In August of 2017, an ISIS propaganda video surfaced online, wherein a young American boy who went by the name of Yousef is shown being trained in terrorism tactics by the organization's soldiers. The news quickly spread around the world, but to journalist Josh Baker, it was part of a story in which he'd already been enmeshed for over six months.
While recovering in a UK hospital from injuries he sustained in a bomb attack during a reporting gig in Mosul, Iraq, Baker heard from a former contact who wanted to meet up. During that meeting, the contact “mentioned an American woman called Sam Sally who was trapped in Raqqa and wanted to escape,” as Baker stated in a piece for the British paper, i.
With that one meeting, Baker would find himself part of a story that would take him from the UK to Indiana and back to the Middle East, where he'd twice visit the Syrian city of Raqqa to unravel the story of Samantha “Sam” Sally.
Sally, it appeared, was a young mother who left Elkhart, Indiana, in 2015. Together with her husband, Moussa Elhassani, and her two children, a seven-year-old boy and a baby girl, the family journeyed to Turkey, crossed the border into Syria, and then joined the Islamic State.
Sam Sally would only escape with her now-four children after Elhassani—a purported ISIS sniper—was killed and Raqqa fell in 2017. She would then find herself in a Kurdish refugee camp after being taken in by the country's military.
This was all partially documented in the PBS Frontline documentary, Return from ISIS, which also appeared in a different form on the BBC. More recently, the story has been fully-fleshed out as a podcast from Frontline (PBS) and BBC Sounds. I'm Not A Monster is a ten-part series that explores the complex web of this true story from multiple angles, in particular the question of whether Sam Sally was a victim of ISIS or an adherent.
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Speaking by phone with Baker, it's astonishing to discover just how intense this story has become. Not only was he the first journalist to find Sam Sally after she managed to escape ISIS after the fall of Mosul, but he tracked down friends and family of the purported ISIS bride, including her sister, Lori.
“Going out to the U.S. to see Lori and meet her for the first time—that was a very strange experience,” Baker reflects when we speak by phone one Saturday morning. “Because you meet Lori, and she is going through a horrendous time. She doesn't know if her sister's alive or her niece and nephew are alive, day-to-day. They are trapped in horrendous war. I wouldn't say you live it with her, but you almost do. You have an inordinate amount of empathy for her.”
Baker would spend his spare time trying to find out information about where the family could be and attempting to track their precise location in Raqqa, while also having to juggle his reporting career to keep himself afloat financially. Although Baker considers some of the four-year process of making I'm Not A Monster a very draining experience, he's very clear that it was nothing compared to what the family was going through.
“I remember there were times where we genuinely started to think, 'God: maybe they're not alive anymore,'” Baker recalls. “What does that mean? What's happened to this family?”
The third episode of the series, “My name is Yousef,” begins with Baker in Nigeria, working on a different film. There, he suddenly finds out that ISIS is using Sam Sally's son, Matthew—then going by his Muslim name of Yousef—as a propaganda tool.
Having to call Lori and let her know was difficult, recalls Baker. “Being so focused, so conscious of the fact that—if I don't call Lori and tell her now—she's going to have people potentially knocking on the door. She's not going to be prepared and that's going to be an incredibly difficult situation for her. That was such a tough phone call.”
We get to hear that call on the podcast. At one point, Lori's no longer on the line, but Baker's still recording. He can be heard letting out an enormous breath, followed by an absolutely drained, “f**king hell.” It's emblematic of just what makes I'm Not A Monster such a compelling listen. The audience isn't just hearing dry narration; instead, you can listen to the voice of a journalist who not only wants to get to the heart of the story, but is himself a part of it.
That's not to say that Baker's long-term involvement in the story of Sam Sally and her family hasn't come without its own strange contrasts. In episode seven, “On American soil,” the journalist is in England, preparing for his best friend's wedding. There, he gets a call informing him that “the U.S. government wants to arrest Sam for lying to an FBI agent,” followed immediately by an encrypted message “from someone who is working in Syria,” which states that “Sam and the kids have been taken to a clinic for a health check—because they need to be fit to travel.”
The difference in tone between preparing for a joyous day and receiving news about international terrorism is but one of many contrasts on the podcast, and one of which Baker is all too aware.
“[My friend] texts me the other day and he said, 'Listening to this series and knowing that's what you were doing has made me realize why you felt it was okay to make certain jokes in your best man speech,'” Baker explains. “'Your concept of reality was clearly so skewed at that point, that's why you were so comfortable being extremely inappropriate.'”
On a personal level, continues Baker, the story is so crazy and has required so much time and engagement over the years that there have been friends who thought, “Josh is definitely making up” what he’s working on. But having now heard the finished series, said friends have changed their tunes.
“They're suddenly like, 'Oh, okay: you weren't talking shit,'” Baker says with a laugh. “So it's been useful to reestablish some connections, as well, which is lovely.”
“In episode two [“Read Between the Lines”], we do a whole thing with Lori talking to this supposed people smuggler—this back-and-forth, trying to find a way to get her family out of Syria,” explains Baker. “In the land of film: although that's interesting, it doesn't really go anywhere. The people smuggler doesn't save the day. It doesn't work and and therefore, it's a bit of a dead end.”
In a filmic narrative, that aspect of the story isn't going to survive; but in a podcast, Baker can turn it into half an episode. He’s able to show the audience what that experience was like for Lori, a woman who suddenly discovered her sister was trapped in a war zone and trying to find a way out.
“I think that's something that's quite amazing about podcasts,” Baker offers. “You can go into these kind of dead ends and you can explore them for a bit and then you can come back out of them and get on your way with the story. It allows you to dip in and have an episode that's devoted to one aspect or facet of the overall story and also, you can really explore themes properly.”
From a crucial phone call during wedding preparations to going down the rabbit hole of Lori dealing with a people smuggler, it’s the intimate details that let I'm Not A Monster become more than just another iteration of a story of which most of the broad strokes have already been told. After returning to the U.S. with her children, Sam Sally was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for financing terrorism in November of 2020, so the story's conclusion is publicly known, but there’s more to it than that.
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As Baker says in his narration near the end of the ninth episode, “The rest be damned,” there's “[n]o single tidy explanation” as to why Sam Sally went to Syria, taking her children with her, and it's not for him “to put Sam’s story neatly into a box.”
“Do I think she was an ISIS ideologue?” Baker asks. “From everything I’ve heard, no. Did some of her choices mean she helped ISIS? Absolutely. And she clearly put her kids in danger and caused them harm. Do I think she was in an abusive relationship and this might have played a part in how she got to Syria? Yes. Do I think she has a desire for excitement and she might have been drawn to the thrill of her husband's plan? It’s possible. She could have wanted the adventure, but hated the reality.”