‘Im not a monster

Finding the truth about
Sam Sally

‘Im not a monster

Finding the truth about Sam Sally
By Josh Baker

In March 2015 Sam Sally walked into Chicago airport carrying thousands of dollars in cash and gold. She says it was to start a new life in Morocco, but a few weeks later she was in the Islamic State group’s capital – Raqqa.

Her husband became an IS sniper and her young son was forced to appear in a propaganda video threatening US President Donald Trump.

Sam says she was tricked by her husband into going and tortured when she tried to escape - and that she helped the FBI before she left America. But is she telling the truth?

For the past four years Josh Baker has been investigating how an American mum and her children went from a seemingly comfortable life in Indiana to the heart of IS territory. And what happened when they came home.

It all started with a suicide bomb...

THIS IS THE STORY TOLD IN THE WEBBY-AND-AMBIE-WINNING I’M NOT A MONSTER PODCAST. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST, INCLUDING THE FIRST OF TWO NEW EPILOGUES.

READERS IN THE UK CAN ALSO WATCH THE PANORAMA DOCUMENTARY.


I woke to the sound of gunfire. It was November 2016, and I had been filming with Iraqi special forces as they tried to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group. Outside, soldiers were shooting at a huge truck that was reversing back and forth as it tried to make it around the corner at the top of our street.

It was packed with explosives, and it detonated right outside the house I'd slept in.

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Unlike many of the people on the street, I made it out.

Back in London, while recovering, a contact I'd lost touch with reached out to see if I was OK, and we arranged to meet. 

As I shuffled back and forth in my seat, trying to find a way to avoid putting too much pressure on my fractured spine, a waiter walked by and asked if we’d like some more tea to go with our scones - we were in a posh London hotel, my contact’s venue of choice. 

While we were talking, he mentioned an American family who were trapped in Raqqa. Then he reached into his pocket, took out his phone and hit play. It was a video of a nine-year-old boy being forced to build a suicide bomb.

A man's voice can be heard asking the boy, “Is that your new toy?”

To which the boy responds in perfect English: “Yes, it is, it’s my new toy. Seven hundred of these metal balls, these steel metal balls, three kilos of TNT.”

The video had a deep impact on me. I’d just lived through a suicide bombing, and now I was seeing a boy being forced to build his own suicide bomb. The parallels made me want to find him. 

My contact told me if I wanted to know more, I needed to talk to a woman called Lori, who lived in the American Midwest - Sam Sally’s sister.

It was the middle of winter, snowing hard as I drove along a road that cut through a graveyard in South Bend, Indiana. I’d been told to look out for an apartment complex styled like a medieval castle - I drove in through an arch and past turrets dotted on either side of the road. This was where Lori lived. Sam’s sister is tall with long dark hair, a single mum with two kids, who works as an electrician.

Over a cup of home-made cinnamon and chilli tea, Lori told me that she hadn’t spoken to her sister in years - they’d fallen out when Sam started dating a man called Moussa. But then, on 4 February 2017, an email arrived. Lori opened her computer and read it to me.

“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 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. I love you, I miss you.”

Attached to the email was the video I'd seen in London of Sam's son, Matthew, being forced to build a suicide bomb.

Lori was devastated. She’d thought Sam, Matthew, his little sister and Moussa had spent the last two years in Texas.

In the email, Sam said she’d given Lori’s number to a man she said was a people smuggler, and it wasn’t long before her phone pinged with a voice message. 

“Salaam-Alaikum… forgive me for my English my English is not good because I did not learn English in the school. Yeah, English I learned by myself which is why I can’t speak good English, but inshallah it will get better inshallah.” 

He called himself Florian.

Overnight Lori went from spending her evenings cooking and knitting, to negotiating the escape of Sam's family from a terror group on the other side of the world. It became all-consuming. Florian would call or message when she was driving, at work, or while she was asleep, and she would immediately have to devote her full attention.

He was demanding in other ways too.

He became “very flirtatious” and asked for photographs, Lori says.

Lori hated it, but felt she had no choice, and would spend hours agonising over which photo had the right sort of suggestive appeal to a supposed people smuggler who appeared to be her only hope of getting the family back alive. “I felt very uncomfortable. I felt guilty, not that I was flirting with him but that I was manipulating him to get what I wanted. And that felt wrong.”

After weeks of talking to Florian it dawned on Lori that she was actually communicating with at least three different people: they had distinct writing styles and made different demands. Eventually she became exhausted.

Lori had been in touch with the FBI since the very beginning. She says she’d already given agents permission to monitor her electronic communication, and that eventually they took over speaking to the Florians on her behalf - making occasional requests for new photographs.

And then, at some point, the contact stopped.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where Sam and the kids were, was getting worse. 

Sam sent Lori voice messages from inside the so-called caliphate - in one, Lori heard her niece speak for the first time. They became the only way Lori knew her family was still alive.

By June 2017 a US-backed militia had fought its way into Raqqa. 

“Keep making your prayers for us. You don’t understand… all the time we hear the jets and bombs, it’s part of daily life here, you know,” Sam said.

Then the messages stopped.

American life

Before she left the US, Sam had been living half an hour’s drive away from Lori, in the town of Elkhart.

