A 32-year-old Indiana woman who says she was tricked by her husband into traveling to Syria to live in ISIS-controlled Raqqa while he fought for the terror group has been returned to the United States with her four children to face a federal charge of making a false statement to the FBI, authorities say. Samantha Sally Elhassani had and her children been in the custody of Syrian-Kurdish forces since the fall of Raqqa in 2017. Her husband was killed while fighting for ISIS as a sniper.
Elhassani told CNN in April 2018 that she her husband, Moussa Elhassani, a Moroccan national she met and married in Indiana, had been planning to move to Morocco following a brief vacation in Hong Kong in 2014. But days later, Elhassai says she and her family were at the Turkish border with Syria on the edge of the so-called ISIS Caliphate, according to CNN. Elhassani says she was holding her son, while her daughter was in her husband’s arms, so she was faced with the choice of abandoning her daughter to save herself and her son, so she decided to enter the ISIS territory with her husband.
“To stay there with my son or watch my daughter leave with my husband — I had to make a decision,” she told CNN during an interview in northern Syria, where she and her children were being held in custody. “Maybe I would never have seen my daughter again ever, and how can I live the rest of my life like that.”
She told CNN that she wanted to return to America with her children. “I will do anything to get my kids back where they belong. f I have to spend 15 years in prison, it’s better than anything here,” she told CNN. “Me and my kids we talk about wanting to eat McDonald’s. We want to live a normal life again.”
According to a Justice Department press release, Elhassani was flown back to the United States on a military plane on July 24 along with another American citizen who was in custody in Syria, Ibraheem Musaibli. Her case is not connected to him. Musaibli, of Michigan, is accused of fighting for ISIS. Elhassani’s four children were taken into the care of the Indiana Department of Child Services, and the Justice Department said, ” Indiana DCS will make any necessary determinations regarding their custody, safety, and well-being. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Indiana has offered DCS any assistance that they may need from federal authorities.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Elhassani Says She Was Beaten, Tortured & Sexually Abused During the Years Living Under ISIS in Raqqa
Sam Elhassani told CNN in her April 2018 interview that she thought her and her family were moving to Morocco to start a new, cheaper life. She said her husband told her they needed to go through Hong Kong to transfer money. She has vehemently denied knowing his plans to join ISIS and said she was a “naive, manipulated housewife,” according to CNN. Elhassani told CNN that her husband, Moussa Elhassani, told her they could move to his native Morocco for at least a year, where she could get cheap surgery on her knee and they could have a fresh start.
Elhassani says the family flew to Hong Kong to transfer money and then on to Turkey for what she thought was a romantic holiday. While there, her husband lavished her with gifts, she told CNN. Elhassani says she didn’t realize the travel route was a textbook example of evading law enforcement while trying to join ISIS. They eventually reached the Turkish border town of Sanliurfa, where things changed, she told CNN. According to Elhassani, her husband told her it was too dangerous to leave their hotel room.
“Once we got to Sanliurfa everything changed,” she says. “I was like a prisoner in the room. … This was years in the making. He separated me from my family. I could not see that he was the one that was wrong. It was always ‘no, my husband is right.'” When they crossed the border, with Elhassani making the decision to take her son and join her husband and son instead of abandoning them, she says she thought she would be able to return to Turkey soon. “People can think whatever they want but they have not been put in a place to make a decision like that,” she told CNN.
Elhassani told CNN that once in the Caliphate in Raqqa under ISIS, her husband changed. “Before he would spoil me. ‘I love you.’ We were very much in love. The romance never left. As soon as we came here it changed. I was a dog. I didn’t have any choice. He was extremely violent. And there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing,” she told CNN.
While in Raqqa, Elhassani says she was jailed while pregnant for trying to escape and for allegedly spying for the U.S. While being held in jail, she said she was beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted. After being released, she returned to a small house on the outskirts of Raqqa where she lived. While in Syria, she had two children fathered by her husband, according to CNN.
