Matthew still remembers the moment his life changed: the night his mother and stepfather crossed the borders of Turkey with him into the territory of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
“We ran through a very dark area, full of wires … Not much was going through my head, except, ‘I need to run,'” he recalled when he told the program for the first time about his ordeal. Panorama from the BBC already Frontline, from the US public broadcaster PBS.
Matthew, born in the US, was brought to Syria when he was 8 years old and his face became known when IS militants used him in a video in which he threatened President Donald Trump.
Now 13, he is back home and living with his father, after being rescued and brought home by the U.S. military in 2018.
He says it’s a “sweet relief” to be back.
“What happened, happened. Everything was behind,” he tells the BBC.
“He was so small that he didn’t understand what was happening,” he adds.
Road to hell
It was in April 2015 that an apparently ordinary American family crossed into ISIS territory from the Turkish border province of Sanliurfa.
In Raqqa, the city claimed by Islamist fighters as their capital, Matthew’s stepfather, Moussa Elhassani, was sent for military training and became a sniper.
At 8 years old, Matthew went out of his way to make sense of his new home.
“When we were first in Raqqa, we stayed in the city. It was quite noisy from the gunshots. Every now and then an explosion would be heard, but it was far away. So we didn’t have much to worry about,” he recalls.
In early 2017, Matthew’s mother, Samantha Sally, sent an email to a sister in the United States.
He was desperately asking for money to help the family escape.
Enclosed, he also sent you some extremely disturbing videos about Matthew.
In one, stepfather Moussa Elhassani forced Matthew to put together a suicide belt.
The boy, who followed the instructions, recreated how he would welcome potential American rescuers, then kill them by detonating the explosives.
In another video, he was seen dismantling a loaded AK-47, challenged by his stepfather to do so in less than a minute.
One night, as the US-led coalition intensified its airstrikes on Raqqa, a bomb hit a neighboring house, which collapsed on the place where Matthew lived with his family.
The boy was miraculously saved: he managed to grope through the rubble and dust.
Soon after, in August 2017, Raqqa was in ruins, but the Islamic State was still certain of its victory.
That’s when the group used Matthew to shoot a propaganda video threatening Trump.
“My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory and He has promised you defeat“said the boy, reciting the message that had been made him learn by heart.
“This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul. It is going to end in your lands … So get ready, because the fight has just begun.”
Years later, the boy remembers that it was his stepfather who forced him to record the video and that he threatened him during filming.
“I was starting to lose control, as if I had had mental problems,” he says.
Soon after, Elhassani was killed in an alleged drone attack.
“I was glad because I didn’t like him, obviously,” Matthew said.
“I don’t think I should have been happy because a person died, but I was. We were all crying… with joy.”
After the death of the stepfather, Matthew’s mother, Samantha Sally, paid human traffickers to get her and her four children out of Islamic State territory.
Matthew was hidden inside a barrel in the back of a truck in order to pass through the checkpoints.
When they reached Kurdish-controlled territory, they were held in a detention camp, and it was there in the winter of 2017 that the BBC began speaking to Sally.
The woman said that her husband had tricked her into taking his family to Syria and that he had no idea what he was planning.
Once in Raqqa, she said, the man had turned violent towards her.
The American admitted that during her stay there they had bought two Yazidi teenagers as slaves and that her husband regularly raped them.
After her return to the US, while in jail awaiting trial, Sally continued to defend her version that she had been deceived by her husband.
Although I had supported it “in their stupid companies“He insisted that he was not guilty of joining IS.
However, the BBC and PBS investigation uncovered evidence that undermined this story.
A member of the Elhassani family said that Moussa had become obsessed with IS in the months leading up to the family’s departure from the US and that he had seen him watching the group’s propaganda, including videos of executions, in the family’s home.
A friend of Sally’s also recalled a conversation with her in which she had told her that her husband felt called to join “the holy war.”
The investigation also revealed that Sally had made a series of trips to Hong Kong in the weeks before the family left the US and that she had deposited at least US$30.000 cash and gold in safe deposit boxes.
After nearly 12 months behind bars, Sally changed her story and pleaded guilty to financing terrorism as part of a plea deal.
The tests later showed that Sally had helped film the videos of her son with the suicide belt and the AK-47.
According to prosecutors, why she helped her husband join the Islamic State will likely never be known, although her defense argues that she was coerced by the controlling husband.
Since his return to the US Matthew has received counseling to help him deal with the trauma of everything that happened to him.
According to his doctors, he has improved and is doing well.
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