Return From ISIS

The story of an American mother who takes her son to the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa. A special report three years in the making investigating how the family ended up in Syria and what happened when they came home to the United States.

AIRED: December 15, 2020 | 0:54:22

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

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

>> I don't even know where to start answering that question?

>> Do you really think she would go all the way to ISIS

for the thrill of it? >> Yeah, I do.

>> We as a nation have a responsibility for our citizens

regardless of where they do the wrong that they do.

>> Did you provide material support for terrorism?

>> No, I don't believe I did.

>> What's the best thing about being home?

>> Everything.

NARRATOR: Now on "Frontline," "Return From ISIS."

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> JOSH BAKER: 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.

>> I had a feeling that she was in some sort of trouble,

but I didn't know what was going on.

>> BAKER: Then, out of the blue, she received an email.

>> "I really hope you can help me.

Moussa brought me and the kids illegally to Syria.

I'll have to be forward with you

because I don't have a lot of time.

Almost every day, five to ten bombs are dropped around us.

The shock waves are insane.

It rains shrapnel, everything from rocks to metal sheets

to glass shards.

This could be my last time online."

(crying): "I love you, I miss you, I love you,

I miss you, I love you, I miss you."


>> 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 nine-year-old son, Matthew.

>> Is that your new toy?

>> Yes, it is, it's my new toy.

700 of these metal balls, these steel metal balls,

three kilos of TNT.

>> 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.

>> What do 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?

>> I'm gonna, I'm gonna hide it under my shirt,

I'm gonna 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, on the ground,

I'm gonna pull my pin...

>> You have to wait till they get really close, okay?

>> Mm-hmm, yeah, as soon as the helicopter comes down.

>> Okay.

>> (sniffles)

How could they do this to a child?

Matthew is the sweetest little boy you'll ever meet.

♪ ♪

>> 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 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.

>> (voicemail): Hey, Lori, um, I just want to say again,

I love you and I miss you.

>> BAKER: In the months after the email,

I kept filming with Lori as she continued to get messages

from her sister.

>> (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.

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: Throughout those months, 6,000 miles away,

Raqqa was under attack by a U.S.-led coalition.

(thunderous explosion)

Sam's messages were sporadic.

One of them included her three-year-old daughter.

>> Say, "How are you?" >> How are you?

>> Say... "Can't wait to see you."

>> Can't wait see you.

>> Say... "Make me food."

>> Make me food.

>> Hey, Lori, I just want to say, it really does help me

to hear your voice, and, you know,

keep making your prayers for us.

You don't understand, here... (clears throat)

Instead of just leaving us be, all the time we hear the jets

and bombs, and it's a part of daily life here, you know?

I don't know when I'll be able to talk to you next,

it may be a while.

♪ ♪

>> 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.

>> There's Sam.

My sister looks... bad.

(indistinct chatter in video)

There's Matthew.

(indistinct chatter fading)

>> BAKER: Sam and the children had made it out of Raqqa alive.

The video showed them in the custody of a Kurdish militia.

>> 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.

♪ ♪

(baby coughs)

♪ ♪

>> ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa.

Clearance operations continue...

>> Over the past few days, hundreds of Islamic State group

fighters have surrendered in a deal negotiated

between local tribal chiefs and Kurdish forces.

>> Thousands were allowed to leave here,

but foreigners didn't escape.

>> 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.

(phone ringing out)

>> Hello?

>> (on phone): Hello?

>> As-salamu alaikum.

>> BAKER: My translator called the number.

It was an Iraqi woman who said she knew Sam.

She told us there was an eight-year-old boy

who'd lived with Sam in Syria

and was now back in his village in Northern Iraq.

>> (speaking world language)

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: I set out to find him and eventually tracked him down

to a village near the Syrian border.


What's your name?

>> BAKER: I'm Josh.

Your English is amazing.

>> BAKER: Where did you learn your English?

