It was snowing hard as I drove along a road that cut through a graveyard in Southbend, Indiana.
I’d been told to look out for an apartment complex styled like a medieval castle. I drove in through an arch with fake guard platforms past turrets dotted either side of the road. I was there to meet a woman called Lori Sally, an electrician and single mum-of-two.
As we sat in her living room drinking home-brewed cinnamon and chilli tea, she opened her laptop to show me an email she got from her sister Sam. They’d fallen out when Sam started dating a man called Moussa El-Hassani. Lori assumed they were living in Texas. She was wrong.
She took a deep breath and read the email.
“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.”
Sam was trapped at the heart of Isis’s so-called caliphate with her two children, and looking for a way out. Attached to the email was a video of her nine-year old son Matthew.
It showed Matthew sitting on what looked like a living room floor. To his right was a TV, behind him some cushions, and at his feet were the components of a suicide bomb.
A male voice off-camera told him to assemble it. The voice belonged to Matthew’s stepfather, Moussa.
Lori was devastated. She called the FBI and the State Department, but there was little anyone could do. For all the might of the US military, it couldn’t just simply walk into the heart of the Isis caliphate and rescue the family.
Over the coming months, she got voice messages from Sam: “Keep making your prayers for us. [...] We hear the jets and bombs – it’s part of daily life here.”
Then the messages stopped – just as a US-backed militia entered Raqqa and started fighting to defeat Isis. Lori had no idea if her family were dead or alive.
As Lori waited for contact, I was trying to work out if Sam could have really been taken to Syria against her will by her husband. Was she tricked? Or could she have started out as a supporter of Isis who now wanted to escape?
Understanding the truth about what happened to Sam and her family would become a four-year journey.
Sam seemed to have a good life in America. When I spoke to her friends, they painted a picture of Sam being an ”amazing friend” and a “good mother”.
But her father, Rick, had a different story. “Half the time you can’t tell what’s the truth, and what’s not the truth,” he told me.
Lori heard nothing from the family for months. Then, in August 2017, Isis released a new propaganda video. It made global headlines because it showed a young American boy being forced to issue a threat to Donald Trump.
The boy was Sam’s son Matthew.
Three months later I was back in the English countryside. Tea in one hand and phone in the other, I was scouring Isis sites and social media, my daily routine in looking for any information about the family. I was halfway through watching a deluge of Isis propaganda videos when I found a tweet by a Syrian news agency.
It was a video of a family escaping Isis: Sam and her children. Matthew kept his head down, but his younger sister looked up at the camera, blew a kiss and made a peace sign.
I watched as they climbed out of a dusty pickup truck. Sam was all in black, wearing a veil and an abaya cloak. She sat down against a wall with a thousand-yard stare. There was no sign of her husband Moussa. But there were two babies, her children born in Raqqa. They had made it into the hands of a US-backed militia in Syria. It meant I had a chance to find them.
I spent 10 days searching north-eastern Syria for the family, travelling from one militia base to another. Some days I got close. I met with a commander who told me Sam and the kids had been in his care – he even had pictures of them – but now they’d been moved to another part of Syria.
Another day, I sat in an office on yet another base. At one end of the room was a rocket turned into a plant pot. A man entered, shook my hand, then grilled me for 20 minutes. Who was I? What was I doing? Why did I want to see Sam? If I lied, he said, he would throw me in jail.
The man left, 10 minutes went by, and then without warning the door opened. In walked Matthew with a smile on his face, followed by Sam and her other children. I’d spent almost a year trying to find even a trace of the family. Now they were sitting in front of me.
Sam’s English was slightly broken, almost like it was her second language. We talked, under the watchful eye of the militia, about her life with Isis. She was adamant the family had only ended up in Syria because of her husband. But before I could get Sam’s full story, our meeting was cut short: she was taken away and I was asked to leave. Later I was told the militia suspected I was a spy.
Several months went by before I could return to Syria and interview Sam. On the same base, I spoke to the same man. Last time, he’d told me Sam “was a good woman”. This time he warned me: “She’s a snake.”
It felt like nobody could work out who Sam actually was.
The last time I’d been here, Sam had been dressed all in black and speaking broken English. This time, as I attached a microphone to her jacket, she offered to rap Eminem as a “mic check”. She was wearing a baseball cap, a pale green sweater and jeans. Her hair neatly braided into two long plaits. Makeup. Tattoos on show, a nose ring, and silver earrings – three in each ear.
This was a very different Sam.
With the cameras rolling, I asked my first question. How did an American woman end up in Syria with Isis?
“I don’t even know where to start answering that question,” she replied.
What Sam told me in that room would take years to unpick. And finding where Sam’s story ended and the truth began would take me on a journey that would reveal more than I could have imagined.
I’d discover that before she left America she had been working for the FBI as an informant. I’d travel from the depths of in Infamous Isis torture prison to an Elk Hunt in Idaho. I’d talk to former slaves owned by Sam and Moussa, Isis members, and people who knew Sam in America and Raqqa in my search for truth. I’d discover how an American mum ended up at the heart of the Isis caliphate – and what happened when she came home.
Josh Baker is a journalist and filmmaker. His search for the truth about Sam Sally is told in a 10-part podcast series from Frontline (PBS), BBC Panorama for BBC Sounds called I’m Not A Monster, and in a documentary, Return From ISIS. The podcast was recently nominated for three Ambies Awards, the Podcast Academy’s awards recognising excellence in audio.
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