He emerges from the rubble of the house holding his camera, covered in dust from head to toe, in disbelief that he is still alive. Ears ringing, he is told it was a car bomb. Aside from the vast damage to the home of the local resident where he had spent the night, everyone is okay – still alive, in any case. British investigative journalist Josh Baker had already covered a number of war zones and areas of conflict, including in Israel and the West Bank, but that day in 2016 marked the first time he had come so close to losing his life.
“I think the positive thing I got from being in the blast is that it makes you have more respect for the environment you’re working in,” Baker, 31, says in a Zoom conversation with Haaretz, from London.
For three years, until 2019, a bloody battle raged in Iraq for control over the city of Mosul. The Islamic State threatened that once the northern city was taken, Rome would be next – and then the rest of the world. Baker himself arrived Mosul in 2016, embedded with an elite Iraqi army unit, and together with a local journalist, produced the film “The Battle for Mosul” for The Guardian.
He spent several months at home in London after the blast in Mosul, recuperating from his injuries. His fractured spine healed slowly and, with the aid of therapy, so did his psyche. “In retrospect, I don’t think I understood how physically messed up I was from the blast. But for a long time, I also didn’t process the psychological impact either,” he says.
His plan was to rest some more and take things easy, but then he got a phone call some months later from an old source that would change the next four years of his life. The source told him about Sam, an American woman who was with her family in Syria, living under ISIS. This was the starting point for a long journey, filled with twists and turns, tracing Sam, her son Matthew and her three daughters. That quest ultimately led to the suspenseful podcast “I’m Not a Monster,” on BBC and PBS' "FRONTLINE".
What would make a middle-class, 30-something Christian woman from Indiana, who has a comfortable life, leave everything behind and go off with her family to join ISIS? How does she perceive reality? What went through her mind when she filmed her 9-year-old son assembling and taking apart explosive belts with expert skill? These are the sort of questions Josh Baker pondered throughout his encounter with the world of Samantha (“Sam”) Sally, also known as Sam El-Hassani, in the podcast that came out in November.
In the second of 10 episodes, when the award-winning British journalist-filmmaker interviews the people closest to Sam – he records them both in real-time and later on – he quickly comes to see that there are many sides to this story. Some of her friends say there is no way she would ever do such an irresponsible thing to her children, whom she loves more than anything. Other friends say they knew she had an adventurous side. Some of her colleagues at an international shipping company remember her talking about what was going to happen, while others thought she said something completely different. Her father says she was always rebellious and frequently got in trouble.
She is manipulative and will use her beauty and her brains to get whatever she wants, her ex-husband Juan, Matthew’s father, says in the podcast. Juan and Sam were divorced when Matthew was very young. In 2012 she married Moussa El-Hassani; one of their daughters was born in the United States and two others after they left the country.
Baker, who had previously wrote stories on people from Europe who joined ISIS, did not see a similar pattern of behavior in Sam. “She’s an anomaly,” he explains. “Even the FBI can’t prove that she joined ISIS because of ideological motives.”
In the months after Baker first heard about Sam and her family, very few signs of life from her came out of Syria. There were a few voice messages to Sam’s sister, Lori, that broke her heart, and a choppy ISIS propaganda video in which Matthew threatens then-President Donald Trump about a possible ISIS war on American soil, and warns that revenge will come for U.S. actions against the fanatic Islamic movement. The clip was seen all over America. After it was released, the situation in Syria worsened and all contact with Sam and her family was lost. They were presumed to have been killed in one of the U.S. military offensives.
A breakthrough occurred after eight months of searching. Almost by chance, Baker came across a video in October 2017 in which women and children are seen getting off a truck led by Kurdish forces that were cooperating with the United States. He was certain he’d spotted Sam and her children – thin and dirty, but alive. Right then, he decided to travel to Syria.
“I met Sam in Syria after 10 days of searching, right before Christmas,” Baker recalls now. It happened at an army base controlled by a Syrian militia. He managed to reach the person who held the key to Sam’s location. The man asked Baker to write her a note and left – and just five minutes later the family suddenly burst into the room. “My jaw dropped to the floor. I was speechless,” he says. All at once, his months-long quest was over.
Baker recounts how Matthew’s younger sister came up to him and hugged him and whispered in his ear, “Daddy is dead.”