>> BAKER: American family?

>> Yeah. Come.

>> 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 four,

ISIS attacked his town and took him as a slave.

His mother is still missing.

>> 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?

>> 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.

>> BAKER: You want to go next to her?

>> Yeah.

>> BAKER: Do you want me to show you some other pictures?

>> Yeah.

>> BAKER: Ayham told me he became close with Matthew,

who he knew by another name-- Yusef.

So, this is Yusef.

>> BAKER: Can you tell me about Yusef-- is he your friend?

>> BAKER: What did you two do together in Raqqa?

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: Did living with ISIS scare you?

>> BAKER: Why did it scare you?

>> 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.

>> (clears throat)

>> BAKER: 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.

>> Okay.

>> BAKER: How did, uh, an American lady

end up in Syria with ISIS?

>> I don't even know where to start answering that question.

Um... I met my husband.

Uh, Moussa.

♪ ♪

About a year after we met each other, we got married.

>> To have and to hold...

>> 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.

>> BAKER: At that time, Matthew was almost five years old,

and 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.

>> Are you recording? >> Yup.

>> All right!

>> For five years, we had a great life.

We worked together, we did everything together.

He was very relaxed.

>> You can see my pregnant little wifey.

Hi, beautiful.

>> BAKER: Sam and Moussa had a daughter together.

>> Man, what a mess.

>> BAKER: Home videos posted online gave the impression

of a happy family.

>> (laughing)

>> He was really good at giving me attention,

giving the kids attention. >> Hi!

>> He was really good at it.

There was not one dollar he wouldn't spend on us.

>> Do you like it? >> Yeah!

>> It's a, it's a dinosaur bicycle.

(bell rings)

>> Matthew, are you riding?

>> Yeah, I feel like it.

>> All right, rev it up!

(motorcycle revs)

Thank you, Moussa, thank you so much.

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

>> (mocking): And I want a drink,

and I want this and I want that.

>> One time, he took off for three days.

I found out from people in the neighborhood

he was on a cocaine binge.

>> (mocking): And you, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!

>> So my husband was doing a lot of the talking...

>> 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.

>> So, my husband was, like,

"Okay, 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.

>> This car is a good buy, uh, definitely,

for, for how much it's selling for.

All right? Bye.

>> 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, Abdel Hadi,

and took a vacation in Turkey.

After two weeks, they headed to the border with Syria.

>> 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.

>> BAKER: She said that Moussa then took the bag

and her daughter.

>> And he just goes.

He knows, he knows I'm gonna follow him.

What am I going to do?

I see my husband cross through a fence.

And this time...

Like, my heart is beating so fast, I know, I know,

I know what's happening now, and I'm thinking,

"Okay, I'll just make it to the other side,

take my bag and my kid, and walk back across again, you know,

it's just that simple."

But it wasn't that simple.

We made it across.

I followed him.

>> 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?

>> Yeah, yeah, I knew I was in Syria.

>> BAKER: And did you know who you were with?

>> Yeah.

>> BAKER: How did you first come to know

that you were with ISIS?

>> Well, when you walk up and you see a bunch of guys

with beards and guns, what do you...

What else do you think?

♪ ♪

(crowd sounds)

>> 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.

>> (speaking world language):

>> It wasn't too long after he made it back

from training camp he had to go fight.

(rapid gunfire)

Usually when he would go, he would go about a month

at a time.

(rapid gunfire)

>> BAKER: Moussa was one of around 40,000 foreigners

from approximately 120 countries that joined ISIS.

(car horns honking)

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.

>> Without a single mistake, and take apart this loaded A.K.

>> BAKER: Sam told me that Moussa planned to use the videos

to get money out of her sister Lori.

>> 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.

>> (speaking world language)

It's ready to shoot.


>> 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?

>> Um...

If they could live a day in my shoes,

they, 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.

>> 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.

>> Well, Josh, this is our family home.

