be back home," but it never happened. So I was like, "Yeah, I’m just never coming home."

I feel sad that they would do that to a child. That’s how I feel.

JOSH BAKER:

What’s the best thing about being home?

MATTHEW:

Everything. Just everything. There isn’t a best part. [laughs] Yeah, there isn’t. It’s just being here is nice.

JOSH BAKER:

And what would you want people to know or understand about what you lived through?

MATTHEW:

That you can pull through. That’s really it. No matter bad how the situation is, you'll always get through it.

It all happened, and it’s done. It’s all behind me now.

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death is our business new orleans funeral covid
Death Is Our Business
At Black-owned funeral homes in New Orleans, COVID-19 has reshaped the grieving process.
March 23, 2021