HAMMOND — An Elkhart, Indiana woman who has spent three years in the Middle East as the reluctant wife of a terrorist fighter got to phone home Wednesday, but won't be going home for awhile.
Samantha "Sally" Elhassani, appeared before U.S. District Court Magistrate John E. Martin Wednesday afternoon for the second time in the same day after she called her family and agreed to be defended by Chicago attorney Thomas A. Durkin, who appeared at her side.
She pleaded not guilty in the afternoon hearing to a felony count that she lied to the FBI three years ago. Durkin then told the magistrate she will not oppose the government's request to keep her detained in federal confinement at an undisclosed jail pending a trial.
He also said he will not press for a speedy trial in order to have enough time to prepare for her case.
Elhassani first appeared in court late Wednesday morning escorted into court by U.S. Marshals from a nearby jail. She was dressed in jeans, layered tops and a belly chain around her waist that restrained her arms.
When asked if she would hire a private defense lawyer, she asked for permission to call home. ""I'd like to call my family and tell them I made it back into the country."
Elhassani told PBS' "Frontline" and the BBC in April she married Moussa Elhassani, a Moroccan national. The couple and their children left the country in 2015 to vacation in Turkey and then her husband forced the family to move to Syria where he became a sniper for ISIS in the midst of a long-simmering civil war.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a militant group that gained control of large parts of Syria and Iraq four years ago. Hundreds of Americans traveled to fight for militants. U.S.-backed forces in the Middle East have expelled the terrorists from most of that territory during months of heavy fighting.
Her husband was killed and she was detained by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces after fleeing with her U.S.-citizen children and returned to the United States and arrested by federal agents.
Elhassani and another detainee, Ibraheem "Izzy" Musaibli, of Dearborn, Michigan, arrived Tuesday in the Northern District of Indiana. Musaibli was transferred to Detroit to face terrorism charges in U.S. District Court there.
Elhassani’s children, all minors, are currently in the custody of the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua P. Kolar told the court Wednesday she faces charges she lied to FBI agents March 19, 2015, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. He said she may face additional charges, and he wants the court to detain her in federal custody until the case is resolved.
A federal grand jury indicted her last March and only made the charge public Tuesday. Neither Kolar nor the indictment details the false statements she made to the FBI. The FBI said it routinely questioned Americans who were traveling to the Middle East during that time about their travel plans.
The magistrate ruled she was couldn't afford a private lawyer and appointed Durkin to represent her at public expense.
Durkin is a veteran trial lawyer with experience in America's war on terrorism. His firm has successfully defended several Guantanamo Bay detainees accused of battling American forces in the Middle East, including two detainees who have since been returned to their home countries.
Kolar said there is a "significant" amount of evidence against her and estimated her trial could take as long as two weeks.
She is one of two defendants associated with ISIS who have been brought to U.S. District Court in the area.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen has scheduled an Aug. 20 sentencing for Marlonn Hicks, 32, of Crown Point, for attempting to sponsor a terrorist attack in America.
Hicks pleaded guilty in fall 2016 to sending bomb- and poison-making instructions online earlier that year to a government informant with the intent that an attack be carried out in the name of ISIS.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said an investigation by the FBI and the Indianapolis Joint Terrorism Task Force found that Hicks had been communicating online with a government informant posing as an ISIS supporter, who Hicks initially told he wanted to travel to ISIS territory.
Hicks has been in federal detention since he was charged in 2016.
Defense attorney Scott King said Hicks never possessed bomb or chemical components, so he should be given less than the 20-year prison term that represents the maximum sentence he could receive under his plea agreement.