I am not a monster – opens with a call between a British journalist and a mother from Indiana. The line is poor and, when the woman speaks, we hear shouting in the background. It becomes clear that she is speaking from prison. Everything she has done has been for her family, she insists, adding: “I am not a bad person. I am not a monster.”
Hosted by the journalist Joshua Baker, and written with Joe Kent, the series tells the story of how Sam Sally ended up at the centre of the Isis caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. While her husband, Moussa Elhassani, became a sniper for Isis, her 10-year-old son, Matthew, featured in a propaganda video that was seen around the world. Baker plays a clip of it here and it is chilling.
Four years in the making, I’m Not a Monster is a joint enterprise between the BBC’s Panorama series and the US network, Frontline PBS. The reporting is tense and gripping, and the story worthy of a dark Hollywood thriller. Baker explains that he had his own brush with Isis while reporting in Iraq; caught in an explosion from a suicide bombing, he fractured his spine and suffered shrapnel to the head.
While convalescing in the UK, he received a tip-off about Sally and got on a plane to the US. His quest is to discover the truth about her actions: was she forced or did she volunteer? To further muddy the waters, Sally, who has previously protested her innocence, agreed to a plea deal in 2019.
In the opening episode, Baker visits Sally’s sister, Lori, who recalls receiving an email from Sam, written from Syria as bombs rained down around her and her children, pleading for her help. As she reads out “love you, I miss you” at the end, her voice cracks. But while Lori is sympathetic towards her sister, the second episode (out this week), reveals their father isn’t. He claims his daughter is a thrill-seeker who isn’t to be trusted.
Reflecting the reach of this multi-network project, Baker’s access here is extraordinary. He talks to Sally’s family, her friends and Isis fighters, and accesses FBI recordings. Later in the series, he will talk to Matthew, the little boy from the propaganda video, who is now 13. I haven’t heard the audio, but I’m not convinced he should be spoken to at all. He is at least safely back in the US, however — and one hopes he will now be left in peace.
Caliphate, the 10-part New York Times podcast hosted by the paper’s terrorism correspondent, Rukmini Callimachi, offered a brutal inside perspective on Isis, though now the reporter’s sources on the series are being called into question. Better, then, to listen to The Tip Off podcast’s remarkable episode “Knock, Knock” in which the journalist Jane Bradley reflects on the process of unmasking two terrorists who were part of a group of notorious Isis jailers nicknamed “The Beatles”.