The lone woman brought back to the United States and charged with supporting the Islamic State terror group will spend the next six and a half years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
A judge handed down the sentence Monday for 35-year-old Samantha ElHassani, more than five years after she took her children to join her husband and his brother in Syria.
ElHassani, originally from Elkhart, Indiana, was eventually captured by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and was repatriated along with her four children in July 2018.
She pleaded guilty to terrorism financing charges last year.
“Today's sentence serves as a strong reminder that the FBI will never relent in ensuring those who abandon their country to support a violent terrorist organization, such as Ms. ElHassani did, will be held accountable,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Paul Keenan said in a statement.
“She knew exactly what she was doing and why,” Keenan added. “She was an active participant in this heinous activity and is now facing the consequences.”
According to court documents, ElHassani helped her husband and his brother join IS by smuggling more than $30,000 in cash and gold to Hong Kong, which she then used to acquire tactical gear, including rifle scopes and image-stabilized binoculars.
From Hong Kong, the family traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, finally reaching IS-held territory in Syria sometime around June 2015.
Until her guilty plea, ElHassani had maintained that her husband had tricked her into traveling to Syria while they had been on vacation.
"We ended up in Raqqa,” she said during an interview with Frontline and the BBC, while in Kurdish custody. “The first thing I say to him is, 'You're crazy, and I'm leaving.' And he said, with a big smile on his face, 'Go ahead. You can try, but you won't make it.'"
During the family’s time with IS, the eldest son, Matthew, was featured in one of the terror group’s propaganda videos, in which he threatened to attack the West.
ElHassani’s husband, Moussa, was reportedly killed while fighting for IS.
She said she and her four children, two of whom were born in Syria, eventually fled Raqqa with two Yazidi slave girls before ending up in a Kurdish detention camp.
Upon ElHassani’s return to the U.S., the four children were placed in the care of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
The U.S. announced last month that in all, 27 U.S. citizens known to have traveled to Iraq or Syria to join IS are now back on U.S. soil.
Including ElHassani, 10 have been charged with terrorism-related offenses.
One of them, 23-year-old Omer Kuzu of Dallas, Texas, pleaded guilty earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Mohamad Jamal Khweis of Virginia was convicted on terror charges and sentenced in October 2017 to 20 years in prison for providing material support to IS.
The cases of the seven remaining IS suspects are pending.
“The U.S. has been aggressive in prosecuting Americans who joined ISIS, leading the way for other countries on making sure that their citizens face justice for the horrible injustices they wrought on innocent Iraqi and Syrian victims,” Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told VOA.
Still, Hughes took note of the relatively light sentence for ElHassani, who will spend less time behind bars than other Americans charged with providing material support to IS.
“Elhassani had two things going in her favor: returning ISIS members and women tend to get lesser sentences than their male counterparts who fail to join the so-called caliphate,” he said.
Other researchers have also noticed the disparities in the sentencing of women for terrorism.
“Evidence suggests that governments tend to be less responsive to women in terrorism compared to their male counterparts,” concluded a 2018 study published by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center.
And earlier this year, a report by the United Nations warned the failure to bring IS women from Western and North America to justice could undermine efforts to defeat the terror group.
"The tendency to view women as passive followers of their husbands continues to prevail,” the analysis found. “[That], together with evidentiary challenges, contributes to low rates of conviction and/or shorter or suspended sentences."
Despite such concerns, U.S. officials have touted their efforts to repatriate and prosecute citizens who joined IS, urging other countries to follow their lead.
“We repatriated ElHassani from Syria because every nation is responsible for holding its citizens accountable and addressing the future threat they may pose,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement Monday. “We will not stop.”
Despite some repatriations, the SDF continues to hold about 2,000 foreign fighters in makeshift prisons in northeastern Syria. Another estimated 10,000 foreign women and children reside in displaced persons camps in the region.
Of the 17 Americans repatriated from Syria or Iraq after joining IS, 15 are currently minors. The other two, officials tell VOA, were minors when they traveled with their families to join the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.