Midwestern mom who became an ISIS widow says husband was the 'ultimate villain'

Samantha Sally in a 2014 Facebook photo. (Photo: Facebook)
Samantha Sally in a 2014 Facebook photo. (Photo: Facebook)

Samantha (Sam) Sally made international headlines last year when the Arkansas-born mom of four and former Jehovah’s Witness shared how she ended up living in Syria when her Moroccan husband, Moussa Elhassani, joined ISIS.

Sally and her children were retrieved from a Kurdish detention camp by American forces in July 2018; they’d been detained there since Elhassani’s death in a 2017 drone strike. And while she has maintained that her husband duped her into moving to Turkey, then Syria, in 2015 — “There was nothing I could do about it,” she told CNN last year, saying he threatened to take her daughter if she didn’t cooperate — the 34-year-old Sally now faces trial on federal counts of providing material support to ISIS, aiding and abetting ISIS and lying to the FBI.

With a little more than four months to go until her court date, scheduled for Jan. 6, 2020, the ISIS widow and her younger sister, Lori Sally, have opened up to Elle about their relationship, eventual rift and why Lori says “acquittal” could be the worst possible outcome for her sister’s trial.

As it happens, Sam met Elhassani through her younger sister, who was married to his brother and living in Elkhart, Ind. In 2011, amid her own marital woes, Lori invited Sam to move in with her — an offer she tells Elle’s Jessica Roy “was just the absolute worst decision I have ever made in my entire life.”

At the time, Sam was a single mom to son Matthew and had left behind a string of bad relationships, including an abusive first marriage. She soon hit it off with Lori’s brother-in-law, Moussa, but ended up falling out with her sister.

While Lori’s marriage to Yassin Elhassani fell apart, in part because of violent, controlling behavior she attributes to his renewed interest in religion — Sam and Moussa fell in love, marrying in 2012 and welcoming a daughter, Sarah, the following year. Though he would later join ISIS as a sniper, Sam says he was initially a carefree man who would go skinny-dipping and horse around with the kids.

Each sister — who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses in small-town Arkansas — has a different take on what followed. Lori says Sam is a “chameleon” who “can become whatever she needs to be,” a trait she felt Moussa shared.

“She just had this need to please the Elhassani family,” Lori told Elle. “And Moussa was the one that was most like her. He was exactly the same. He did the exact same stuff. He would go to the mosque on Fridays and act like he was the most pious. But then he would be doing hardcore drugs and stealing and all of this other really crazy stuff on the side. They were exactly the same.”

Sam sees it differently, telling Elle that Moussa pulled the wool over her eyes, eventually convincing her that their trip to Turkey was merely a vacation.

“Moussa was the ultimate villain,” she said. “He was seductive and his words were amazing. He just knew what to say and he knew how to move and he knew how to act where I didn't know I was falling into a pit. It was like quicksand. It was so slow and the more I struggled the further I slipped ... I just never saw it happening until it was absolutely too late.”

The move abroad came just over a year after the sisters’ relationship took a nose-dive when Sam gave damning testimony in Lori’s court hearing against Yassin in the fall of 2013. They saw each other just once more before the move to Syria, and didn’t speak again until 2017, when Sam revealed by email that “Moussa brought me and the kids illegally to Syria.”

Though Lori worked on her sister’s behalf to get her and the children out of Syria, she told Elle that her sister should serve time for her involvement with ISIS, which saw Sam own slaves, while her children appeared in propaganda videos.

“She definitely has needed help for a long time,” Lori said, adding that if Sam is acquitted, “it’s just over for her. No one’s going to be there. She’s just going to be out there. She’s going to be left completely alone.”

Sam, meanwhile, told the magazine that Lori only came to her aid as a way to get custody of her kids and punish her sister for her 2013 court testimony.

But Lori said she’d remain fighting her sister’s corner.

“I will never forgive her for what she’s done,” she told Elle. “But I love her. She’s my sister. I feel like she needs someone, and I don’t mind being that someone.”

Read the sisters’ full stories on Elle.com.

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