For Samantha Sally, a vacation was all it took to flip her quiet middle-American world of muscle cars, cotton candy and an Indiana packing company, into the horror of the ritual beatings, serial rape, torture and propaganda videos of ISIS’s so-called Caliphate.
A holiday is what her husband, Moussa Elhassani, promised her when she went to Hong Kong in 2014, she says. The couple was planning to move to Morocco to start a new, cheaper life, she says, and needed to go through Hong Kong to transfer money.
Days later, Sally says, she stood on the Turkish border with Syria, on the edge of ISIS territory, her husband holding her daughter, Sarah, while she held her son, Matthew, then 7, confronted with an impossible choice: Abandon her daughter to ISIS and save her son, or follow her husband into ISIS’s so-called Caliphate. Following him was the only way to protect her daughter, she says.
“To stay there with my son or watch my daughter leave with my husband — I had to make a decision,” Sally, 32, tells CNN in northern Syria.
“Maybe I would never have seen my daughter again ever, and how can I live the rest of my life like that.”
Sally spoke to CNN in Syrian-Kurdish custody, in limbo, arrested after ISIS’s collapse in Raqqa and unsure if she will ever see the United States again.
The story of how Sally got there is a remarkable web of mystery, compassion, and animal savagery befitting ISIS’s legacy of almost surreal terror. And in it, Sally flits between the role of naive, manipulated housewife, and the savvy pragmatist able to survive the savage, male-dominated world of ISIS.
As she sits in a Syrian-Kurdish jail, waiting the US government to determine — or not determine — what to do with her, it is navigating that delicate balance between unknowing victim and deft manipulator that will decide her fate.
‘I was like a prisoner’
Sally’s journey to the former Caliphate begins in Elkhart, Indiana, where she and Elhassani worked at a delivery company. They lived with Matthew, her son from her first marriage to a US soldier, and their daughter Sarah.
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.
She says she went ahead to look, and was impressed enough to later fly to Hong Kong and help transfer some of their money. From Hong Kong, the couple together went to Turkey, on what Sally says was a romantic holiday, during which Elhassani lavished her with gifts.
At the time, the indirect trip to Asia before diverting to the Syrian border in Turkey, and the proxy transfer of funds to Hong Kong, were textbook methods of evading law enforcement for those seeking to join ISIS. But Sally insists she thought nothing was amiss before she reached the Turkish border town of Sanilurfa.
It was there that Elhassani refused to let her leave the hotel room, saying the city was “too dangerous.”
“Once we got to Sanilurfa everything changed,” she says. “I was like a prisoner in the room.”
Pushed as to how a woman adequately assertive to divorce her first husband in her 20s was now so submissive in a bustling Turkish city, she said: “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.'”
Days later, they found themselves on the border, Sally faced with the agonizing choice. She insists the crossing was forced and then felt she could have come back again to Turkey later.
“People can think whatever they want but they have not been put in a place to make a decision like that,” she says.
Buying slaves at a market
Inside the so-called Caliphate, her relationship with Elhassani 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.”
Sally says she feared divorcing him as that would leave her and her children yet more vulnerable in ISIS’s society. She said at one point she was jailed by ISIS for three months while pregnant for trying to escape and for alleged espionage for the US.
She says she was held in solitary confinement and tortured, even sexually abused, in that jail. Sally says she was later released and went back to the small home she had made for her family on the outskirts of Raqqa, where Elhassani would periodically return from the frontline and — in between fits of violence — fathered two children by her.
The loneliness of her domestic existence made Elhassani propose an addition to their home, which was, by the warped standards of the Caliphate, commonplace. In 2014, the terror group had captured hundreds of Yazidis when it took Mount Sinjar in Iraq, and many of the younger women were being sold as slaves, some purely for the purposes of sexual abuse.
Elhassani suggested some Yazidi slaves would help keep Sally company while he was away, and he took her to the slave market. There she saw Soad.
“When I met Soad, I couldn’t think about money, I needed to help her,” she said. The 17-year-old girl cost her $10,000 — half the money she says she smuggled with her from their United States savings. She brought Soad home, and soon, her husband Elhassani began raping her.
But that was not enough. Elhassani soon decided to “buy” his own slave, using another $7,500 from their savings to purchase Bedrine, who was younger still. She was also raped by Elhassani. The family also bought a young boy, Aham, for $1,500 later still.
