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This is an adapted excerpt from Shane Bauer’s two-part series on American involvement in Syria. Read the full article or listen to this special Mother Jones Podcast episode about this story.

In the plains near the Iraq border, I pull up to a refugee camp surrounded by a chain-link fence. For the first time since I’ve been in Syria, I see women with covered faces and flowing black abayas. Children scamper between rows of tents covered with white plastic tarps. The Kurdish official who arranged for me to come here said the YPJ, the all-women Kurdish militia, was holding hundreds of women who had come from dozens of countries to join ISIS. Most of their husbands are dead, in prison, or still fighting to hold the last scraps of ISIS territory. Many of their governments have refused to take them and their children back. Several Kurdish officials I’ve interviewed have brought up this problem. They say they don’t have the resources to hold all these people indefinitely.

I am met by a Kurdish British YPJ intelligence officer with a thick London accent who is annoyed that I showed up and annoyed with Americans generally. I ask if I can walk around the camp. She says no. Can I take pictures? No. Are there any American women here I can interview? They don’t want to talk to journalists. Okay, I tell her. I’ll talk to anyone. She walks away.

I stand around staring off into the sky, trying to make out the languages the women are speaking around me. I hear German, French, Egyptian Arabic. A white woman approaches me. Her long brown hair is spilling out of a beanie, and there is a black tattoo of a kiss on her neck. She tells me she’d like to talk. Her name is Samantha Elhassani.

The intelligence officer listens in to our conversation. Samantha tells me she’s an American and a Christian and that she’d come from Indi­ana to Syria with her young son and daughter after her husband decided to join ISIS without telling her. “I was not aware we were coming to Syria,” she says. She lived under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for three years in Raqqa, where she had two more children. She survived the American-led assault on the city, escaped ISIS, and now wants to go home.

In “Betrayal. Torture. Escape. An American ISIS Wife’s Exclusive Tell-All,” the Mother Jones Podcast talks with Shane Bauer about his encounter with Samantha Elhassani, her story, and her upcoming trial.

Samantha says her Syrian saga started around 2014. She was living near South Bend, Indiana, with her husband, Moussa, who had immigrated to the United States from Morocco about a decade earlier. “He was very American, nothing abnormal about him,” Samantha tells me. “He’s Muslim, I’m Christian. He never had a problem with anything I did. He drove a Porsche.” He wasn’t religious, she says. “He didn’t even grow a beard.”

When she couldn’t afford to get knee surgery, she says that Moussa suggested she get it done in Morocco. He also mentioned that houses were cheap and they should consider moving there. Samantha says she traveled to a pretty coastal town in Morocco where she found luxury apartments for sale for $30,000. She could imagine raising her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and her seven-year-old son from a previous relationship there. By the time she got back to Indiana, she says, Moussa had put their cars up for sale and had sold their washer and dryer.

From here, Samantha’s story gets more bizarre. She says that as her family prepared to move, she made trips to Hong Kong, where she deposited cash in a safe deposit box to “evade taxes.” Then the family flew to Turkey—after stopping in Hong Kong to pick up their money. When they arrived in Turkey, Samantha was surprised to find one of Moussa’s brothers, Abdelhadi, waiting for them. Samantha says they traveled together to Sanliurfa, a city near the Syrian border, to visit a Muslim pilgrimage site.

When they got there, Samantha says, Moussa began acting strangely. He would go off with his brother all day, telling her to stay in their hotel room. After a week, Moussa told her to gather her things. The family got into a white van. Samantha says she soon realized they weren’t heading to the airport to go to Morocco. They stopped in the middle of nowhere, near a stretch of the Syrian border with heavy ISIS presence. Moussa grabbed their daughter and Samantha’s handbag, which held her passport and their cash. Then he walked toward the frontier. “Do I go or do I stay?” she asked herself. She grabbed her son, got out of the van, and followed her husband.

This story seems fishy to me. If Samantha couldn’t afford knee surgery, why was she flying around the world depositing cash? Did she really have no idea Moussa was planning to head into ISIS territory until this Sophie’s Choice moment?

Samantha is not the only American woman to have survived her time inside ISIS territory who now says she didn’t know what she was getting into. “Once I look back on it, I can’t stress how much of a crazy idea it was,” Hoda Muthana, a young woman from Alabama who’d run a pro-ISIS Twitter account from inside Syria, told the New York Times earlier this year. Kimberly Polman, who has American and Canadian citizenship, said she entered the Islamic State “as a humanitarian.” “How do you go from burning a passport to crying yourself to sleep because you have so much deep regret?” she asked. At least seven American women are known to have traveled to join ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq; at least 57 American men have.

