Episode 3: “My name is Yusef”Listen
JOSH BAKER: Before we begin I just want to flag that this episode contains some descriptions of violence and upsetting moments involving children. There’s also some very strong language.
SAM SALLY: My story, oh yeah absolutely, it is, it is very difficult to believe, it is very hard to believe.
I’m not a bad person, I’m not a monster.
MATTHEW: Hi Lo—Lori….
LORI SALLY: Matthew is the sweetest little boy you’ll ever meet.
MATTHEW: I miss you and remember that day when you took me to the zoo? I miss you.
LORI: How could they do this? It's wrong on every level.
FLORIAN: Don’t worry inshallah, all will become good and I will help her inshallah.
LORI: I was excited, I was like yes we’re, things are going to start moving now, we’re going to get Sam out, we’re going to get the kids out, we’re going to get them here and boom: life can go on. But that was not the case.
BAKER: I’m Josh Baker. And from BBC Panorama and FRONTLINE PBS this is “I’m Not A Monster.”
Episode 3: “My name is Yusef”
BAKER: It’s August 2017. The Syrian city of Raqqa is being destroyed by fighting.
NEWSREEL: Almost an ironclad death trap has been created for people…
BAKER: Nobody knows how many people have been killed.
NEWSREEL: They’re facing snipers, they’re facing minefields, and coalition bombardments from artillery.
BAKER: And Lori doesn't know if Sam, Moussa, her nephew Matthew or his three younger siblings are dead or alive.
NEWSREEL: There’s no option of escape for civilians.
BAKER: I’m in Nigeria working on another story when I get a call from a colleague, Mina. She analyses Jihadi propaganda for BBC. I’d shown her the videos of Matthew being forced to build a suicide bomb.
The Islamic State group has released a new film.
MINA AL-LAMI: Instantly I thought oh gosh this is the boy, this is the same boy I had seen in an earlier homemade video. The way he described himself and his journey and the journey of his mother, he looked very similar, he sounded similar.
BAKER: As the video starts to play, an ISIS logo appears.
AL-LAMI: And it indicates that it’s from its Raqqa media office.
BAKER: It’s followed by men wearing suicide belts.
AL-LAMI: Militants clearly gearing up for a battle.
BAKER: There are heavy weapons shooting at coalition jets in the sky.
AL-LAMI: And then you see the boy.
BAKER: It's Matthew. He’s behind a gun. Dressed in grey. He looks like a child soldier.
AL-LAMI: You can see him listening to a militant — clearly training him on using quite an actually a big gun. Maybe a big machine gun.
BAKER: You see him walking through the rubble of Raqqa. Weapon in hand.
[ISIS PROPAGANDA VIDEO]
MATTHEW: My name is Yusef and I’m ten years old. Two years ago I made hijar from America, the land of the kufar, to the Islamic State.
BAKER: It looks like Matthew has been forced to memorize a script. He introduces himself as Yusef — a ten-year-old who moved to the Islamic State from what the group calls “the land of non-believers” — America.
MATTHEW: I didn’t know much about Islam except the name. When me and mom came to the Islamic State. When me and mom came…
BAKER: He goes on to say he traveled there with his mother.
MATTHEW: I have met many friends, my best friend is Abdullah from Sinjar…
AL-LAMI: He also introduces a little boy. They’re both shown playing together in the rubble actually. He introduces him as a Yazidi boy — both of them are now living as brothers and he says, ‘What brings us together is Islam, that’s what joins us.’
MATTHEW: We live in a small city called Raqqa. This city has scared the whole word because the Muslims who live in it have learnt the meaning of jihad and have established the rule of Allah.
BAKER: Then Matthew issues a threat to the American President.
MATTHEW: My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory and he’s promised you defeat. This battle is not going to end in Raqqa or Mosul, it’s going to end in your lands. With the will of Allah we will have victory — so get ready for the fighting has just begun.
BAKER: I send Lori a message straight away telling her I have news about Matthew and we need to speak. As I get ready to call her from Nigeria, my colleague Ben is recording — and he can see I'm nervous.
BEN: How are you feeling?
BAKER: Pretty s--t. I don’t really want to have to tell Lori to be honest with you… Hey Lori, It’s Josh. How are you?
LORI: I’m good Josh, how are you doing?
BAKER: I’m good, I’m good. I’m sorry to have to call you out of the blue. I know you are probably a bit nervous as to what it is… He is alive, I’m not ringing you to tell you he’s dead. But he has appeared in an ISIS video basically. As far as I’m concerned it’s him. You tell me whether you think it is…
LORI: Let me ask you something before… is the FBI aware of this?
BAKER: I don’t know if the FBI are aware of this, this has literally just happened. They have just put this video out.
BAKER: I send Lori the video.
LORI: Ok, alright I’m watching the video right now. Oh no, no. Oh my gosh. Oh no.
BAKER: I’m sorry.
LORI: Oh no.
BAKER: I sit waiting as Lori watches every frame of the seven-minute film that shows her nephew being forced by ISIS to deliver its message of hate.
LORI: It's over. Yeah.
BAKER: How are you feeling?
BAKER: I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry Lori. Do you want to keep talking now or do you want some space?
LORI: No, I gotta go. Alright Josh. Ok. I’ll message you later. Ok.
BAKER: Alright, bye Lori.
BAKER: F---ing hell. She’s absolutely distraught isn’t she. And she’s got no one, she’s home alone. All she has essentially is three dogs.
BEN: So has she confirmed without a doubt that’s him?
BAKER: Yep. 100%. And what’s really sad about this ultimately is this is a ten-year-old boy who has been fed an ideology and is now being used by a propaganda tool.
BEN: Why was she asking you if the FBI had seen it?