Sally is defensive about the decision to buy the girls, saying she offered them a protection and care that other homes could not have.
“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.”
Asked if she feels she enabled the girls’ serial rape, she said: “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.”
Sally continued: “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.”
Two broken ribs
Sally 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.
CNN has spoken to several friends from her hometown, who say there were no open signs of her radicalization, and depict a loyal, single divorcee who found in Elhassani a generous provider-turned-controlling abuser.
“She was an amazing, wonderful, generous person, a really good friend and an excellent mom to Matt and Sarah,” says friend Andria Lightner.
“I believe with all my heart she would never be willing to take her kids” to join ISIS.
A close friend in Indiana, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sally became less available before she left and curiously did not confide in her friends that she intended to move to Morocco.
She quit her job, and declared she was going on vacation to Hong Kong, but the friend describes what would be their final farewell as ordinary: “It was ‘I can’t wait for you to be home and see you soon,'” the friend says. “She was being everyday normal Sam.”
CNN also tracked down Soad, the older of the three Yazidi children Sally and Elhassani bought. Now 17, she is in a refugee camp in Iraq, reunited with her family, and has nothing but gratitude for the American housewife who purchased her into a life of repeated rape. She sent a video message to Sally in which she said: “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.”
In other ways too, Sally’s own children became victims. Her son Matthew, a US citizen through and through, was a prized cast member for ISIS as they increasingly sought to involve children in their macabre and sickening propaganda videos. Matthew was eventually visited by another ISIS fighter, who knew the ISIS propaganda wing, and approached Sally and Matthew with a script, part Arabic, part English, for Matthew’s appearance.
“After I saw the script was when the beating happened,” Sally said, referring to her husband. “I was like, ‘This is absolutely not acceptable’. All I could do was talk. 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. It was three days after my operation with her,” she says, indicating to her youngest daughter. “I did not give birth naturally, it was Cesarean. I couldn’t even fight back. There was nothing I could do.”
Matthew, sitting next to his mother throughout her interview, chimes in: “It was a very bad beating.”
Sally added: “They learned the script but it was grueling. His days were long and he came home crying every day about how tired he was.”
The video is one of ISIS’s more notorious, in which Matthew is made to walk through a damaged mosque and streets, vow revenge on U.S. President Donald Trump and pledge attacks on the West.
His mouth intermittently full of candy given to him by his Syrian-Kurdish captors, Matthew says: “It was extremely stressful and it was hard. 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.”
Asked where he wants to go now, he said: “Back to my state. Back to America.”
ISIS a bunch of ‘drug-using thugs’
The family’s escape from Raqqa came tantalizingly closer when a drone strike killed Elhassani in the middle of last year. “I was able to breathe,” recalled Sally. “I was like — OK — we can start phase two. At least now we can all breathe.”
The U.S. coalition in Syria slowly tightened its noose around Raqqa, but Sally said she saw no avenue to escape with the thousands of civilians who had been fleeing the city during the assault.
“All that I knew was that if somebody tried to leave, the snipers — which was my husband’s job — had permission to kill. So I am thinking if I try to walk out, I take the risk of IEDS (mines) if I go off road, and I run the risk that I will be sniped.”
They remained in Raqqa until the very final days, released, Sally says, as part of the final hundreds of ISIS fighters — many foreign hardliners — whose departure from the city was negotiated with the U.S.-backed Syrian-Kurdish fighters besieging ISIS. She left in that convoy east, and then found her way north, where she was eventually detained.
Sally’s time in the so-called Caliphate spanned from its most brutal beginnings in 2015 until its very final moments, the totality of which, in some way, complicates her defense that she was an innocent bystander.
Sally said: “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.”
Yet it is the believability of her story — that of the pliable and then abused housewife, turned savior of three child slaves — upon which her and her children’s fate surely hinges, as U.S. authorities decide their next steps.
“I will do anything to get my kids back where they belong,” Sally says. “If I have to spend 15 years in prison, it’s better than anything here.”
They dream of returning home, yet the FBI agents who visit them in custody to talk, have yet to bring charges or plane tickets home.
“Me and my kids we talk about wanting to eat McDonald’s,” she said. “We want to live a normal life again.”