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An American youngster who became a propaganda figure for the Islamic State and who once threatened President Donald Trump is happy to be back in the United States after his years-long ordeal.
Known only as Matthew, the 13-year-old, who now lives in Florida with his father after being flown home by the U.S. military in 2018, once appeared in a video telling the president “the battle” with ISIS would “end in your lands.”
“I was so young I did not really understand any of it,” Matthew told the BBC.
He was only eight years old when he was taken to Syria by his mother, Samantha Sally, and stepfather Moussa Elhassani, in April 2015, he told the BBC’s Panorama and PBS’ “Frontline.”
“We ran across an area that was very dark,” Matthew said. “It was at night, there was a lot of random spots of barbed wire… There wasn’t much going through my head except, ‘I need to run.’”
The family settled in Raqqa, Syria, the city ISIS claimed as the capital of its self-declared caliphate.
“It was pretty noisy, gunshots normally,” Matthew explained. “Once in a while a random explosion, like far away, though. So we didn’t have too much to worry about.”
His stepfather would become a sniper for ISIS, and Matthew would be featured in several propaganda videos. In one of them, he assembled a suicide belt, while in another, he broke down an AK-47 rifle.
But it was his video in which he called himself Yusuf where he threatened President Trump that was the most noted.
“My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory and he’s promised you defeat,” he says in the video. “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 said in the interview that he didn’t have any choice but to participate in making the video, noting that, at the time, his stepfather was “starting to lose it” and had frequent outbursts.
Eventually, Elhassani was killed in a drone strike. Shortly afterward, Sally took her four kids and got them out of the war-torn region.
“I was happy ’cause I didn’t like him, obviously,” Matthew said. “I don’t think I should have been, because a person died, but I was. We were all crying out of joy.”
The family was eventually sent to a detention camp, where Sally told officials she was tricked by Elhassani into traveling to Syria, where she helped buy slaves for him he would later rape.
Though claiming to be innocent, a Panorama/Frontline investigation turned up documents showing that she had made a number of trips to Hong Kong in the weeks before she and her children left the U.S. She also deposited some $30,000 in gold and cash in safety deposit boxes.
Prosecutors also discovered that she helped make the propaganda videos featuring her son. A Justice Department press release from last year says Sally, whose real name is Samantha Marie Elhassani, pleaded guilty to one count of concealing terrorism financing.
“Elhassani admitted that she traveled overseas and pre-positioned over $30,000 in cash and gold, knowing that the funds would be used by her husband and brother-in-law to join and support ISIS in Syria,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “The National Security Division is committed to identifying and holding accountable those who support foreign terrorist organizations.”
For his part, when he was asked how it felt to be back in the U.S., Matthew described it as being “like sweet relief.”
“It’s like being in tight clothes or tight socks and shoes all day and then just taking it off and just feeling nice and chilling in a hot bath,” he said.
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