Their old house is a large wooden-clad property with a porch, and a big fenced-in garden. They worked at a shipping company owned by Moussa’s family and had fast cars and motorbikes.

Friends describe Sam as “amazing” and a “good mother”. As for Moussa, I'm told he was “generous”, a “good guy” and “good-looking”.

There are stories of him helping to clear snow from driveways, or giving generous gifts. He was from Morocco and practised Islam, but I am told he didn't take his religion too seriously - he drank and smoked weed. 

When he married Sam in 2012, he became Matthew’s stepfather and the couple had a daughter together. 

But Moussa did have a negative side. I'm told he went on cocaine binges and according to several friends he also slept with escorts. One day Sam found out. “She made sure the whole neighbourhood knew about it. She posted a sign saying, ‘My husband would rather do cocaine and sleep with prostitutes than be with his family,’” one of Sam’s best friends told me. 

But the couple seemed to find a way to make the relationship work.

Nobody I spoke with had witnessed any sign of extremism from Moussa and certainly not from Sam.

Then, in early 2015, Sam and Moussa began selling their assets - converting their cars, expensive watches, anything they could - into cash and gold. By the end of March they were gone.

By August 2017, Lori hadn’t heard from Sam for months. Then IS released a new propaganda video showing a young American boy, who had been forced to issue a threat to President Donald Trump. It made headlines around the world.

“My message to Trump the puppet of the Jews - Allah has promised us victory and he’s promised you defeat,” the boy said. “This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul. It’s gonna end in your lands.”

It was Matthew, Lori’s nephew. 

The video showed him wandering through the streets of Raqqa with another boy and being instructed on how to use a rifle by an IS fighter. 

This film was very different from the home video I’d seen months earlier of Matthew with the suicide bomb. It was carefully crafted, choreographed, slickly produced, scripted. It had the IS logo in the corner - the video was made by the group’s infamous propaganda machine.

I called Lori to break the news to her. She was heartbroken, but it was evidence that Matthew was alive, or had been until recently.

Three months later, I was helping my dad renovate his business, a hairdresser’s - there’s more than 120 years of it in the family. Half-way through cutting a hole in the ceiling, while balancing on a ladder, I decided to take a break, tea in one hand and phone in the other, and began my now daily routine of scouring Twitter, Facebook and IS sites, hoping to find something — anything — about Sam and Matthew.

Most days it was just a deluge of IS propaganda, threats to the West and videos of Raqqa being destroyed. But this time it was different. Suddenly I found a video that had just been posted by a Syrian news agency, showing a woman and her kids escaping from IS. It was Sam and her family. 

I watched as they climbed out of a dusty pickup truck. Matthew kept his head down, but his younger sister looked up at the camera and blew a kiss and then made a peace sign. Sam was dressed all in black, wearing an abaya - a long loose-fitting gown - and a headscarf. There was no sign of Moussa, but there were other women with the family and two babies. And there was the boy who’d been in the IS propaganda film with Matthew. Sam and her children were surrounded by a militia dressed in camouflage uniforms with bright colourful patches on their arms that I recognised as the markings of the YPG/YPJ, a US-backed Kurdish militia who’d been fighting IS. The family was now in the custody of America’s allies - which meant I had a chance to find them.

Finding Sam

The Syrian war had been raging for more than six years by this point and the country was fractured, with areas controlled by countless different groups. My contacts on the ground told me the family was being held on a Kurdish militia base in the town of Hassakeh, but by the time I arrived there, a couple of weeks later, they were gone. 

After more than a week of searching, I end up in an office on another Kurdish militia base. A mortar has been converted into a plant pot, and there’s a cat calendar on a desk. I'm being grilled by a man who wants to know why I want to see Sam - and he warns me that if I lie to him he'll throw me in jail. He tells me that they have investigated Sam and in his view she is a “good woman”.

Then he stares at me for a moment, hands me a pen and a piece of scrap paper and asks me to write down my name and information about what I am doing. He says the note will be taken to Sam, but whether or not she talks to me, is her choice. And Sam, it turns out, is in the next room. 

Ten minutes goes by and then suddenly the door opens. Matthew comes in first - a big smile on his face. His younger sister next, and then Sam in a black abaya with her two youngest children, both born in Raqqa. 

Sam cries a lot as she tells me about her life with the Islamic State group. A listening guard barely moves, but after about 45 minutes, when I say the phrase “people smuggler” - referring to Florian - he jumps up and leads Sam out of the room. There’s no explanation. The meeting is over.

Later, I get a call from a Kurdish contact, who tells me the guard thought I wanted to smuggle Sam out of Syria - and that I was from British intelligence. I am told it would be best if I left Syria; it’s not a place you want to be accused of being a spy. So on Christmas Eve 2017 I head home, all because one Kurdish guard misunderstood a question. 

It takes three months to sort out, but in March 2018 I’m back and I finally get to sit down for a proper interview with Sam. We’re in the same room as before, but something has changed. The man who’d told me before that Sam was a good woman now warns me: “She is a snake!” 

Sam’s no longer dressed in black. She is wearing a baseball cap, a pale green sweater and jeans, her hair neatly braided into two long plaits. She also has make-up, a nose ring, and silver earrings – three in each ear - and there are tattoos on show.

