This is an American mom's incredible story about living under ISIS
When Sam El Hassani first met her husband Moussa in 2011, she could not have imagined the journey that the romance would take her on over the next few years. Handsome and attentive, their world was - at first - the picture perfect American dream: “For five years we had a great life,” she said. “We worked together, we did everything together. …He bought me nice things. I drove a BMW, he drove a Porsche.” Seven years on, and the mother of four is being held along with her children by Kurdish forces in northern Syria, unsure of whether she will ever be allowed to return to the US.
Some will have little sympathy for her. In August 2017, her young son appeared in a propaganda video for Islamic State, the militant group who are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people in the last few years. Introducing himself as Yusuf, he stared into a camera and threatened US President Donald Trump - who he called “the puppet of the Jews” - and the “non-believers” in the country of his birth, also declaring: “Allah has promised this victory and he has promised you defeat. This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul, it is going to end in your lands.” The video closed with Matthew - the child’s real name - being trained to use a sniper rifle.
In an interview, which was recorded as part of a forthcoming documentary by PBS' Frontline and the BBC's Panorama, El Hassani maintained that the situation was not of her own doing, claiming that her husband, who is Moroccan by birth, tricked her into travelling to Turkey in 2015 before forcing her to cross the border into Syria. Before long, they ended up in the ISIS de-facto capital of Raqqa: “The first thing I say to him is, ‘You’re crazy and I’m leaving,’ and he said, with a big smile on his face, ‘Go ahead. You can try, but you won’t make it.’” Although she wanted to leave many times, she argues the presence of snipers and bombs made it impossible for her to do so.
In a separate interview with CNN, Sam makes the change that occurred in their marriage sound as simple as a switch being flicked off; upon arrival in Turkey, Moussa went from a loving and romantic husband who was tactile with their children, to someone who was violent and controlling. He even bought two Yazidi sex slaves, aged 14 and 17. Rather than feeling guilt about the decision to buy the girls, she claims that she was able to protect them in ways they may not have been elsewhere, hauntingly adding: "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."
In the two years the family spent living in Syria, the couple had two more children. In this time, Sam also told CNN that she was repeatedly beaten, isolated and even imprisoned for three months while pregnant after she tried to escape. When it comes to the now-infamous propaganda video, she says that she tried everything in her power to stop it: "He became very violent and scared my son into becoming complicit. I ended up with two broken ribs on that video. I fought. I fought." All of this, she explained, took place three days after undergoing a cesarean with her youngest daughter: "I couldn't even fight back. There was nothing I could do."
Sam and her children were finally able to leave Raqqa in 2017 after the battle for the city finally ended; her husband, who was a sniper, had been killed in a drone strike months earlier. The family fled as part of a convoy of ISIS fighters whose passage was negotiated with those who had liberated Raqqa. Shortly afterwards, she was arrested and detained. Today, she is still in captivity, unsure of whether she will ever be allowed to return to her native country.
But she seems divided over whether she actually wants to return to the US, if she is ever able to. In the CNN interview, which was published in April 2018, she enthused about the idea of taking her kids home: “I will do anything to get my kids back where they belong," Sam said. "If I have to spend 15 years in prison, it's better than anything here." However, in the PBS interview it's a different story, and she implies that life may be better for the family in Syria: “What’s going to happen when I go back to the US? 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. Over there I’m broke, I have nothing.”
It's true that not everyone will believe El Hassani's version of events - after all, it's hard to imagine not realising your husband had been radicalised by the world's most notorious terrorist organisation, accidentally ending up in Syria after going on holiday, and spending the next two years of your life unable to escape. The fact that both of the interviews took place under the watchful eye of Kurdish guards, who you're hardly likely to want to incriminate yourself in front of, will only add fuel to this fire.
It's unclear what steps the US government will take next in El Hassani's case. Domestically, there are no current guidelines on how to handle such situations; under international law a government cannot revoke an individual's citizenship if it would leave them stateless. But, with an estimated 600 Western women believed to have fled their homelands to become ISIS wives and the organisation now crumbling, this is unlikely to be the last such story we see like this. And it’s clear that the debate about whether or not they should be allowed to return to their countries will only become more intense.