Samantha has good reason to be cagey as she talks to me. Two months later, she was flown back to the United States, where she was charged with aiding her husband’s effort to join ISIS and providing material support to a terrorist group. Federal prosecutors have described her as “an adventure-seeker, prone to recklessness and…willing to lie and use people and relationships to advance her goals.” Many of the things she told me are contradicted by the government’s account of her journey. Prosecutors assert that Samantha told the FBI that Moussa had told her about his desire to join ISIS months before they went to Syria. When one of Moussa’s relatives in Morocco confronted her about her husband’s interest in ISIS, she allegedly said she would “follow him anywhere.”

Religious inscriptions in Raqqa after ISIS was driven from the city
Christian Werner

Did Moussa trick or coerce Samantha to come to the Islamic State or did she come of her own free will? Sitting with her in the refugee camp, it’s hard to fathom what could have motivated her. She does not seem to be driven by religion, ideology, or any firm beliefs. Much of her account of her time in Syria is impossible to confirm, but it’s clear she wasn’t prepared for what she encountered.

She says that soon after her family crossed the Syrian border, she and her kids were separated from her husband. They drove to Raqqa, where she was confined in a house with women from France, Germany, and Arab countries while their husbands were taken off to training. The women scolded her for not praying. “Nobody knew that I wasn’t Muslim,” she tells me.

After three months in the house, she saw Moussa again. “I didn’t even recognize him,” she says. He was grimy, with a beard, a gun, and a huge smile. He hugged his daughter.

“I’m leaving,” Samantha told him. “You can’t keep us here.”

“You can try and go,” she recalls him saying. “But you’ll never make it.”

Moussa rented an apartment in Raqqa, then went off to fight. “I was terrified of living in this city,” Samantha says. “Terrified.” Armed men were everywhere. “These guys wearing long beards, and women in niqab, and everybody is just so angry.” After Moussa left, she bought a small house outside the city. “I moved as far away from the city as I could get to where there’s no security checkpoints.” When Moussa came back about a month later, he was mad that she hadn’t consulted him. Samantha told him that if she was going to accept her new life, she needed her space, and he relented.

Now that he was an ISIS soldier, Moussa “was confused on whether he wanted to die or if he wanted to live,” Samantha says. Should he be a martyr and go to heaven or live and provide for his family? In between his stints at the front, Moussa would try to make the family happy, bringing home a cat and taking them to restaurants selling Western food. He wanted her son, whom I’ll call Michael, to go to school, but Samantha refused and homeschooled him.

Samantha didn’t speak Arabic, but she would occasionally go to a neighbor’s house for tea. The neighbor was a smoker; cigarettes were banned by ISIS, so she thought she might be able to trust him. Eventually, she managed to communicate that she wanted to leave Syria with her kids. The neighbor said he’d arrange a smuggler. She prepared mentally for the journey, waiting for Moussa to return to the battlefield after he recovered from a mortar blowing up in his hand.


While he was recuperating, ISIS’s police broke down their door and arrested Samantha and Moussa. Apparently, her escape plot had been discovered. The police brought her to the Black Stadium, the soccer arena that ISIS had turned into its main prison in Raqqa, where she was held for two and a half months. A French woman, an Australian man, an Egyptian man, and a Syrian man interrogated her and pressured her to admit to being a spy, she says. She was told that Moussa was dead and her children had been sold as slaves in Iraq.

“I was tortured, I was beaten—just the sickest things that you could possibly imagine happened to me,” she recalls. “I was told that they were going to do everything to me that the Americans did to their brothers in Guantánamo Bay. You hear screams, you see blood on the floor. It’s all night: sleep deprivation, hunger, living in your own filth, regular beatings, the humiliation, electrocution. You stay in a cell that you can’t even stretch your legs in. There’s no toilet, there’s nothing. You just can’t imagine. They hang you up by the ceiling and they strip you naked and they beat you in front of a bunch of men. They take their imagination and they just roll with it.” Samantha was visibly pregnant. An Egyptian interrogator put cables on her belly and asked, “Does your child move when I electrocute you?”

In June 2016, as the Syrian army was attempting to take the city, she heard bombs falling around the prison. Suddenly, the ceiling of her cagelike cell fell in, busting the door open. She and other prisoners spilled into the streets. In the confusion, she spotted Moussa. She couldn’t believe it. “He looked like a walking ghost,” she recalls. They took cover and when the bombing ended, they ran. Then he stopped.