This is a very different Sam from last time. She’s even offering to rap Eminem as a “mic check” for my recording equipment.

Under the watchful eye of Kurdish guards, I start my interview: “How did an American lady who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, end up in Syria with IS?”

“I don’t even know where to start answering that question,” Sam begins. “Erm... You know I met Moussa...”

Sam tells me that for five years they had “a great life”. He was very relaxed, she says. “We worked together, we did everything together.” 

But after a while he became bored of his life and “the same thing every day”, she says. “So he made the proposal to me, to go to Morocco [to be] with his family.” This is why, Sam says, they converted all their possessions into cash and gold - for a new life in Morocco.

En route they were joined by Moussa's brother, Abdelhadi, who was with them when they landed for a five-hour layover in Istanbul. But at this point, Sam says, Moussa announced a surprise holiday.

“There was not one dollar he would not spend on us. My husband took us to the nicest restaurants, great shopping malls, he paid for taxis to take us sightseeing around the city, he was really romantic,” Sam says. “It wasn’t until Sanliurfa that things started getting a little weird.” 

Sanliurfa is a city 800 miles from Istanbul. It’s a tourist destination, but it’s also close to the Syrian border. Once there, Sam says, they barely left the hotel, until finally Moussa told everyone to get in the van, because it was time to go to the airport for the flight to Morocco.  

In her bag Sam says she had all of their cash, her jewellery and their passports. Moussa told her to give it to him. Suddenly the van stopped and Moussa jumped out, she tells me.

“My husband grabs my daughter - and just goes. He knows I’m going to follow him.”

Before long she saw Moussa cross through a hole in a fence, she says, and she followed, hoping that if she could grab her daughter and bag, she could cross back again. 

“But it wasn’t that simple,” she says.

The family was now inside IS territory in Syria.

Sam’s route into Syria, sounded plausible. The porous border between Syria and Turkey, long exploited to smuggle cigarettes and fuel, was now being used to move people instead. But as for her claim that she had been deceived by her husband... I really wasn’t sure. 

Raqqa

Separated from the men, Sam and the children were taken to Raqqa, the de facto capital of a "caliphate" with a population of almost 10 million people. It was a while before she saw Moussa again.

“I see him on the side of the street with a huge beard and carrying a gun, and he’s got a big smile on his face,” she says. “The first thing I say to him is, ‘You’re crazy and I’m leaving.’ And he was like, with a big smile on his face, ‘Go ahead, you can try but you won’t make it.’ I knew it was true.” 

Moussa would be sent away to fight while Sam and the children would end up living in a house on the edge of Raqqa. I was later able to recover two of the family's phones from their time there. Although broken, I sent them to a laboratory to have them forensically examined by specialists, who extracted pictures of the family's life. Some show them in a park, the women in all black, in line with IS’s strict rules.

Others show them swimming in the Euphrates river.

And there are pictures of IS fighters.

But Sam says she was looking for a way out. “I was looking for smugglers and I think I talked to the wrong one, maybe.”

IS fighters came to her home, she says, kicked down the door and took her to the notorious “black stadium”, a football ground where the changing rooms had been converted into a feared prison, renowned for torture.

“They kept telling me, ‘We know you are a spy’... And I am like, ‘I am not a spy, I just don’t want to be here,’” Sam says.

“They hung me up from the ceiling by my wrists with handcuffs. They stripped my clothes, they beat me, they electrocuted me in my stomach - I was at this point seven months pregnant with my son. I was just ready for it to be finished, like – why drag it on? Just finish it.”

Sam says she survived two months of torture and abuse when suddenly, and without explanation, she was released. 

“They blindfolded me, they put me in a van, then they dropped me off on the big street maybe half a mile away from my house, in the middle of the night.” 

It’s hard to understand why a Westerner accused of being a spy would have made it out alive, when countless people didn't. But that’s what Sam says happened. 

I visit Raqqa twice in an attempt to check Sam’s story. On one of those visits, I descend into the depths of the black stadium, the beam from my torch revealing names, messages and drawings on the walls: there are thousands, written in English, French, Russian, Arabic - countless languages.

In one room bloody hand marks stain the wall.

In another I find metal bed frames with wires strung across for delivering electric shocks, and then chains where people were hung from the ceiling.

Sam has given me a detailed description of where she says she was held; the layout matches what she told me and I find a cell that may have been hers. There are markings on the wall similar to those she described. But nothing conclusive to prove she was definitely here. 

Before visiting Raqqa, I also meet a former IS member whom I will call Tamimi, who claims to have been held in the next cell.

She says she remembers Sam screaming as she was beaten while pregnant and dragged around by her hair.

I also come across a letter that appears to have been written by an IS member in 2017 to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising the brutal treatment of prisoners.  

There’s one section that mentions a woman called Umm Yusuf al-Amrikiya - that’s the name Sam went by while with IS (Umm Yusuf means the mother of Yusuf, which was the name given to Matthew, and al-Amrikiya is "the American").

The letter says she suffered badly at the hands of IS interrogators and even hints that rumours of the abuses had spread through the city. But I can’t be 100% sure the letter is talking about Sam. And I have no way to verify what Tamimi has told me.

