International

Indiana family in limbo after husband dies fighting for ISIS in Syria

(CNN) - Four years ago, 32-year-old Sam Sally left her hometown in Indiana for a vacation in Turkey.

The family went from a mundane life of sports cars and a delivery business to joining Islamic State fighters and seeing their son become the face of ISIS propaganda against America.

During the trip, Sally claims her husband, Moussa, duped her and her children -- Matthew, 10; Sarah, 5; and her two youngest who were born in the so-called ISIS caliphate -- into joining Islamic State militants in Syria.  Sally said, "All I saw was a bunch of drug-using thugs that came from their countries who had no place."

Now out of Raqqa and in Syrian Kurdish custody, Sally must explain how her husband died fighting for ISIS and prove her innocence to U.S. authorities if she ever hopes to return home with her four kids.

Sally said she had no choice as her husband became abusive, bought teenage Yazidi sex slaves and made her 10-year-old son appear in an ISIS propaganda videos.

She knows some people will not believe her.

"They can think whatever they want to believe, but they've never been put in a situation to make a decision like that."

At the ISIS border crossing, she said she faced an impossible choice: her husband grabbed Sarah while Sally had Matthew.

Sally said, "The position I was in was to stay there with my son or watch my daughter leave with my husband and I had to make a decision. I thought -- like I said -- we could just walk across the border and we could come back again."

She chose to keep the family together. But, it's hard to imagine Sally did not ever realize what she was getting into. It was also when the gentle comforts of her marriage ended, and her husband -- who never even seemed devout in America -- became an abusive monster.

"Before he used to spoil me -- 'I love you,'" Sally said. "I mean, we were very much in love. The romance never left. As soon as we came here it was completely different. Everything was completely different. I was a dog. I didn't have any choice. It was extremely violent."

Moussa traveled a lot to fight. He beat Sam at home but still had two more children with her in Raqqa.

Later, Moussa suggested they buy slaves, some of the Yazidi girls captured by ISIS in 2014. They spent $20,000 on two teenage girls, Soad and Bedrine, and a younger boy Aham. It was done to keep her company, Sally said, and rescue the slaves to better lives, yet Moussa repeatedly raped the girls.

"When I met Soad, I couldn't think about money. I would have spent every dollar I had on her, to bring her."

The initial plan was to protect her from being raped.

"But in every house that she was in before that was the same situation, but she did not have the support of someone like me."

Does Sally now not regret enabling that serial rape?

"No, because it would have been so much worse with anybody else," Sally said. "And no, no one will ever be able to imagine what it's like to watch their husband rape a 14-year-old girl. Ever. And then she comes to you -- comes to 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. We knew that if we were just patient, we would stick through it together. You understand? I was like their mother."

Soad sent a message from a refugee camp to confirm Sally's kindness, and how Sam was beaten black and blue as she tried to protect Soad from Moussa.

Soad wrote, "I am doing well, with my family, she says, and I want to see you even just once more, let me know what I can do to get you out."

But the terror continued.

Matthew, born in Texas during Sally's first marriage to an American soldier, became a prized cast member for an ISIS film shoot.

How did Matthew come to be in that video?

Sally said, "It was not by choice. I ended up with two broken ribs on that video. I fought. I fought. I fought."

Matthew remembered the day.

"It was hard," Matthew said. "I did not want to do it. He would hit me. He would stress me."

Moussa died in a drone strike in late 2017.

Sally said, after his death, "I was able to breathe. I was like -- OK -- we can start phase two."

Tens of thousands fled the Raqqa siege, but Sally said she only felt safe at the very end leaving with the last hundreds of ISIS given passage out in a deal.

The FBI has interviewed the family, but there are no charges yet ... or tickets back home.

"We want to eat McDonald's. You know, we want to live a normal life for us again," Sally said.

Instead she is reliving her decisions over and over again.

Nick Paton Walsh is CNN senior international correspondent.


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