“We have to go back,” he told her. “They have to know you didn’t do anything wrong.”

It dawned on her that they had nowhere to go. The city was surrounded by checkpoints. If they went home, they would be arrested again and punished for escaping. They had fled one prison only to find themselves in a larger one. They went back and turned themselves in. Samantha says she was taken before ISIS judges, who said they would try to get her released. A few days later, she was dropped off on the street about a mile from her house. She was nine months pregnant, covered in scars, and she says she could barely walk on the leg her interrogators had fractured. Her kids, who had been passed between the houses of people she knew in Raqqa, were returned to her. Her son told Samantha that when he had asked about her, he was told that she was an infidel and that she had been killed.

In January 2017, Samantha posted on Facebook: “Just so everyone knows, I’m ok and my kiddos are ok 🙂 We are all doing just fine. I will get on soon and update everyone with a very public update about what’s up and I miss everyone so much. I love you guys!!”

After I leave Syria, I track down people who might know more about Samantha’s journey. “This is not a story of Syria,” Lori Sally Nishat, her sister and the ex-wife of Moussa’s brother Yassine, tells me. “It’s not about jihad—at all.” The stories I hear from Lori and other people who knew Samantha reveal patterns of attraction, abuse, and escape that would follow her to Syria. “This did not start in even the last 10 years,” Lori says. “This started way back when we were younger.”

I meet with Lori in South Bend, about an hour’s drive from where Samantha is now jailed. Lori tells me about their childhood growing up as Jehovah’s Witnesses in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Outsiders to the faith were kept at a distance. Their parents were not fond of public schooling and eventually home­schooled them. Their upbringing emphasized Bible study, worshipping God, and preparing for Armageddon. At one point, Lori remembers, their mother believed their house was possessed by demons. To fix the problem, church elders told the family to burn their videotapes of Dances With Wolves and Field of Dreams.

Samantha and Lori’s dad, who asked not to be named, doesn’t remember that incident. He was away from home a lot, driving trucks. But he does remember exorcising an apartment by burning a CD case with a picture of a deformed baby on it. “We never had no problems after that,” he says. He was strict, he admits, and sometimes he disciplined his daughters with a belt. Nevertheless, he insists that they “had a very good childhood…We had fun.”

Lori remembers it differently. “We were supposed to be perfect little soldiers and stand in a straight line and just accept anything that came along,” she says. “We were taught [that there was] the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses and there was the world outside of it. Everybody in the world outside of it was in league with the devil, but anybody within the religion was your best friend. It did not matter who it was.” This, Lori believes, is partly how she and Samantha came to be sexually abused by a member of their extended family. Samantha and Lori’s father says he wasn’t aware of the abuse at the time, but says, “It breaks my heart that I did not protect my daughter.”

When Samantha was 16 or 17, she ran away with a twentysomething sailor she’d met online. Her father found her, brought her back to Arkansas, and told her, “I can do anything I want with you. If I want to go and get my gun and shoot you, I can shoot you.” He says he never intended to act on this threat, but he wanted to frighten her out of heading down a dangerous path. She married her boyfriend anyway. Her dad told Samantha he thought the guy was going to beat her, but “if that’s what you want to do, then that’s what you get.” Samantha’s dad, sister, and a childhood friend recall that her husband physically abused her.

Samantha divorced her husband and fell in love with an Iraq War veteran. Her life appeared to be falling apart. Lori remembers seeing Samantha one night looking “beat to hell.” She also recalls that some gang members punched Samantha in the face several times in front of her boyfriend and then raped her. Afterward, Samantha and her boyfriend went into hiding. (He did not respond to requests for comment.)

Samantha gave birth to Michael and split with the vet. In 2011, Samantha told Lori she wanted a new start. Lori told her to join her in Indiana, where she could set her up with a job with her in-laws’ international shipping company. But Lori warned Samantha: Stay away from her brother-in-law Moussa.

Lori worried that Moussa Elhassani was exactly the type of guy Samantha would fall for. He was young and handsome. He had a “silver tongue,” liked cocaine, and liked action. On one binge, he wrecked a Dodge Viper. “Moussa was very successful,” his father, Mohamed Almahdi Elhassani, tells me over the phone from Morocco. “He loved expensive cars.” Moussa worked for the family business, but Lori was trying to push him out. Employees had complained that he was trying to sell them coke and that he had sexually harassed a teenage employee. When the girl’s boyfriend confronted Moussa, Moussa held a hunting knife to his throat and slashed his car tires. Lori fired Moussa several times, but he kept coming back.