“Don't you know what has been happening in the oppressive prison cells and hallways such as whippings, beatings, people being suspended [by wrists or ankles], humiliation, insults, [sexual] abuse and killing… Yes, even abuse. The stories about the two sisters: Umm Yusuf al-Amrikiya and Ribita al-Franasiya have not been far from our ears. People have shared news about them and what the interrogators of the bureau of fear and oppression did to them.”

According to Sam’s story, two weeks after she was released from the black stadium she gave birth to her third child. That’s when she says Moussa told her he was going to “buy a girl”.

Slavery inside the so-called Islamic State was commonplace. In August 2014, when IS took control of the Iraqi town of Sinjar - home to a religious minority called the Yazidis - 10,000 people were killed or enslaved in what the UN has called a genocide. Many were taken to slave markets in the IS-controlled cities of Mosul and Raqqa.

“He tries to involve me in this,” Sam says. “He tells me it’s going to be to help me, she’s going to just help me [and] she’s going to be my friend, because he knows I don’t have any friends… And I think to myself, ‘You know, this will be really great, to have somebody there with me.’”

Moussa took Sam to one of the city's slave markets, she says. As they waited in a room, a 17-year-old girl was brought in. 

“I meet Suad and immediately I fall in love with her. My husband told me that she was really expensive. He told me she was $10,000. I said, ‘OK I’ll pay whatever, I’ll take her home with me, whatever, even if it’s the last thing I have, I’ll pay it and take her home with me.’”

Suad had been taken from her family and sold by one IS fighter after another. Sam says she thought she would be safe in her home. She wasn’t. Moussa wanted to have sex with her - and Sam says Moussa “beat the hell” out of her for trying to prevent it. 

“After he went to bed, I took Suad into a room – just me and her. And I took my son too, because I couldn’t speak Arabic… And I explained to her that she was going to be his – the way he was going to have children.” 

Moussa bought a second slave - this time she was just 14. Sam says Moussa would tell her he wanted one of them to go upstairs with him, and that Sam would have to go and tell the girl to have a shower and get ready.

“If you ever had to sit back and watch your husband rape a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old girl, you just, what do you do?” she says. “Man, what do you do? I don’t know.”

Whatever Sam’s motive for getting involved with buying slaves, she’d become complicit in the rape of two children.

Sam also tells me how the video of Matthew with the suicide belt came to be made, and another in which Moussa forced him to take apart a loaded gun. 

“Without a single mistake take apart this loaded AK, in less than a minute and put it back together in less than a minute. Loaded, ready to fire,” Moussa orders.

Matthew had to do whatever Moussa wanted, Sam says - if he resisted, he was punished. She says she saw Moussa punch him “straight in the face”.

The videos were made to pressure her relatives in the US to send money, to buy the family back, Sam tells me. “Matthew thought we were going home. I was being told the same thing. We were being sold back to my family and I thought it was it.” 

But in reality Moussa continued to force Matthew to be filmed, culminating in the release of the IS propaganda video in August 2017 - the one in which Matthew was compelled to threaten President Trump. The other boy made to take part in the film was a young Yazidi called Ayham, the family’s third slave.

This video was released as the battle to defeat IS in Raqqa was at its height. Kurdish fighters backed by a US-led coalition were engaged in street-to-street combat with IS forces, including Moussa.

“Apparently, him and a couple of guys felt brave and they started to try to advance and the drone caught him and bombed him,” says Sam. “He was ready to die… I was just waiting for that day. I was making the same prayer he was – he was praying to die, I was praying for him to die. I felt like the noose had been taken off my neck.” 

After Sam tells me this she pauses for a moment and asks for a cigarette break. She keeps glancing at a tattoo on her wrist - it's her husband's name in Arabic. I ask what she is thinking.

“That I’m an idiot, that’s what I’m thinking,” she replies.

With Moussa dead, Sam and the children - now including a second baby born in Raqqa - were living with Moussa’s brother in a house near the black stadium, where Sam says she was tortured. By this stage bombs and shells were falling almost constantly - 10,000 buildings would be destroyed, and an unknown number of people would die.

One day the four-storey building next door took a direct hit, and collapsed destroying the children’s bedroom. It’s amazing that they survived, Sam says.

IS was being pushed into an ever-shrinking section of Raqqa, together with the civilian hostages they’d taken.

Many were predicting a bloodbath. But then something unprecedented happened - a deal was struck with IS, allowing its supporters to leave. A 4km-long convoy carrying fighters and their families streamed out of the city. Sam, her children, the three slaves, and Moussa’s brother, Abdelhadi, were among them.  

The family were put in a new home in a place called Deir al-Zour. One of the family's slaves started speaking to a neighbour and it turned out he knew someone who could smuggle them out of IS territory, for a price. A month later Sam handed over 10oz of gold, she says. Then she waited until Abdelhadi left the house, and seized her chance.

“I walked into his bedroom, I took his gun, I took all his money, I left a note and said, ‘I took everything with me, ciao.’ I walked out the door.”

The family escaped. 

They were taken into Kurdish custody while Ayham, Suad and the other girl who’d been bought as a slave were sent back to Iraq. 