Elhassani told CNN that she bought a Yazidi slave, a teen girl who had been captured by ISIS, to help her, spending $10,000, half of the money she had smuggled with her from the U.S. from her savings. But she said her husband then began raping the girl and also spent $7,500 to buy his own salve, a younger girl. She told CNN that she offered the girls protection and care that other homes in Raqqa didn’t offer. She told CNN:
“I was trying to hold on to that money as at some point I knew that he (Elhassani) was going to die and I was going to need that money. That wasn’t the plan. In every house that she was in before that was the same situation, but she did not have the support of someone like me. We constantly talked about going to see her mother. I was going to get her out and she was going to go back home. And no, no one will ever know what it is like to watch their husband rape a 14-year-old girl. Ever. And then she comes to you — me — after crying and I hold her and tell her it’s going to be OK. Everything is going to be fine, just be patient. I would never apologize for bringing those girls to my house. They had me and I had them. And we knew that if we were just patient we would stick together. You understand? In any other situation they would be locked in a bedroom and fed tea every day. And the situation I was in with them, we cooked together, we cleaned together. Drank coffee together. Slept in the same room together. I was like their mother.
Soad, one of the girls who her husband kept as a slave who has now been reunited with her family, told CNN she has nothing but gratitude for Samantha Elhassani, and sent her a video message, saying, “I really want to see you, even if it is one last time. I miss you so much and I miss your children. Anything I can do to help you get out, I will do. I love you so much.”
CNN wrote about Elhassani, “does not outwardly appear a devout ISIS wife. She has a large blue tattoo of pursed lips on the right side of her neck and a nose ring. She smokes, and appears defiantly dismissive of the suggestion she must have known more about her husband’s plans to join the Caliphate than she admits. Indeed, she has been interviewed by the FBI, and admitting to voluntarily joining ISIS would legally complicate her situation, if not result in charges.”
2. Her Husband Was Killed in 2017 & Her Son Was Used in an ISIS Propaganda Video
Moussa Elhassani was a sniper who fought on the frontlines for ISIS. He was killed by a drone strike in mid-2017, according to CNN. Samantha Elhassani said his death was a relief. “I was able to breathe. I was like — OK — we can start phase two. At least now we can all breathe,” she said.
She and her children were not able to flee after his death because ISIS snipers were killing anyone who tried to do so. They remained in Raqqa during the final days of ISIS control, and then was detained when the final fighters surrendered to Syrian-Kurdish forces. She was then taken to a jail with her children, where they remained until they were flown back to the U.S.
“I really don’t care what people think and what people say. Once I left, I was extremely relieved and I was not able to breathe in three years until now. All I saw was a bunch of drug-using thugs who had no place. They created their own state here and called it in the name of God,” she told CNN.
Elhassani’s son, who was from her first marriage to an American man, was a “prized cast member” for ISIS propaganda videos, according to CNN. She told CNN she was beaten for trying to stop ISIS from using her son in a video, but that did not stop it. The video shows her young son walking through a damaged mosque and the streets of Raqqa vowing revenge on President Donald Trump and pledging attacks on the U.S.
“It was extremely stressful and it was hard,” her son told CNN. “I would have to say one word and then they would make me say another in Arabic. I never even knew Arabic before. I did not want to do it. He would hit me, he would stress me. About all those things.” He said he just wants to go back, “to my state. Back to America.”
3. Elhassani Grew Up in Elkhart, Indiana, Worked in a Packing Plant & Was Previously Married to a U.S. Soldier, Who Is the Father of One of Her Children
Samantha Sally lived in Elkhart, Indiana. She was married before she met Elhassani and her oldest son is from that relationship. Her first husband was a U.S. soldier whom she married and divorced in her early 20s, according to CNN. She and Elhassani had a daughter together. “Elhassani took delight in souped-up cars, family videos show, and, according to Sally, used drugs and cheated on her — showing few signs of devout faith. Their marriage was rocky at times, but Elhassani came up with a plan to move to his native Morocco for a year, where she could get cheap surgery on her knee and they might find a new start,” CNN wrote.
While in Indiana, she worked for a shipping company at a packing plant. Her Facebook page shows her with family and friends, her husband and their children, and YouTube videos reveal a seemingly normal American life.
“About a year after we met each other, we got married. He bought me nice things. I drove a BMW. He drove a Porsche. He wore nice clothes, took very good care of himself. He was really good at kind of giving me attention and giving the kids attention. He was really good at it. There is not one dollar he wouldn’t spend on us. After a while, he became bored of his life, I think,” she told PBS’ Frontline.