Within a month of arriving in Indiana, Samantha started dating Moussa. They were married in 2012. Court documents say Samantha “has consistently described Moussa prior to Syria as a loving, dedicated father and husband, who spared no expense for his family, showered her with jewelry and cars and treated [her son] as his own son.” But according to people who knew Samantha and Moussa, their relationship quickly went bad. AJ Moring, a childhood friend of Samantha’s who worked at the shipping company and lived with the couple, says Moussa hit Samantha and sometimes took away her keys and credit cards so she couldn’t leave. Moring says Moussa would go on cocaine binges and barricade himself and Samantha in their house. Both Lori and Moring recall that Moussa once tried to tear off Samantha’s clothes, telling Michael to grab a pair of scissors so he could “finish the job.”

Moring says Samantha told him that Moussa had threatened to kill her if she ever left. Lori tells me Samantha gave her three expensive watches to hang onto “in case she ever needed to escape.” But Samantha also protected Moussa. Samantha filed a restraining order against Moring after he confronted Moussa about his abusive behavior. Lori recalls a time when Moussa threw Samantha and her son out in the cold. She convinced Samantha to leave town, but then Moussa called and begged Samantha to come back. She relented.

Moring says Samantha started abusing hydrocodone. Lori recalls seeing needles in her house. Federal prosecutors say Samantha has acknowledged that she and her husband abused drugs.

The shipping company’s warehouse manager, Angela Benke, tells me that Moussa was packaging gun parts and marking them as toys before sending them to other countries, particularly Turkey. Lori says she reported the shipments to the FBI, and she and other employees say law enforcement seized some of the packages. Samantha also talked to the FBI, according to Lori and their father. In a hearing last year, one of Samantha’s lawyers said she had spent two years as a paid informant for the agency, providing the serial numbers of cellphones shipped to Yemen. Federal prosecutors confirmed that she was a confidential source for the FBI before she left for Syria. They didn’t specify the nature of her work, but they said it was not part of a terrorism investigation.

In 2012, Lori quit her job and divorced her husband, who had been charged with domestic battery. In a written statement, Samantha told the prosecutor that he was “being played” by Lori, who was a “scorned woman with delusions of getting even.” Samantha also testified that her sister was “not truthful” and that she bruised easily. Yassine was acquitted. (He pleaded guilty in a subsequent case. He did not respond to requests for comment.) The sisters stopped talking.

Then, in early 2015, Lori heard that Samantha and Moussa were selling everything, including their cars and house. Their neighbor told Lori that Moussa had showed him gold bullion in the back seat of his car. According to federal prosecutors, Moussa bought more than $60,000 worth of precious metals and melted them down in the company warehouse with Samantha’s help. Samantha pulled Michael out of class; the school was told they were moving to Mexico. Prosecutors say Samantha also lied to Michael’s father, saying she was taking him on vacation to Paris. Samantha also allegedly lied about her travel plans to the FBI agents she’d been providing information to.

According to the government’s version of events, Samantha visited Morocco but never looked for houses there. Shortly after that, she took Michael to Hong Kong twice, depositing at least $30,000 in a safe deposit box. She then returned to Hong Kong with Moussa and her two kids. There she allegedly arranged to buy rifle scopes and image-stabilized binoculars. Then the family flew to Istanbul—along with Moussa’s brother Abdelhadi. They entered Syria sometime between April and July 2015, when ISIS was near the peak of its expansion, and more than a year after Samantha had told me they’d crossed the border.

According to his father, Moussa said he was being “targeted” for taxes and he wanted to live in an Islamic country where he wouldn’t have to pay taxes. Moussa also told his dad it seemed like the Islamic State was becoming a genuine caliphate, and he thought life would be better there. “We told him, ‘We will disown you if you go to Syria,’” his father recalls. Moussa told his dad he would not become a fighter; he’d merely be an administrative employee for the Islamic State.

When Samantha and Moussa disappeared, Lori didn’t have the slightest idea they had left the country. She figured they had ripped off a drug dealer. It wouldn’t have been the first time Samantha was on the run.