The slaves

Suad is small with dark hair. She looks younger than her 18 years when I meet her in March 2018, but she's sharp, kind and considered in what she says. After returning from Syria, she was reunited with her mother who had survived the Yazidi genocide.

Other family members, including her father, are still missing though. And the family home has been destroyed, so they are living in a tent by the side of a road with a single bare bulb for lighting. 

I expect her to hate Sam, but actually Suad sees her as a saviour. She wants people to understand that Sam is “good”. She is not IS. “Sam would do anything that she could do for us. She did everything for us,” she says. And she confirms that Sam tried to protect her from Moussa, and was badly beaten for it. 

I also find Ayham. Nobody knows what happened to his mother in the genocide, so he is being looked after by an uncle in a half-built breeze-block house. There are rugs over windows and doors to keep the draught out — it is freezing cold. 

Ayham, just nine years old, tells me Matthew was like his brother, and Sam “like my mother”. He doesn't remember his own mum.

Ayham confirms that Sam did not like IS. I call Sam's sister, Lori, and pass the phone to Ayham. Lori sings to him “You are my sunshine” and Ayham lights up, saying that it’s just how Sam used to sing it. I feel deeply sad that the only mother figure Ayham remembers is a woman who owned him. 

Despite enduring terrible abuse, all three of the former slaves bought by Sam and Moussa love Sam and are grateful to her for keeping them alive. But they were not with Sam by their own choice, and that shouldn't be forgotten.


Driving across Raqqa, on one of my trips to the city, I pass a ferris wheel where Matthew and Ayham were forced to appear in the IS propaganda video. Eventually I find the house where Sam said she lived after her time in prison. A sandy wall surrounds a small courtyard. A square of white paint poorly conceals an IS symbol. I recognise it as the location where Matthew was made to film the video taking apart an AK47.

Standing nearby is a man smoking a cigarette – they were banned under IS – and it turns out to be Sam’s former neighbour. He tells me how Sam would sneak into his courtyard to smoke with his wife. Some evenings he’d hear screaming, as she was beaten by Moussa. Other neighbours tell me IS members would show up here to see Moussa and his brother. They confirm Sam had wanted to escape. And when I ask the key question, “Was Sam IS?” I am unanimously told no.

As a parting gift, Mustafa, the local journalist I've been working with, gives me an IS coin he found after the group's last battle. It's a reminder that people came here to join a self-declared caliphate the size of Great Britain. It was not just an ideology, but somewhere they wanted you to believe you could build a better life. There’s no doubt in my mind that Moussa and his brother wanted to be part of this. But as for Sam, I'm not sure. Everyone I have spoken to in Syria says she hated the group.  

Imprisoned

By July 2018, Sam and her four children were among thousands of people from more than 60 nations who’d been with IS and were now being held in camps in north-eastern Syria. 

The family had been there for eight months when, without explanation, the US government decided to bring them home - leaving other Americans still stranded in the same camp. Sam and her kids were put on a military transport plane heading for Indiana, the very state the family had left when all this began.

When they landed, on 24 July, the children were taken into state care and Sam was arrested and driven to jail. Despite having spent years with IS, Sam wasn’t arrested for terrorism - it was for lying to an FBI officer. 

Sam, it turns out, had been an FBI informant. 

I’d heard rumours about this when I first started looking into her story, but nothing concrete. It centred around Moussa’s family business, a shipping company - the FBI was interested in packages that were being shipped and also in some of the customers. 

With Sam now back in America it was much easier to check her story. I could call Porter County Jail, where she was being held, almost any time I liked.

“Basically, the FBI would contact me with a name and a country and it was suspected terrorism, and so I would give them information on what they were shipping back and forth,” she told me.

“I would give them serial numbers on cellphones, take pictures of things… anything they wanted, anything.”  The US Department of Justice confirms Sam worked as an informant, though it says her work had nothing to do with terrorism.

Sam wasn’t able to tell me what she had allegedly lied to the FBI about, but I later learned she’d told them she was going to Morocco for three months for knee surgery that would be performed by her father-in-law. But Moussa’s dad isn’t a doctor, he’s an engineer.

A month after Sam returned to America, she faced a new and much more serious charge - providing 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 IS. They also said she’d bought military-style binoculars and a rifle scope. 

This was a very different story from the one she’d told me in Syria, so I called to ask her about it.

The conversation went like this:

Josh: Did you provide material support for terrorism?

Sam: No, I don’t believe I did.

Josh: Did you provide funding for terrorism?

Sam:  Absolutely not.

Josh: Did you provide tactical gear?

Sam: No, absolutely not.

Josh: Did you support Moussa and Abdelhadi to join IS?

 Sam: Not to support them, no. 

Josh: What do you mean by that?

Sam: I, I didn’t support them to join them, no. Did I support my husband in a stupid adventure? Yes. Had I known what he was doing, I would not have supported it...

Josh: So what did you support Moussa in doing?

Sam: Trying to get his life cleaned up, trying to get closer with his parents, trying to make our relationship better... in going to Morocco.


Since the first time we spoke in Syria, Sam had insisted she thought she was going to Morocco, not to what IS called its caliphate. The only reason she'd ended up anywhere near Syria, she said, was because of Moussa. 

But Sam told others different stories. 