“I don’t know why she chose to tell me this," he says during our conversation, "but I guess I was the first man she’d seen that whole year who wasn’t carrying a weapon and wasn’t wearing a uniform and spoke her mother tongue from America.”
Baker says he was impressed most of all by Matthew, who is now 13, whom he says has remarkable emotional intelligence. “He understands the balance of power between the adults in the room, and what they need. I was astounded by his ability to grasp who was the most important person in the room. I guess it’s a side effect of living in an environment in which you could be killed if you get that wrong,” Baker says.
During that same encounter, Sam told him that she’d endured abuse from her husband Moussa, who she said tricked her into crossing into Syria from Turkey. But throughout "I'm Not a Monster," Baker brings numerous testimonies and evidence that Sam knew exactly what was going to happen and even kept a safety deposit box in Hong Kong from which she transferred money to ISIS. Baker believes that while the abuse is part of the story, her thrill-seeking impulse is another side – perhaps of the same coin.
To get a fuller picture, Baker traveled to Syria several times after Sam and her children were transferred to U.S. custody and returned to the States in July 2018, to visit the places where she had been. He met her former neighbors who swore she didn’t support ISIS. He visited the prison where Sam said she had been held and tortured by the organization's militants while pregnant, on suspicion of being a spy. He found Iham, an 8-year-old Yazidi boy who had been adopted by the family and renamed Sam Umm Yusuf. It saddened Baker, he says, to learn that Sam was the only mother figure this sweet young boy had. In the seventh episode of “I’m Not a Monster,” the journalist visits a refugee camp in Iraq where he located a young Yazidi woman named Suad, who had been purchased by Moussa and Sam as a sex slave when she was a teenager. To Baker’s surprise, Suad said she felt she owed her life to Sam who looked out for her.
Despite having been to hell and back, in interviews, Sam sounds completely stable, which makes her all the more intriguing and raises the question: What was really going through her mind? As far as Baker knows, after Sam and her four children returned home in 2018 – Moussa had been killed in 2017 – she underwent psychiatric evaluation and, apart from a diagnosis of PTSD, was not found to have a personality disorder of any kind. Last November, as part of a plea bargain, she was sentenced to 78 months in prison and three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to the charge of financing terrorism.
The final 30-minute episode of Baker’s podcast, which was released last month, focuses on Sam and her children’s readjustment to life in America, and especially on Matthew, who now lives with his father Juan; his three step-siblings are with Sam’s parents. Baker tells Haaretz that before he could record his interview with Matthew, the teenager and his father had to decide whether it would be a good thing to cooperate with the journalist and his production. Baker initially spent time with Matthew to create trust between them and to give him a feeling of control over the situation.
Baker:“I think that since I met him in Syria and [he] thinks I understood what he went through – just a small part, not everything – it gave him a certain degree of comfort talking about the things he wanted to talk about.”
In addition to his podcast, Baker also released a documentary last year entitled “Return From ISIS,” based on the same background materials. Over the years, his focus has mainly been on documentaries from conflict zones, including a 2014 film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “The Process.” “I’m Not a Monster” is the first podcast he has ever done, and he says he’s fallen in love with the medium.
Indeed Baker uses the medium in a clever way to tell many side stories and to offer a glance behind the scenes of his journalistic work. In the conversation with Haaretz, he mentions that in the coming weeks he is planning to produce a “bonus” episode of “I’m Not a Monster,” that will include information he was unable to fit in the other episodes. For example he says he will reveal that Sam and Moussa did not arrive in Syria alone and that Abdul Hadi, Moussa’s brother, joined them in the move. For months Baker corresponded via Whatsapp with Abdul, when he was still in ISIS, before he too was killed.
"He spent a lot of time to 'hinting' at Sam's motivation and what she knew," Baker says. "And there were three messages he sent me, which I always felt tells you so much about Sam – but because they were just messages and not audio, we couldn't use them.
Asked what he was able to achieve in the podcast that he couldn’t achieve with visual images, Baker says: “So much! In the podcast, you have the scene and the talking, but we can also add how we got there, how we discovered the information, and we can bring the audience into it and build trust between us. And another big thing: What I love with podcasts is that you can investigate things that aren’t necessarily relevant to the structure of the story. If something is interesting, I can shift to that for a while and then return to the structure and keep going.”
Like the familiar saying, “The book is better than the movie,” in this case the podcast is likely a lot better than the movie.