In early 2017, Samantha called Lori for the first time in two years to say she was in Raqqa. She phoned occasionally after that, but their conversations were furtive and brief. Lori asked Abdelhadi to send Samantha’s kids home, but he told her he would rather they died in the Islamic State than go back to America. Later, he said he would send Michael if she paid a ransom. Lori showed me what she described as a “proof-of-life picture” of Michael in Syria. It shows him holding a sign that says: “I miss you auntie Lori. Happy Valentine’s Day. February, 2017.”

Moussa grew hardened after being imprisoned by ISIS, Samantha says. He didn’t excuse the sexual abuse she’d been subjected to behind bars, but he said she deserved everything else she got. He began talking about wanting to buy Yazidi girls. ISIS had been selling members of the ancient religious minority as slaves since it captured thousands of them in Iraq in August 2014. Moussa decided to buy a 17-year-old girl. Then he bought a 14-year-old girl. After that, Samantha says she convinced him to pay $1,500 for a seven-year-old boy.

Samantha tells me she treated the children like her own. “They became my best friends,” she says. She taught them some English. “They called me Mom. We were very close. And they hated my husband. You can imagine why.”

When Moussa came home, Samantha says, he would tell her which girl he wanted for the night. Samantha would ask the girl to shower and put on nice clothes and would send her to Moussa’s room. “He would go in, and then he would leave. It was like a two-minute thing,” she says. “He wanted to have babies.” When one of the girls refused to shower, Moussa became angry and told Samantha to force her to bathe. “I’m like, I’m not going to make her do anything,” she says. He put the girl in the shower, stripped her, and beat her. “I cried,” Samantha tells me. “What can I do, you know?”

When Moussa was away, Samantha says, everything was different. “Whenever he would leave, we were all relaxed, and we could laugh and we would sing and we would have fun.” Their little house felt like a refuge.

But by early 2017, it felt like a real war was coming. Not far from Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-­led alliance backed by the United States, tried to seize Syria’s largest dam from ISIS. Raqqa residents, afraid the dam would break and flood the city, began to flee. Coalition jets bombed an empty building and dropped flyers that she remembers warned, “We’re going to do this to your city. Get out.” But the planes had also bombed the bridges across the Euphrates and there was no easy way out. “If we survive this, we get out of here,” she told her kids. “We go home.”

Homs, Syria
Christian Werner

As Kurdish forces approached, Moussa gave Samantha the keys to their car and told her to take the kids to an ISIS-held town in Deir Ezzor province, while he stayed behind and fought. She refused. Sticking out the US-led assault seemed like her best chance for getting out of the Islamic State, she tells me.

“You understand you might die here,” Moussa said.

“You understand I might die there,” she responded. “You understood this when you brought me here. Don’t pretend now you have some sort of respect of life.” If she left Raqqa, she thought, she’d still be trapped. In August 2017, she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter.

During the battle, Moussa would disappear for a week at a time. “Any day, he’s going to die,” Samantha would tell the kids. “It’s inevitable. Just be patient.” In September 2017, Abdelhadi told her he’d seen Moussa get killed. She was relieved.

As she tells me about her efforts to resist Moussa, Samantha doesn’t mention one of the most troubling episodes of her story—one that the government would later present as evidence that she went along with her husband’s radicalization and that she would say is proof of how he coerced her. In August 2017, 10-year-old Michael appeared in an ISIS propaganda video. In it, he introduces himself as Yusuf. He says he is from the land of unbelievers, the child of “an American soldier who fought the mujahideen in Iraq.” When he and his mother came to the Islamic State, he says, they learned the “correct Islamic creed.”

“We live in a small city called Raqqa,” Michael recites. “This city has scared the whole world, because the Muslims who live in it have learned the meaning of jihad and have established the rule of Allah. Because of this, all the nations of the world who are led by America have gathered to scare us away from what we have established.”

He continues: “My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah promised us victory, and he’s promised you defeat. This battle is not gonna end in Raqqa or Mosul. It’s gonna end in your lands. By the will of Allah, we will have victory. So get ready, for the fighting has just begun.” Michael is shown loading rounds into an assault rifle magazine. A man in a black mask shows him how to fire a sniper rifle. He is also shown playing with the Yazidi boy, who says, “We are like brothers.”

A couple of months into the coalition campaign, the bombardment intensified. “There was one day I think the hospital got hit with 700 rounds of cannon fire,” Samantha says. “Everything was destroyed.” Then, in October 2017, the bombing stopped. “I woke up one morning, there was no airplanes, there was no bombs,” Samantha recalls. “There was nothing. It was just quiet. We heard birds singing. It was amazing.”