One friend thought they were going to Morocco, but just for a holiday. Lori thought Sam was moving to Texas. Sam’s friend, Andria, said: “She mentioned that her and Moussa and the kids were going to Hong Kong for what she said was a ‘business opportunity’.”

I checked this with a contact, who has knowledge of Sam’s case, and discovered that Sam made numerous trips to Hong Kong, and that each time she placed cash and gold worth a total of $30,000 in safety deposit boxes. Sam was stashing the money outside America.

Matthew's biological father, Juan, had another story altogether, which he told me when I went to meet him on his annual elk hunt with his brother in Idaho - the only time he had available.  

Just after dawn, I found myself wandering alone through the mist in a bear-infested forest. All I had were the co-ordinates of a makeshift camp in the mountains. When I eventually found it, Juan wasn't there. So using sticks I left a message, “Josh was here.”


The next day I returned and joined Juan on a hike up the mountain. He’s a big guy, strong, ex-Navy and now an engineer. He loves the outdoors. He and his brother led the way, pistols on hips and bows and arrows in hand - their weapons of choice for hunting elk. 

Whenever we spoke about Matthew, Juan’s eyes lit up. He told me how he and Sam had lived together for a couple of years - they’d met selling vacuum cleaners door to door and Matthew had arrived not long afterwards. But they split up. Initially Matthew lived with Juan then went to live with Sam. He had come hunting a few times, and although he’d spent most of the time asleep, for Juan it was “irreplaceable time”.

“He’s very intelligent and just a very happy person. He likes to watch SpongeBob SquarePants in Spanish and I don’t know if he can understand it but he finds it hilarious,” Juan said.

When he found out about the videos of Matthew he was on a work trip. He watched them in his hotel room and broke down.

“Angry is the best way to describe it,” he says. “When he was walking around, and all the rubble and everything… just disbelief and anger, and a lot of anger towards Sam.”

Before they left the US, Sam asked Juan to give his permission for Matthew to travel to France to see Moussa's dying mother. But the family never went to France, and the grandmother is very much alive. Juan is convinced Sam went to Syria by choice, for the thrill of it.

I asked Sam why she’d told people different stories. “The funny thing is I know each one of these inconsistencies where they’re coming from and I could give you a reason for each one but I don’t think I can talk about it,” she said. Sam either wouldn’t answer because she doesn’t want to, or because it would strengthen the case against her. All my calls to the jail were recorded and reviewed by law enforcement. 

She still maintained that she had been heading to Morocco, but she admitted lying to Juan.

“I knew that if I told him I was trying to get the passport to go to Morocco that he would absolutely say no, because he was completely against my husband and his family,” she said.  

Sam clearly wasn't giving me the full story and further weaknesses began to appear in her account. I spoke to another of Moussa’s brothers, Jason, who said he’d seen Moussa and Abdelhadi watching IS videos in Sam’s home. Sam said she’d had no knowledge of this.

And then I was shown Facebook messages between Sam and one of her best friends, Cassie. 

On 13 April 2015, which is around the time Sam and her children would have been about to enter Syria, or already there, Cassie messaged Sam asking how Morocco was. Sam - or someone using her account - replied, “Yes, much better we are relaxing and having a good time here.” The message didn't say they were actually in Turkey or Syria, not Morocco. 

When I questioned Sam about this, she paused and it looked like the video screen had frozen, but then I realised she was lost for words. This was the first time she hadn't tried to explain away the inconsistencies in her story. She seemed to be stuck for an answer. 

When I asked bluntly, “When did you first become aware that either Moussa or Abdelhadi might want to join  IS?” Sam responded, “I can’t answer that.”

Sam’s story about what happened in the build-up to her leaving America made no sense. She’d misled or lied to the FBI, to Matthew’s father, even to her best friends.

In November 2019, after maintaining her innocence for years, Sam made a deal with federal prosecutors. 

She admitted “providing financial support for terrorism” rather than "material support" in return for a limit on how long she would have to spend in prison.

Most federal prosecutions in America are resolved through deals like this.

Sam now admitted that she knew that the cash and gold she stashed in Hong Kong would be used by Moussa and his brother to support the Islamic State group - and that she had known the brothers wanted to join IS as far back as November 2014. She helped them, so in that sense she too was supporting IS.

But prosecutors were not accusing Sam of being a member of IS, or a believer in its ideology. So why would she risk her life - and the lives of her children - to go along with Moussa’s plan to join a violent terror group, if she didn’t even believe in what they were doing?

Sam told me that it was because she was in an abusive relationship and that she felt like she had no choice.

I’d already heard that Moussa was abusive in Syria, but this was the first time Sam had described their relationship in America as abusive. She’d told me they had “a good life” there. 

When I spoke to friends and family they did say there were problems in their relationship. “Sam would struggle with self-esteem sometimes, and if Moussa didn’t get his way he would play on that, put her down, or make her feel insecure,” said Andria, one of Sam's best friends. 

I have also spoken to two women, Amber and Tabitha, who say they were in relationships with Moussa before he met Sam. Both said his behaviour changed as time went on - to begin with he was charming and fun, but it didn’t last. Amber said he slapped her across the face during an argument. Tabitha said he became manipulative. 

Could Moussa have persuaded Sam to go to Syria even if she didn’t want to, I asked Tabitha?

