On the Border Between Two Lives

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How do we end up in our environments? And once we’re there, is it possible to reverse course? In her debut book, American Girls: One Woman’s Journey Into the Islamic State and Her Sister’s Fight to Bring Her Home, Jessica Roy, the former digital director of ELLE.com, seeks to answer these questions through the story of sisters Lori and Sam—tracing their respective journeys, from growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness community in the Midwest to, in Sam’s case, traveling to ISIS-controlled Syria with her husband and children. Expanding upon the article Roy wrote for ELLE in 2019, titled “Two Sisters and the Terrorist Who Came Between Them,” the new book uses incisive, on-the-ground reporting to explore how, even through experiences with abusive partners, poverty, and religious extremism, it’s the bond of sisterhood that is perhaps the most complicated of all.


APRIL 2015

SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF RAQQA, SYRIA

Samantha Sally stood on the edge of an olive grove on the border between Turkey and Syria, watching her husband sprint away into the inky black. On his hip he held their toddler daughter, and on his back, a knapsack with Sam’s American passport and their life savings. Within seconds she could no longer make out their shadows against the vast expanse of darkness. A refrain rang in her head: “I will never see them again.”

It was as if Sam was underwater, observing everything in silent slow motion. If she could just retrieve her daughter, she thought, they could cross back into Turkey, no problem. They could go home to Indiana. She took a few steps. Her husband was yelling at her to hurry up and she started to move more quickly, following his voice through the black night. She stumbled over rocks and weeds, running blindly. “Let me just catch up with them, then I’ll figure out what to do,” she decided. If it was this easy to cross into Syria, how hard could it be to come back?

a person holding a baby

Sam with her son, Michael, before meeting Moussa.

lori sally

Sam’s husband, Moussa, was running toward Raqqa, then the head- quarters of the Islamic State. By the time he and Sam stood on that border in the spring of 2015, ISIS had become a self-declared world- wide Caliphate, battling for territory in Iraq and Syria and churning out online propaganda to attract fighters like Moussa with promises of wealth, women, and eventually paradise in heaven. Sam and Moussa had met in a small city in Indiana, introduced by Sam’s sister, Lori, who was married to Moussa’s brother. Back then, she never could have imagined that this was where her life with him would take her; Raqqa was a long way away from Elkhart, Indiana, and from the little town in Arkansas where she and Lori grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses girls.

I first encountered Sam and Lori’s story in March 2019, when I was working on a piece for ELLE magazine about the two sisters: Sam, who crossed the border to Syria with her jihadi husband, and Lori, who did everything in her power to get her safely back home. Back then, I’d thought Sam’s case was a simple tale of religious radicalization, but it didn’t take long to realize it was about so much more. How does a young mother from Arkansas, a woman who used to go barhopping and listen to DMX and post raunchy Facebook memes, end up running into a war zone halfway across the world? How do you grow up in the middle of the United States of America, surrounded by Walmarts and happy hours and football games, and end up living in Syria under a murderous militant group?

a person cooking food in a tent

Sam in the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, before being extradited to the U.S. to face charges.

lori sally

Later, Sam claimed that it was that moment on the border when everything changed: when she finally understood that her husband had radicalized, that he was joining ISIS, and that he was taking their young daughter with him. By then, there was no one left to corroborate her story, and so she could tell it whatever way she liked, braiding truth and lies together until they were indistinguishable from each other. In her version, Sam was a hapless victim, powerless to the ways in which her husband controlled her, a mother forced to make an impossible choice. Like most lies, it was partially true. But even Lori, who quit her job to devote herself to bringing Sam back to the United States, was never completely convinced.

Women follow their husbands’ commands for all kinds of reasons, even when they know they shouldn’t. Sometimes, the danger accumulates so slowly as if to be imperceptible. If that’s what happened back in Indiana—a gradual accommodation of her husband Moussa’s control, violence, and finally extremism—on this night, on the Syrian border, everything moved too quickly. Moussa had plunged them into chaos, and amid that chaos Sam lost her ability to think.

American Girls by Jessica Roy

<i>American Girls</i> by Jessica Roy

American Girls by Jessica Roy

By the time he did the thing that finally jolted her fully into reality— by the time he grabbed their two-year-old and started running with her across the border—it was too late. No sudden realization of the danger she faced, no second thoughts about bringing a toddler into a war zone, no doubts about exchanging the US for an Islamic State stronghold would have given Sam the ability to change her mind and make a different decision. The accumulation of bad choices had led her to this moment, where she had no choice at all. Sam was going to Syria. And so were her children.

Lori and Sam grew up in the same house, lived in the same cities, and married a pair of brothers. Sam made some mistakes; Lori made mistakes, too. Sam’s happened to be colossal mistakes, and with the wrong guy. But could it have happened to Lori? Could it have happened to anyone?


Excerpted from AMERICAN GIRLS by Jessica Roy. Copyright © 2024 by Jessica Roy. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Headshot of Jessica Roy

Jessica Roy is the former Digital Director of ELLE.com. Prior to that, she worked as the News Editor of The Cut. She likes baking, running, and Instagrams of your dog.

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