According to WSBT-TV, Elhassani and her husband managed the shipping and delivery business, one of their former employees said. “When I was hired in, Sam hired me in. We all used to call her Sam. Real friendly, outgoing, beautiful girl, just a beautiful person,” Ann Young told the news station. “They went ahead and left kind of abruptly,” Young said. “It was just kind of like hush hush. Nobody really knew other than the fact that they were going to be closer to his family.”
Young told WSBT, “The more I think about it the more it makes me just want to cry. That’s a tough woman right there. I knew from the moment I met her that’s a tough woman.”
She was in the Jehovah’s Witness faith growing up in Springdale, Arkansas, her childhood friends told WNDU-TV. Her friends said she was “fun, so fun.”
Krysti Hankins told WBND-TV, “She’s just a country girl. She lived on a dirt road. Horses. I think that’s the biggest memory we all have. She used to have a Bronco, and we’d all just go cruising in it.”
4. Her Friends in Indiana Say They Believe Her Story & Her Sister Says She’s Hoping the Kids Will Come to Live With Her After Rehabilitation
Many of Elhassani’s friends and family in Indiana have stood by her, saying they believe her story about being tricked into traveling to Syria so her husband could join ISIS. One of her friends, Andria Lightner, told CNN, “I believe with all my heart she would never be willing to take her kids” to join ISIS. She said Sam Sally was a loyal and single divorcee who found a generous provider in Moussa Elhassani, who would become a controlling abuser.
“She was an amazing, wonderful, generous person, a really good friend and an excellent mom,” Lightner told CNN. Another friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told CNN that Elhassani began to pull away from friends and family before she left, and never told them about her plans to move to Morocco. She quit her job and said she was going on vacation to Hong Kong. She told her friend, “I can’t wait for you to be home and see you soon.” The friend told CNN, “She was being everyday normal Sam.”
Heather Lyons told WBND-TV, “I think it would be incredibly hard, being married myself if all the sudden…he turns into somebody else…I just think it’s crazy. I don’t even know how I’d feel as just a young mother with four kids.
Another friend, Krysti Hankins, told WNDU-TV when she saw Elhassani on TV when the CNN report aired in April. But she said she believed her friend’s story. “If someone took my child and crossed the border, and you said, ‘You have a choice,’ I’m going to go with my child,” Hankins told the Indiana news station. Alix Winne told the news station she agreed, “Think about what you would do in that specific situation. I really think people need to re-watch (the story) before judging it.”
Winne told WBND, “Friends for what 20 years now, I just want her to know that we love her and we miss her and we’re going to do everything in our power to bring her back.”
Elhassani told Frontline she is afraid the government will take away her children. For now, they are in the custody of child protective services in Indiana.
“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,” she said.
Elhassani’s sister, Lori, told Frontline she is hoping the children will be able to come to live with her.
“There should be some sort of structure. There should be a plan to help families get out of Syria. 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,” she told Frontline. “I am hopeful that they will be able to come home. I am aware that Sam will most likely go to prison, but, eventually, after rehabilitation, I’m hoping the kids will come here and live with me. There’s a sense of urgency from the United States government to infiltrate and get the information they want. There is not a sense of urgency to save any Americans in Syria.”
5. Elhassani Is Accused of Making a False Statement to the FBI in 2015 & Faces a Felony Conviction Carrying Up to 5 Years in Federal Prison
Samantha Elhassani has not been charged with any terrorism-related offenses. According to federal court records, she was indicted by a grand jury in a sealed case on March 21, 2018, on one count of making false statements, a felony. The indictment, which was unsealed on July 25, reveals few details about the case against Elhassani. According to the indictment, prosecutors are accusing Elhassani of lying to the FBI when speaking to agents on March 19, 2015.
If convicted of the felony charge, Elhassani could be sentenced to up to five years in federal prison. Elhassani made her first appearance in the Northern District of Indiana court on July 25, records show. She was appeared without a lawyer and asked to be able to contact her family to determine if an attorney has been retained to her prior to a public defender being appointed to represent her. A status hearing on that question has been set for July 26.
On July 20, attorney Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer who has been acting on behalf of Elhassani and her family, told PBS’ Frontline he welcomed the news of an indictment, because it meant a return to the United States for Elhassani and her children. “As we have said all along, it is obviously fine to investigate her for any crime that anyone may think she has committed,” he told Frontline. “Although she is presumed innocent, and from what I know about her, she is innocent of any offense.”
The case is being heard before Magistrate John E. Martin.