“Absolutely… I can tell you right now that I could believe that he convinced her to go in whatever way that happened. I find it totally believable.” But at the same time she struggled to understand how any mother would put her children in danger like that. 

It’s difficult to know exactly what goes on in any relationship. But how Moussa treated Sam was becoming a key consideration in her case.

Despite the plea deal, Sam still had to go to court to be sentenced. In court documents I could see that Sam’s defence team were focusing on the abuse she says she suffered. Their case was all about “why” Sam did what she did. They said she was “a wife under the thumb of her violently abusive and radical husband”. To me she said: “I'm not a monster.”

The prosecution were focusing on “what” Sam did. They called her a key “member of a conspiracy” that resulted in her two young children living in war-torn Syria for nearly two years while her husband and brother-in-law “fought under the ISIS flag”. The prosecution said Sam lied to family and friends to get there, and continued to “tell a version of facts that doesn’t add up”.

A judge would have to weigh these arguments and decide how long Sam should spend in prison. It could be anything up to 10 years.

On 9 November 2020, Sam appears in court in Hammond, Indiana. Her father, Rick, has driven across America in the hope of holding his daughter in his arms for the first time in years. 

Before he delivers his sentence, the judge asks Sam if there is anything she would like to add. She stands up and addresses the court. She apologises for what she has done. To Juan for letting Moussa come between him and his son, to her parents, and to her FBI handler. Then she says, “I would like to ask for your forgiveness and mercy.”

The judge makes his decision. He sentences Sam to six-and-a-half years in prison. 

In his summary, he says Sam committed very serious crimes and that what happened to Matthew in Syria is “very troubling”. 

He also says, “There's no conceivable way that this defendant would be sitting here today if it wasn't for Moussa.”

Sam is taken away. Her father, Rick, leaves, unable to speak to his daughter. 

I haven’t been able to interview Sam since she was sentenced. But there’s something else that came out in the prosecutors’ case against her. Back in Syria, when I’d first found Sam, I’d asked her about the video of Matthew being forced to build a suicide bomb by Moussa - the video that started me on this entire journey, when I watched it in a hotel in London.

“Seven hundred of these metal balls, these steel metal balls, three kilos of TNT, dual metal plates...” he says. What Sam didn't tell me was that she was the one behind the camera filming Matthew.  

Later, I speak to Lori, who was sent this video along with the cry for help from Sam, and I ask her how she feels about her sister, now that she is in prison. 

Lori says that, above all, she is angry. “I think Sam's desire for immediate gratification kept her with Moussa. I don't think that had anything to do with IS. He provided an immediate source of gratification, money, attention. I would like people to realise that Sam is not the victim here. The real victims are the children, the innocent people, the people in Syria who've had their lives ripped away from them.”

For me there is no one reason why Sam went to Syria. No single tidy explanation. Do I think she was an IS ideologue? From everything I’ve heard, No.

Did some of her choices mean she helped IS? Absolutely.

And she clearly put her kids in danger and caused them harm.

Do I think she was in an abusive relationship and this might have played a part in how she got there? Yes.

Do I think she has a desire for excitement and she might have been drawn to the thrill of her husband's plan? It’s possible.

She could have wanted the adventure, but hated the reality.

Sam has been both the manipulator and the manipulated. She is complex, it’s not for me to put  her story neatly into a box.

Coming home

Sam’s children - Matthew and his half-siblings, two of them born in Raqqa - are being well looked after.

The three youngest are now living with their grandparents, Rick and Lisa, who have repainted the swings in their garden where Sam and Lori used to play.

The first time they saw the children, Rick tells me they were desperate for a hug. “We just held them to lay their heads on our shoulders.” They have a lot of energy and keep Rick and Lisa busy. 

One night the neighbours started letting off fireworks to celebrate Independence Day. The children had just been put to bed, so Rick thought he’d check on them. The two youngest were fast asleep, but the oldest was wide awake - she thought they were being bombed. 

“And I brought her out here. She sat out there for quite a while, watching. She got used to them. She thought they were really neat once she learned what they were... we heard a couple of gun shots off in the distance, rifle shots. And she said, ‘Now them are not fireworks, them are guns.’ She knew the difference right away. And I thought that was very sad,” Rick says.

Despite this, the children are doing well. They are happy and confident. Being with Rick and Lisa has given them a second chance. 


Matthew is living with his father, Juan. He’s had therapy to work through what happened in Syria, and help him to readjust to life in America. He now has long hair and looks really well. I can’t get over how much he’s grown in the three years since we first met on a Kurdish military base in December 2017.

But the IS propaganda video will always be just a Google search away. And Juan worries that, as his son gets older, what the Islamic State group forced him to do could have an impact on his future. That’s why he supports Matthew’s decision to talk to me. 

He’s now 13, but he was just seven when he first arrived in Raqqa. Even so, he soon learned that in order to survive, he’d have to think about everything he did very carefully. It wasn't just bullets and explosions that put him at risk, but everyone he interacted with in the city.  

“Normally when you’re talking to someone you don’t necessarily have to really think about what you’re saying,” he says. “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.” 