Abdelhadi showed up and said he was taking her and the kids to a town near the Iraq border. When Samantha refused, Abdelhadi said he would take the Yazidi children and the three kids she had with Moussa. She could stay behind in Raqqa with Michael, but she said no. “The promises that I’d made, everything that had been done to survive at this point would have been undone. How could I just walk out with my son when I could’ve done that on the first day?” She agreed to go with her brother-in-law.

The SDF and the coalition had secretly agreed to allow ISIS fighters and their families to leave the city. Publicly, the SDF said only a few hundred unarmed fighters were let out, but Samantha says she rode in a convoy with “thousands of men, all armed.” (Shortly afterward, an SDF spokesperson who had defected to Turkey claimed 4,000 “terrorists” and their families had been allowed to evacuate.)

A couple of days after they reached their destination, Samantha says she befriended a man who said he could help them get out. The first smugglers he found backed out when they learned there were Yazidi children involved; ISIS’s purported penalty for smuggling a Yazidi to freedom was death. Through an illicit internet connection, one of the Yazidi girls contacted her uncle in Iraq, who then contacted the Kurdish YPG militia. In late 2017, Samantha gave a smuggler $10,000 and a Glock pistol to drive her and the kids into the desert where a truck was waiting for them. They were then taken to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Refugee camp in the desert outside Raqqa
Christian Werner

FBI agents questioned Samantha while she was held by US-backed forces. She tells me the interrogations lasted for four or five days. On her last day of interviews, the agents told Samantha they were going to send her to a refugee camp. She begged them not to. “There are a lot of people who, especially if my husband’s brother is still alive, would see us dead,” she told them. The agents told her it wouldn’t be long; one said they’d get her out of Syria in just a few weeks.

When I meet Samantha in the camp in May 2018, six months have passed since she escaped the Islamic State. I ask her what she thinks will happen when she goes home. She’s not sure, but she says the FBI told her she would not face charges. Two months later, she was sent back to Indiana on a military cargo plane and brought before a federal judge. So far, she is the only American woman to have been charged with terrorism-related crimes after living inside ISIS territory.

The evidence against Samantha is sealed, but the government has argued that she knowingly assisted Moussa’s efforts to join ISIS and “willfully brought her children along for the treacherous ride.” In their petition for pretrial release, Samantha’s lawyers said she was “compelled, both psychologically and physically, to follow her husband’s and his brother’s absurd ideas” and that she had been traumatized by the torture and abuse she experienced in Syria. They argued that she had been a “hostage” in Raqqa and that she saved the lives of her four children and the three Yazidis. In a hearing last December, one of her attorneys, Thomas Durkin, accused the government of prosecuting another victim of her husband’s crimes. “When you’re married to a crazy man who abuses you and terrorizes you, you do what the crazy man tells you to do,” he said. “Everything that you’re looking at here has to be viewed through the lens of domestic violence and patriarchal abuse.”

Michael’s propaganda video is likely to be a key piece of evidence in her trial, as are two home videos obtained by the FBI. In one, according to a court document, Moussa tells Michael he’ll reward him with an explosive suicide belt if he can take apart an assault rifle. In another, recorded by Samantha, Michael puts together a suicide belt. Moussa asks him what he would do if the “American pigs” come for them. Michael explains how he would detonate the belt and become a martyr. Before her arrest, Samantha told CNN that Moussa beat her when she protested the making of Michael’s propaganda video. “He became very violent and scared my son into becoming complicit. I ended up with two broken ribs on that video,” she said.

The question of Samantha’s culpability will also hinge on the Yazidi slaves. Prosecutors have described her involvement in the purchase and supervision of the Yazidi children as part of her “horrifying conduct” in Syria. Durkin has called this claim “offensive.” “The big pig of a husband bought the Yazidi slaves and had sex with them in front of her,” he said in a hearing. “She had nothing to do with the Yazidi slaves other than to befriend them…She saved the Yazidis’ lives.”

The Yazidi kids rejoined their families in Iraq shortly after their escape from ISIS. When I contacted the Yazidi boy’s uncle, he said the boy “thinks about Sam and her children a lot.” One of the Yazidi girls sent a video message to CNN in which she attested to Samantha’s kindness, and said that Moussa had beaten Samantha for trying to protect her.

Samantha’s four children were put into state-supervised care. Michael’s father has requested to take care of him; her parents have also asked to care for her children. She has not been allowed to see her kids since her arrest. Her trial is scheduled to begin in January 2020. If she is convicted, she could be sentenced to more than a decade in federal prison.


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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