Every story of a western woman who has traveled into ISIS-held territory, willingly or not, is complex and disturbing. In her fascinating report for ELLE, Jessica Roy looks not only at Samantha Sally, who went to Syria with her husband and children, but also her sister, Lori, who was instrumental in getting Samantha back to the U.S. Jessica’s report examines the specific nuance and conflicts within the sisters’ relationship, but also addresses a pressing, wider question: Are the women coerced into committing crimes on behalf of ISIS victims, criminals, or both? We chatted with Jessica, ELLE.com’s deputy editor, to find out.
Your report on Samantha Sally, who was forced to move to Syria with her children and husband and then imprisoned when he joined ISIS is extraordinary. How and when did this story initially capture your attention?
Thank you! I originally heard about Sam in the summer of 2018, when she was taken from the refugee camp and officially charged with aiding and abetting ISIS. I’ve been writing and reporting about women and the Middle East for a couple of years now, and I’m particularly fascinated by western women who moved to ISIS territory, so obviously her story caught my eye. I felt like as a fellow 30-something American woman I was well positioned to try to understand how she ended up where she did. I decided to reach out to her sister Lori over Facebook, and after a few attempts to connect, Lori agreed to talk to me. That was in January of this year. Then I just continued steadily reporting over the course of the next six or seven months until I felt like I could tell a more holistic portrait of their lives.
Why was it important to you to give a full account of Sam’s sister Lori’s side of the story, as well as Sam’s?
From the beginning I was very sure I didn’t want to make this an “OMG this crazy American lady lived under ISIS!” story. Of course Sam’s time in Syria is a key element of it, but to me what was more interesting was the relationship between Lori and Sam, and what effect Sam’s choices had on not just herself but also on Lori. These are two women who have been incredibly close their whole lives; even when they are drawn apart for a time by jobs or boyfriends or their kids, they always come back to each other somehow. I have three sisters myself, so I know firsthand how complex and fraught that relationship can be. I also know sisters are hardest on each other, because the bond feels almost impossible to break. I wanted to explore the power and limits of that bond. Could it withstand something like this? Should it?
Sam is a white, English-speaking, non-Muslim woman. Do you think she might have been treated differently at any stage — by ISIS, in the refugee camp, by journalists or anyone else, were this not the case? If so, how?
I think Sam was treated differently at every stage of her time in Syria because she is a white American woman. Living under ISIS, it made her more of a target — they didn’t trust her and jailed her because they thought she was spying for the U.S., for example — but I think in most other situations being white provided her privileges. There are thousands of Iraqi and Syrian women in situations similar to Sam’s, and they are still living in the camps, their lives in limbo. Sam’s Americanness made her an oddity, which made her a fascination to journalists, which raised her profile and made it more possible that she would be rescued by the U.S. government. Thousands of other women haven’t been so lucky, not to mention that a lot of other western countries are refusing to repatriate women who moved to ISIS territory, and instead are leaving them in the camps for the Kurds to deal with. It’s a mess that Sam is incredibly fortunate to have escaped.
Abuse is a theme which runs throughout both sisters’ stories, and critically, long predates Sam’s journey to Syria. Do you think it’s possible that having little frame of reference for a ‘normal’ relationship may in part explain why Sam [says she] was surprised when Moussa’s behavior escalated so drastically?
Sure, I think it’s certainly possible. While reporting I reached out to an expert in the psychology of women who are abused and I told her Sam’s story and asked her, “Hey, what do you think happened here?” She said that Sam’s history obviously had a profound effect on the choices she made, but I remember her very distinctly saying, “Thousands of women are abused… but they don’t end up joining ISIS.” I thought that was an interesting way to put it — yes, obviously Sam’s childhood and the abuse she suffered under Moussa partially explains the choices she made. But it doesn’t excuse them.
If you could have included a third part to the report focusing on another person in the story, who would that be and why?
It definitely would have been Soad, the first Yazidi teenager whom Sam and Moussa bought from a fellow ISIS fighter and brought to live with them. All signs point to the fact that Sam actually was very kind to Soad and treated her like a daughter, but she was still routinely raped by Moussa and suffered immensely living in that situation. I know in follow-up reports Soad has expressed gratitude to Sam for how she was treated during that time, but I’m curious if her feelings about that will change as she gets older and goes through therapy. Will she end up feeling differently? Will she want to see Sam again some day? I would love to turn this story into something longer—maybe a book—and including Soad’s voice in it would be one of the major things I’d want to focus on.
One of the major questions of the report is: could this happen to anyone? Do you think this is the case?
I think it absolutely could. None of the women living in these camps saw their lives taking this turn — and yet they did. If it could happen to them, if it could happen to someone like Sam, whose background is not dissimilar to a lot of the women reading ELLE.com, it could happen to anyone. Obviously it’s not common, and Sam’s past doesn’t excuse the crimes she committed, but it’s possible. Sam didn’t make these choices in a vacuum; everything she experienced shaped her into the person who made the decision to cross the border into Syria. I think people like to believe that things like this only happen to bad or crazy people, or that they themselves would be smart enough to never end up in situations like this. But the truth is that if you were brought up the way Sam was, or if you experienced the same kind of traumatic events she went through, you don’t know what kind of decisions you might make out of desperation or fear or greed.
This interview appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.