In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

The story of sisters Samantha and Lori Sally is a jackpot of drama.

It includes, let’s see, a fierce sibling loyalty, strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, two sisters marrying two brothers, deceit, arms trafficking, betrayal, wife abuse, Islam in America, the Islamic State in Syria, child slavery, child rape, federal charges against Samantha (more often Sam) because of her late husband’s involvement in ISIS, and rekindled loyalty. Did I miss anything? Possibly.

Jessica Roy of ELLE tells most of this story with sparkling writing, empathy, and a sustained focus on the sisters’ respective struggles. Her report of 10,400 words (divided into Sam’s story and Lori’s story) is blessedly free of ideological posturing, jargon, or rambling diversions into first-person details.

Here’s a sample of Roy’s narrative style, from high in her first report:

How does a woman from Arkansas, a woman who used to wear makeup and take selfies and wear flip-flops, end up dragged across the border into a war zone by her fun-loving husband? How do you grow up in the United States of America, surrounded by Walmarts and happy hours and swimming holes, and end up living in Syria under a terrorist group?

Samantha Sally met her husband Moussa Elhassani in Elkhart, Indiana. A few years after meeting, she says he forced her to move to Syria so he could fight for ISIS.

Lori, maybe more than anyone, knows how. She’s the reason Sam moved to Indiana. And the bad guy Sam married, the one who became an ISIS fighter? He was Lori’s brother-in-law. The two sisters married two brothers. Lori was there with Sam, until Sam was gone, beyond reach. Until not even Lori knew whether what the Justice Department claimed—that Sam was an accomplice, not a prisoner — was untrue.

Lori passes through the metal detectors and makes her way to the fourth-floor courtroom, which is circular and paneled with brown oak. Sam seems to sense her little sister come in, and she looks up and smiles, gives a small wave. Lori slides into a bench near the back.

There is a significant qualifier amid my praise, however: in Roy’s reporting of this story, vast details are sealed off behind the word religious.

If Roy knows much about Islam in America, Sunni jihadism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is not evident in her reporting, and nothing in her narrative suggests much of a curiosity about those topics.

To Roy’s credit, she allows that for Moussa Elhassani, joining ISIS may have been more a mercenary transaction than a radical shift in his beliefs:

Moussa’s older brother Salaheddine, who lived with him in the U.S. for a time but now resides in Casablanca, said “he was a regular man, a regular Muslim, doing his prayers and working hard.” …

But over time, other sides of Moussa emerged. Several of Sam’s friends and relatives said that Moussa was physically and emotionally abusive. (Moussa’s ex-wife Amber Elhassani told she left him after he hit her during an argument about finances, but she was shocked to hear he had joined ISIS. “My mind’s trying to mesh the two people, the person that I knew and the person that I’m seeing in these videos,” she said. “It just makes you kind of rethink your entire—what you knew about that person.”) In 2012, after Sam and Moussa were married, he held Sam down on the floor and started to tear off her clothes. “Go get the scissors,” he said to Matthew, “So I can finish the job.” Sam says Moussa made her dye her hair blonde, lose weight, and get plastic surgery. 

… Sam wasn’t Muslim, and Moussa himself had never been particularly religious. He certainly didn’t abstain from alcohol or drugs or premarital sex. But maybe this wasn’t based in religion. Maybe it was business: Westerners like Moussa hoping to join the violent extremist group were promised gold, power and, of course, a place in heaven. They could live in the lavish homes rich Syrians had abandoned and amass wealth and influence, a promise that was surely compelling to a couple living a modest life in a midwestern town.

Granted, writing about what Moussa believed about God, if anything, is difficult. He is dead, and even when he was alive he seemed to have mastered compartmental living.

But the spiritual background of Sam and Lori is equally murky in Roy’s account. We learn little more about their parents than that were “strict Jehovah’s Witnesses”:

Their father, Richard, was a long-haul trucker and Lisa, their mother, worked as an office manager at an air-conditioning company. They were strict Jehovah’s Witnesses who didn’t allow music or television in the home. Richard could be a fierce disciplinarian. Once when the sisters were caught jumping on the bed with their cousins, Lori says he beat them with a belt.

Richard and Sam both say Richard that was strict with the girls and corporal punishment was part of their childhood, but “my kids had a very good childhood,” Richard told me. “They were not abused.”

Roy has told this story of two sisters exceptionally well. Imagine what greatness her account might have achieved by further exploring a most tangled web of two radically different ways of understanding God.

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