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US boy who appeared in ISIS propaganda video speaks after returning home

An American boy forced to threaten President Trump in an ISIS propaganda video after being taken to Syria by his parents has spoken of his ordeal for the first time after returning home to the US. 

Matthew, now aged 13, said it is a ‘sweet relief’ to be back in America after two years spent in ISIS’s de-facto capital of Raqqa and a year in a Kurdish prisoner camp.

Opening up about his experiences in Syria, he said he ‘never really understood’ the propaganda he was forced to recite and ‘cried with joy’ after learning that his stepfather – ISIS fighter Moussa Elhassani – had been killed in a 2017 US drone strike.

‘It’s happened and it’s done. It’s all behind me now,’ he told the BBC. ‘I was so young I did not really understand any of it.’

Matthew, now aged 13, was taken to join ISIS in Syria in 2015 when he was aged just eight by his US mother and Moroccan-born stepfather. He is now back in the US (pictured)

Age 10, Matthew was forced to appear in an ISIS propaganda video in which he threatened Donald Trump and called him a 'puppet of the Jews'

Age 10, Matthew was forced to appear in an ISIS propaganda video in which he threatened Donald Trump and called him a ‘puppet of the Jews’

Matthew’s ordeal began in 2011, when his mother Samantha Sally – who had separated from his biological father – met Moussa, a Moroccan who had moved to the US to study.

Moussa had initially gone to California to attend Fresno State University where he studied engineering, but dropped out and moved to Indiana to help brother Yassin run a shipping company called ViaAddress.

It was there that he met Samantha in 2011. The pair were married in 2012, and had a child on US soil – a daughter named Sarah.

Then, some time around 2014, Moussa became radicalized online. According to BBC show Panorama, a family friend claimed to have seen Moussa watching ISIS propaganda in the family home, including beheading videos.

Samantha denies that account, saying she had no idea that Moussa supported ISIS and that she was effectively tricked into going to Syria.

Before the family made the trip, Samantha took two trips to Hong Kong and deposited $30,000 in cash and gold in safety deposit boxes.

Then, in April 2015, the family made their way to Turkey and ran across the border into northern Syria, which was then under ISIS control.

The family ended up in Raqqa, ISIS’s de-facto capital, where Moussa joined the ranks of ISIS fighters as a sniper.

Samantha (center) had Matthew (left) by a previous partner before she met and married Moussa Elhassani (right), who would end up taking the family to Syria

Samantha (center) had Matthew (left) by a previous partner before she met and married Moussa Elhassani (right), who would end up taking the family to Syria

Samantha had three children by Moussa - Sarah (left) who was born in the US, and Ishmael (center on her lap) and Miriam (right) who were born in Syria. She escaped ISIS in 2017, and was detained at a Kurdish prisoner camp (pictured)

Samantha had three children by Moussa – Sarah (left) who was born in the US, and Ishmael (center on her lap) and Miriam (right) who were born in Syria. She escaped ISIS in 2017, and was detained at a Kurdish prisoner camp (pictured)

Matthew, then aged eight, stayed at home with his mother and sister. Two new children soon joined the family – Ishmael and Miriam.

But a short time later, the BBC reports, Moussa began training Matthew to fight. 

In videos uncovered by the program, Matthew can be seen learning how to assemble a suicide vest and role-play how to blow himself up if rescuers attempt to take him.

In another, he can be seen assembling a fully-loaded AK-47 – urged by his father to complete the task in under a minute. 

Those videos prompted Samantha to email her sister in 2017 with a desperate plea for money to help her escape and come back to the US.

Around the same time the US-led coalition had stepped up its bombing campaign in Syria, targeting Raqqa. A house next to the Elhassani was bombed and collapsed, with Matthew forced to crawl through the rubble to safety.

Samantha was jailed for six and a half years in November when she admitted financing a terror group as part of a plea deal

Samantha was jailed for six and a half years in November when she admitted financing a terror group as part of a plea deal 

It was at that time that ISIS forced Matthew to appear in a propaganda video, in which he was shown threatening President Trump.

‘My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory and he’s promised you defeat,’ he recited. 

‘This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul. It’s going to end in your lands… So get ready, for the fighting has just begun.’

Matthew told the BBC that his father forced him to take part in the video after becoming ‘mentally unstable’ and prone to violent outbursts of anger.

Samantha admitted that Moussa had become violent towards her, and had purchased two Yazidi sex slaves, who he repeatedly raped.

Moussa was eventually killed while fighting – thought to have been blown up in a US drone strike carried out not long after the video was filmed.

Speaking about that moment, Matthew said: ‘I was happy ’cause I didn’t like him, obviously. 

‘I don’t think I should have been, because a person died, but I was. We were all crying out of joy.’

With Moussa dead, Samantha paid some smugglers to take her into Kurdish territory, where the family arrived in winter 2017.

The family lived for two years in Raqqa, ISIS's de-facto capital (file image), before Moussa was killed in an US drone strike - allowing the family to flee

The family lived for two years in Raqqa, ISIS’s de-facto capital (file image), before Moussa was killed in an US drone strike – allowing the family to flee

They were flown back to Indiana the following year and the family was broken up – with Matthew sent to live with father Juan in Florida.

Samantha languished in jail for another 12 months, before finally agreeing to plead guilty to funding terrorism – over her two trips to Hong Kong – as part of a deal that saw her jailed for six and a half years.

‘It was the only deal they could have offered with the T-word that didn’t put the guidelines at a lifetime sentence,’ she said.

Speaking about the moment he arrived in Florida, Matthew said: ‘The first day I saw my dad, I was happy. Very happy.’

Asked whether he thought he’d seen the US again, he answered: ‘No. I’ll be honest, I never did.

‘I always said “one day I’ll be back home, one day I’ll be back home” but it never happened. So I thought “I’m just never coming home”.

‘I feel sad that they would do that to a child. That’s how I feel.’ 

Viewers in the UK can watch Return from ISIS: A Family’s Story on Panorama, at 21:00 on BBC One on 23 November, or catch up online

The first episode of I’m Not a Monster, a 10-part podcast telling the family’s story, will be available for download on Monday


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