Our mansion, as we'd call it.

Over here is the swing set where Samantha and Lori,

we built for them back in '92.

(door opens)

Come on in the house.

And here's my wife, Lisa. >> Hey!

>> Doing the morning dishes.

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.

>> BAKER: Sam and Lori were brought up

as Jehovah's Witnesses.

>> 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 not the truth.

So, you have to read between the lines.

>> BAKER: I told Rick what Sam had said to me--

that Moussa had tricked her into going to Syria.

>> I believe that she knew where she was going.

>> BAKER: You don't think she was tricked?

>> No, no, I don't. >> BAKER: At all?

>> I don't think she was tricked.

I feel she went over there voluntarily.

Her children are involved.

I feel sorry for the children.

♪ ♪

>> 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.

>> There's a herd over there.

Look through the trees, you'll see tan butts.

♪ ♪

When I first met Sam, she was very adventurous, outgoing.

She, uh, 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.

>> BAKER: Sam was coming out of a failed marriage

when she got together with Juan.

In 2007, Matthew was born.

>> BAKER: Did you ever go hunting with Matthew?

>> 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.

>> BAKER: Was it fun?

>> Always fun.

He loves it.

It's irreplaceable time.

>> BAKER: Juan said he and Sam split up when Matthew was three.

She doesn't practice Islam,

she doesn't seem to be an extremist.

Why would she go to ISIS?

>> 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.

>> BAKER: Do, do you really think she would go all the way

to ISIS for the thrill of it?

>> Yeah, I do.

>> They are the people no country wants.

>> 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.

>> 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.

>> (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, um, I don't have any way

to provide for my kiddos, and things are, things are hard.

I just need to get out of here,

we need to get out of here, we need to get out of here quick.

>> 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.

>> 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.

>> BAKER: When did you start building a case against, uh,

Samantha Elhassani, and what led you to do that?

>> 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.

>> 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.

>> Your video visit is about to begin.

This video call may be monitored and recorded.

>> BAKER: As the Justice Department built a case

against her, Sam agreed to speak to me again.

So you, you obviously told me that you were tricked,

and you thought you were moving to Morocco, right?

>> Right-- I, I don't, I don't think I can talk

about, about this.

>> BAKER: Did you know you were going to join ISIS?

>> No.

>> BAKER: Does Matthew really understand where he's been,

and what's happened to him?

What's been the effect on him?

>> Um...

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, he is a child, he is, he is a child,

and, um, 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.

♪ ♪

>> 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.

>> Yeah, it's okay, I'm good.

>> BAKER: Matthew and his dad decided it was important for him

to tell his own story.

>> When we first arrived in Raqqa, we were in the city.

It was pretty noisy.

Gunshot, gunshots, normally, and once in a while,

a random explosion, like, far away, though.

So, we didn't have much to worry about.

>> BAKER: What's it like seeing ISIS around you?

>> 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.

(horns honking)

Say one wrong thing, and they could easily just kill you.

>> BAKER: I asked Matthew about the videos his stepfather

made him record.

If you said no to Moussa, "I I don't want to do this,"

what would have happened?

>> I don't really know.

Like, I don't know.

Because I was generally pretty obedient, as far as that goes.

Like, at that point, I could already tell that he was

starting to lose it, like, he was mentally unstable--

very, very mentally unstable.

>> BAKER: Was he ever angry towards you?

>> (blows raspberry)

More than enough.

>> BAKER: Do you feel comfortable telling me

what he would do, or would you rather not?

>> I'd rather not. >> BAKER: That's okay.

>> It was pretty bad. >> BAKER: Yeah?

>> Yeah.

♪ ♪

(horns honking)

>> BAKER: After a few months of living in Raqqa,

Matthew said his mum was arrested by ISIS.

>> They came to the house, kicked down the door,

stuff like that.

Blindfolded us, and, yeah, I don't remember much from there.

