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PBS' 'Frontline' Poses Troubling Questions About Truth-telling and Responsibility in 'Return from ISIS'
December 14, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

In trying times, empathy can be in short supply. So many decent, hard-working people find their lives falling apart through no fault of their own that it can be no surprise when other, less responsible people are held accountable for their actions.

That's the underlying theme behind Tuesday's cautionary PBS Frontline tale, Return from ISIS.

Return from ISIS is about a young mother from Arkansas by way of Indiana, Samantha Sally, who was sentenced late last year to more than six years in prison for aiding and abetting the terror group ISIS. Sally became the first female U.S. citizen brought back from the Iraq-Syria wars to be convicted on ISIS-related terrorism charges.

The casual viewer can be forgiven at this point for asking, well, who cares? People are born with free will, after all, and adults are responsible for making their own decisions.

As with so many stories like this, though — and the reason Frontline producers decided to make a program in the first place — is there's more to this story than meets the eye.

As Return from ISIS writer-narrator Josh Baker says in the film, four years in the making, "I've covered many stories about ISIS and Westerners who joined the group, but this was different." The program features the first media interview with Sally's son Matthew, aka Matty, now 13, who was just nine-years-old when his stepfather Moussa spirited the family off to Raqqa, Syria, to fight the righteous fight against the infidels.

Sally has maintained all along that she was the victim of a con, and not just herself but her then nine-year-old son as well. Sally lived a typical Midwestern life in Indiana when she first met and married Moussa, a Moroccan national in the U.S. at the time. Little did she know that she would end up 6,000 miles away, in a faraway war zone, one of an estimated 40,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries who joined ISIS.

That's her side of the story, anyway. U.S. government officials maintain she knew exactly what she was doing all along, that she accompanied Moussa on his jihadist crusade willingly and knowingly. A U.S. court sided with the government's position in November.

That conundrum — who is telling the truth? — lies at the heart of Baker's film. Step-by-step, painstakingly at times, Baker recounts events as they happened, as best as he can. It's a long and winding road, full of hairpin turns and roadblocks, both literal and metaphorical.

Baker tracks down other witnesses to the family's predicament in Raqqa, victims in their own right, including a young woman and a child Matthew's age. What these witnesses have to say about what happened to them personally and what they saw is hard to take. Their testimony is both believable and compelling.

The question as to what really happened, though, and why, is something viewers will have to answer for themselves.

"Half the time you can't tell what the truth is or what not the truth is," Sally's father, Rick, says in the program. "So you have to read between the lines."

Those lines are blurry, especially when assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers, explains to Frontline that Sally has told so many different versions of her story that it's hard to believe any version over the other.

The fact is that she did go to Syria, Demers says, for one reason or another, and that in itself is enough to question her veracity. It's a story with a lot of moving parts, Demers admits, but at some point, the "why" doesn't matter so much as the "what."

"For our prosecution," Demers says in the program, "at the end of the day, if she acting knowingly, if she's acting willingly, it doesn't matter so much."

Sally's sister Lori, for her part, was mortified by what young Matthew was forced to go through — at one point, she was emailed a home video of the nine-year-old being forced to assemble a suicide bomb — and marvels that he was able to emerge relatively unscathed.

The psychological scars run deep, though.

"Say one thing wrong, and they could easily just kill you," Matthew, now 13, recalls in the program. "I feel sad that they would do that to a child. That's how I feel."

Many Frontline viewers will have their own preconceptions of what really happened before they sit down to watch the program, and there's little in Return from ISIS that will change their minds.

Baker's film does raise questions, though, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

"No matter how bad the situation is," Matthew explains, "you can always get through it."

He pauses, then adds: "It's all behind me now."

Frontline's "Return from ISIS" premieres Tuesday on PBS and YouTube at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings).

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