Before this conversation, I spoke at length to child welfare experts, an independent clinical psychologist, and to Juan. We all agreed I wouldn’t ask Matthew about what his mum, Sam, did or didn’t do. I’m not going to put him in that position.

As he talks I’m looking for any signs of trauma, fidgeting, sweating, a reluctance to answer, but he appears calm and thoughtful.

He tells me that Moussa’s personality changed when they arrived in Syria - he was “a completely different person… he went from good to bad”.   

Moussa was often angry, Matthew says, and would sometimes withhold his food.

I ask him what he would want people who have seen the IS propaganda video to understand.

“That not all kids actually want to do that, that a lot of times they’re forced,” he replies.  

Then he tells me how it felt to leave Syria and return to the US.

“It’s like, it’s like being in tight clothes or tight socks and shoes all day and then just taking it off and just feeling nice, and just chilling in a hot bath. That’s what it felt like. Like sweet relief. It felt good. Felt good to finally be back.”

I join Matthew and Juan on a fishing trip. That evening, Juan places two deck chairs at the water’s edge. The sky is glowing red, and the sun is just about to dip below the horizon. It is idyllic, and here I am with the young boy in the video I’d seen nearly four years before, being forced to make a suicide bomb. He is now happy, healthy and safe. He has overcome so much.

I ask what he wants people to take away from what he lived through. “That you can pull through. That’s really it," he says. "Like no bad how the situation is, you can always get through it. It all happened, and it’s done. It’s all behind me now.”

Sam’s children - Matthew and his half-siblings, two of them born in Raqqa - are being well looked after.

The three youngest are now living with their grandparents, Rick and Lisa, who have repainted the swings in their garden where Sam and Lori used to play.

The first time they saw the children, Rick tells me they were desperate for a hug. “We just held them to lay their heads on our shoulders.” They have a lot of energy and keep Rick and Lisa busy. 

One night the neighbours started letting off fireworks to celebrate Independence Day. The children had just been put to bed, so Rick thought he’d check on them. The two youngest were fast asleep, but the oldest was wide awake - she thought they were being bombed. 

“And I brought her out here. She sat out there for quite a while, watching. She got used to them. She thought they were really neat once she learned what they were... we heard a couple of gun shots off in the distance, rifle shots. And she said, ‘Now them are not fireworks, them are guns.’ She knew the difference right away. And I thought that was very sad,” Rick says.

Despite this, the children are doing well. They are happy and confident. Being with Rick and Lisa has given them a second chance. 


Matthew is living with his father, Juan. He’s had therapy to work through what happened in Syria, and help him readjust to life in America. He now has long hair and looks really well. I can’t get over how much he’s grown in the three years since we first met on a Kurdish military base in December 2017.

But the IS propaganda video will always be just a Google search away. And Juan worries that, as his son gets older, what the Islamic State group forced him to do could have an impact on his future. That’s why he supports Matthew’s decision to talk to me. 

He’s now 13, but he was just seven when he first arrived in Raqqa. Even so, he soon learned that in order to survive, he’d have to think about everything he did very carefully. It wasn't just bullets and explosions that put him at risk, but everyone he interacted with in the city.  

“Normally when you’re talking to someone you don’t necessarily have to really think about what you’re saying,” he says. “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.” 

Before this conversation, I spoke at length to child welfare experts, an independent clinical psychologist, and to Juan. We all agreed I wouldn’t ask Matthew about what his mum, Sam, did or didn’t do. I’m not going to put him in that position.

As he talks I’m looking for any signs of trauma, fidgeting, sweating, a reluctance to answer, but he appears calm and thoughtful.

He tells me that Moussa’s personality changed when they arrived in Syria - he was “a completely different person… he went from good to bad”.   

Moussa was often angry, Matthew says, and would sometimes withhold his food.

I ask him what he would want people who have seen the IS propaganda video to understand.

“That not all kids actually want to do that, that a lot of times they’re forced,” he replies.  

Then he tells me how it felt to leave Syria and return to the US.

“It’s like, it’s like being in tight clothes or tight socks and shoes all day and then just taking it off and just feeling nice, and just chilling in a hot bath. That’s what it felt like. Like sweet relief. It felt good. Felt good to finally be back.”

I join Matthew and Juan on a fishing trip. That evening, Juan places two deck chairs at the water’s edge. The sky is glowing red, and the sun is just about to dip below the horizon. It is idyllic, and here I am with the young boy in the video I’d seen nearly four years before, being forced to make a suicide bomb. He is now happy, healthy and safe. He has overcome so much.

I ask what he wants people to take away from what he lived through. “That you can pull through. That’s really it," he says. "Like no bad how the situation is, you can always get through it. It all happened, and it’s done. It’s all behind me now.”


How did an American family end up in the heart of the IS caliphate? Over four years, journalist Josh Baker unravels a dangerous story where nothing is as it seems.

Listen to the podcast: I'm Not A Monster - from BBC Panorama & FRONTLINE PBS


The extraordinary story of one family's journey from a small town in America to the heart of the Islamic State group and back.

Watch: Panorama - Return from ISIS: A Family’s Story


Credits

Author: Josh Baker

Editor: Stephen Mulvey

Graphics: Zoe Bartholomew

Video and photography: Mauricio Gris

Online producer: James Percy

Published: November 2021


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