♪ ♪

>> 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?

>> Two-and-a-half months.

It just doesn't feel real, 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,


I don't know.

>> 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, Um 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.

>> (translated): 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 are beating her.

They are tugging her by her hair

and trying to move her from one room to another.

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: After Sam was released,

her story took an even darker turn.

She and Moussa started buying slaves.

>> My husband-- okay, this is gonna sound really bad, okay?

But I'm gonna be honest with you as far as the...

>> BAKER: Sam tried to portray it to me as a rescue mission.

>> She was wearing a red dress that was like, um,

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.

♪ ♪

>> 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 Soad.

She's a Yazidi, and was 15 years old

when she was first sold into slavery.

She told me how she met Sam.

>> (speaking world language):

>> BAKER: But Sam told me she knew all along

that Moussa had other plans.

He wanted a sex slave.

>> (speaking world language):

>> BAKER: Moussa then bought a second Yazidi girl--

who was just 14 years old.

>> SOAD:

>> BAKER: How do you feel about the fact that you played a part

in bringing Soad to the house?

>> 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.

>> 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.

>> 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 gonna end in your lands.

By the will of Allah, we'll have victory.

So get ready, for the fighting has just begun.

>> BAKER: The video made headlines around the world.

>> We've seen Americans speaking for ISIS before,

but never a child.

>> The boy mentions the president by name.

>> This little boy is an American.

>> BAKER: So how did it come about with Moussa?

Did you want to do it? >> No.

I just wanted to go on with my life.


Just wanted to get back home, do my thing.

>> BAKER: Sounds like you worked out that you had to do this to,

to keep going. >> Yeah.

>> BAKER: Some people will have seen the ISIS propaganda video

of you.

What was it you would want people to understand?

>> That not all kids actually want to do that.

That a lot of times, they're forced.

>> BAKER: There was someone else in the video--

Ayham, the Yazidi boy who Sam and Moussa had bought

as a slave.

>> (speaking world language):

>> BAKER: When I met him, he showed me the video.

Is that you?

>> BAKER: So ISIS taught you to shoot guns.


♪ ♪


>> 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.

>> 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.


And I was happy.

Like, I don't think I should have been,

because a person died, but I was.

We were all crying out of joy.

♪ ♪

>> 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 mum then found a people smuggler to help them

escape from ISIS.

>> 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, "We'll give you this."

And then he was, like, "Okay, my buddy here will help you,

but you have to be quiet."

So then we got in our positions.

(engine idling, man shouting)

>> BAKER: Matthew said the family was driven out

of ISIS territory in the back of a truck,

and he hid inside a barrel.

>> We hit a couple of 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.

'Cause if I even moved around just a little bit,

I would just fall.

'Cause I was right on the edge.

>> BAKER: What would have happened if ISIS had found you?

>> Oh, we would just all get killed.

It was just that simple.

>> 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.

>> I opened up and talked to them

because I didn't feel like they were out to get me, I guess?

It'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, they weren't trying to help me.

>> 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.

>> Your video visit is about to begin.

>> BAKER: Did you provide material support for terrorism?

>> No, I don't believe I did.

>> BAKER: Did you provide funding for terrorism?

>> Absolutely not.

>> BAKER: Did you provide tactical gear?

>> No. Absolutely not.

>> BAKER: Did you support Moussa and Abdel Hadi to join ISIS?

>> Not to support them, no.

>> BAKER: What do you mean by that?

>> Not to-- I mean, I didn't support them to join them, no.

Did I support my husband in his stupid ventures? Yes.

But had I known what he was doing,

I would not have supported it.

>> 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 Abdel Hadi to Islamic State?

>> To be honest, I don't know what really drove them

to go there.

To this day, we all in our family ask why, why they left.

Out of the blue, my brother Moussa start talking

about ISIS.

So he was kind of, like, um, kind of, like, obsessed

with them.

>> BAKER: Did Sam want to go there?

