Panorama: Return From ISIS – A Family Story
- Brian Donaldson
- 23 November 2020
Sour rush to judgment about a mother's motivation in a case that still baffles
At the age of 13, Matthew has seen and done more in his short life than many people will even have to contemplate over the course of many more years. Sadly, his upbringing is most likely to result in long periods of therapy as the scars of his childhood attempt to heal. In 2015, he was taken with his younger sister to the Middle East by his mother Samantha and stepdad Mousa for a trip that was ostensibly a holiday but which culminated in them trapped in a living hell as part of ISIS. At one point, Matthew is filmed assembling an AK-47, while a propaganda video had him espousing hatred of the west and loyalty to the Jihadist cause.
When Philip Larkin wrote of the damage your parents will inevitably inflict upon you, he probably didn't imagine that this could include unwitting membership of a notorious death cult. So, what of those grown-ups charged with protecting their young from harm? Filmmaker Josh Baker spent four years on this story for Panorama and his wrath is directed firmly towards the mother, Samantha, an Indiana woman who insists that she was duped and abused by her husband. He had, she claims, morphed from a carefree and loving man who appeared content with his life into a radicalised terrorist willing to put his family in the gravest of danger.
Baker first interviewed Samantha while she was held in detention by Kurdish forces in Syria and seemed to buy her story of coercion and trickery at the hands of a man she felt betrayed by. Having dug deeper and spoken to those close to her back in America, he becomes less inclined to believe her version of events. In a final video-call interview with her in prison and orange-jumpsuited, Baker shifts from being a genial, wannabe Nick Broomfield seeking any excuse to be in the shot, to insisting that a plea bargain she agreed with the authorities in exchange for less jail time is an irrefutable sign of a terrorist enabler.
His other evidence for condemning Samantha also feels flimsy: it turns out that she was the person holding the camera when Matthew handles that lethal weapon and imagines himself as a suicide bomber. Baker never considers that this may have been the result of coercion or threats. Once the story is set up, it all leads to a second half which almost borders on a bullying witch-hunt and leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.
BBC One, Monday 23 November, 9pm (10.45pm in Scotland).