>> I, to be honest, I don't know.

>> 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?

>> Sometimes I, when I visit, sometimes they show me

some videos, yes.

>> BAKER: Were these videos ever depicting executions?

>> Yes, they were.

>> BAKER: We've been told quite clearly that Moussa, Abdel Hadi,

and Jason were watching ISIS videos in your house.

Did you know that was happening?

>> No, but it's possible. I mean...

When they did their thing, most of the time, I wasn't around.

You know, 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.

>> 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.

>> Right. Um, this is the part

I can't really get into, but I understand what you're saying.

The simple fact is, is that he was very paranoid,

and if you look at anything that he ever did in his past,

you would always find strange, irregular, irregularities

that he would go through because of his paranoia.

So this was something I was completely accustomed to,

it was something I tried to talk him out of,

but he was insistent.

>> 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.

>> There was a conversation that we had.

Sam was telling us that, yeah, that Moussa had felt

that he was being called, um, to join...

I remember she said, "Join the holy war,"

or something like that.

>> BAKER: And did she seem like she was up for that?

Or was she against it?

>> I think it just, it just was, like, a crazy idea

that he had said or something.

Like, she was just, like, "He's so crazy," like...

>> BAKER: He wants to do this.

>> Yeah.

>> BAKER: When did you first become aware that either Moussa

or Abdel Hadi might want to join ISIS?

>> I can't answer that.

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: In November 2019, Sam cut a deal

with federal prosecutors.

>> Samantha Elhassani pled guilty

basically to a terrorism financing charge,

and more specifically, to, uh, taking money

from the, her bank accounts in the U.S.,

turning them into 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.

>> BAKER: You've spent years saying that you are innocent

of, of everything. >> Yeah. Right.

>> BAKER: And by doing this, you've admitted that you are,

you're guilty of terrorism, right?

>> Well, um...

Okay, it states that I'm guilty of, um...

supporting my husband.

Um, it states specifically that my husband and his brother

were ISIS members or wanted to be ISIS members.

>> BAKER: Despite signing the plea deal,

Sam was still struggling to admit her guilt.

And that means you knowingly provided support for ISIS, who,

you know, have committed some of the worst atrocities we've seen

in, in decades, and you've supported that.

>> (smacks lips)

You're putting me in a really difficult spot here.



I mean, I, I don't know how to answer your question.

Um, 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, okay?

So, yes, I, I knew, I knew it.

I knew exactly that he was going to fight for ISIS

and that he was a terrorist.

>> BAKER: So you have supported terrorism, then?

>> Yep.

♪ ♪

>> 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.

Now it turns out, she'd been much more involved--

it was her holding the camera.

>> 700 of these metal balls, these steel metal balls...

>> 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?

>> I accept, I accept that I, I was unable to make the decisions

to protect them better.

>> 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.

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

>> BAKER: Did you ever imagine, after all that time,

you'd be back here? >> No.


I'll be honest, I never did.

>> BAKER: You never thought you'd come home?

>> 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.

>> BAKER: What's the best thing about being home?

>> Everything. Just everything.

Like, there isn't a best part.


Yeah, there isn't.

It's just being here.

It's nice.

♪ ♪

>> BAKER: And what would you want people to know

or understand about what you lived through?

>> That... That you can pull through.

That's really it.

Like, no matter how bad the situation is,

you'll always get through it.

It all happened and it's done.

It's all behind me now.

♪ ♪

>> Go to for more of our coverage

of this story.

And for a deeper dive listen to our podcast series,

"I'm Not a Monster" from "Frontline" and BBC Sounds.

>> I don't feel like I need to explain myself

really, um, to anybody.

I'm not a bad person. I'm not a monster.

>> Connect with "Frontline" on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

and stream anytime on the PBS app or

♪ ♪

>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at

♪ ♪

"Frontline's" "Return From ISIS" is available

on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪


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