BAKER: She’s been working with the FBI in the hope of finding a way to get her nephew back and her sister back and her niece back.
BEN: You handled the call well.
BAKER: I don’t know. I once had to tell my mother her father had died. It reminded me of that a lot.
BAKER: The new ISIS film is very different to the home video I saw months ago of Matthew being made to build a suicide bomb. This is carefully crafted, choreographed, slickly produced. It’s scripted.
It's got the ISIS logo in the corner. The video has been made by its infamous propaganda machine. You see the group didn't just make beheading videos, it had magazines, social media that glamorized life with them and even travel guides to the caliphate.
It was all designed to lure people in — or encourage them to carry out attacks around the world.
With the video's release, Lori knows Matthew is alive, or was recently.
NEWSREEL: We’ve seen Americans speaking for ISIS before but never a child. Experts say a script was likely written for him but to hear those words spoken by a young boy is unsettling to say the least. Counter terrorism officials say that may be the goal to shock and deflect attention from the group’s dwindling territory.
BAKER: At 10 years old, ISIS has forced Matthew to become it’s latest poster boy.
NEWSREEL: Researchers estimate about two dozen children are used in operations every month, but who this boy is remains a mystery this morning…
BAKER: Suddenly, everyone wants to know who the boy in the video is.
NEWSREEL: This is chilling to see a young boy… Claims to be a ten year old American boy…. Speaking perfect English… Fluent English… Who is now living in Syria… And spouting propaganda for ISIS… Threatening the United States and President Trump… All of these are claims that Fox News cannot independently verify… U.S. intelligence officials are trying to confirm… Now NBC has not verified his name, his nationality or his whereabouts… Who is he and what does it say about the state of the terror group…
BAKER: It’s just after dawn — and I’m wandering alone through the mist in a forest in Idaho that I’m told is full of bears. I’m here to see Sam’s ex, Matthew’s Dad. And all he’s given me are some coordinates.
They take me to a makeshift camp in the mountains. But it’s empty. So I grab some sticks and write a message — ‘Josh was here’ — genius I know.
The next day I try again, and this time I find him.
JUAN SERVANTES: The elk woods are tough.
BAKER: Damn straight.
BAKER: Soon I’m following him and his brother on their annual elk hunt. Two men in camouflage gear — binoculars in hand, pistols strapped to their waists, and bows and arrows slung over their shoulders — their weapon of choice for hunting Elk.
JUAN: Once we get to the top we’ll find a clearing and start listening.
BAKER: That’s Juan, Matthew’s dad. He’s a stocky guy, ex-military and super strong. He lets me try to pull the string back of his bow — and I can’t. To be honest, I’m not sure if that says more about me or him. But anyway.
JUAN: Can you see ‘em Josh? They’re moving fast.
BAKER: Juan’s not the biggest fan of journalists, but he’s straightforward and easy to talk to.
JUAN: Nope you don’t chase them.
BAKER: How far are they?
JUAN: A mile, two miles. They’re moving fast.
BAKER: Did you ever go hunting with Matthew?
JUAN: Matthew went with me about two times and slept the whole time in the blind. He didn’t come out into woods like these, I took him to a deer blind and he just slept.
BAKER: Was it fun?
JUAN: Always fun. He loves it. It’s irreplaceable time.
BAKER: What’s Matthew like?
JUAN: Very intelligent and just a very happy person. He likes to watch SpongeBob SquarePants in Spanish and I don’t know if he can understand it but he finds it hilarious and he likes to draw.
BAKER: He likes drawing?
JUAN: Yes… [whispering] Let’s give the moose time to get up the mountain so we don’t spook him and he don’t alert the other animals.
BAKER: After Juan and Sam split up, she took three-year-old Matthew to live in Indiana, several states away. He tried to see him as much as he could.
BAKER: What was your reaction when you learned that Sam and Matthew were in Syria?
JUAN: Surprised, shocked, disbelief. Angry is the best way to describe it.
BAKER: When you saw Matthew threatening the president, what did you think?
JUAN: It’s just insanity. It’s insanity. I just felt like it was a script and that it angered me to use children for a cause like that and they see him in a video and think a terrorist instead of a child first. I feel like that it’s all staged. So to him he’s just going along with whatever his mother tells him to do or the situation puts him in to do. When he was walking around and all the rubble and everything it’s still just disbelief and anger and a lot of anger towards Sam.
[whispering] Left to right up the mountain. He’s over there though, we’ll see him again.
BAKER: What kind of person is Sam?
JUAN: Just a thrill seeker.
BAKER: Is she naive?
JUAN: No. Intelligent.
BAKER: She’s smart?
JUAN: Yes. Manipulative.
BAKER: I’ve been told that sometimes she gets misled by people. Do you think that’s fair?
JUAN: No, I’ve actually seen the opposite where Sam uses everything that she has in her ability to get what she wants instead.
BAKER: Like what?
JUAN: Personality, her looks and just her intelligence.
BAKER: Do you think Sam knew she was going to Syria?
BAKER: She doesn’t practice Islam. She doesn’t seem to be an extremist. Why would she go to Syria?
JUAN: For the thrill just to go and to be around the environment and because it probably just to her seemed like something fun to do.
BAKER: Do you really think she would go all the way to ISIS for the thrill of it?
JUAN: Yeah. I do.
BAKER: But she’s smart. Surely she would have known what she was going to.
JUAN: I do believe she knew what she was going to.
NEWSREEL: This is a battle for the heart of the so-called Caliphate, for its capital Raqqa… There is a counter attack ongoing by the Islamic State Group… Around here it's ruins but there are civilians. No one seems to know exactly how many. The Islamic State militants are using them as human shields.
BAKER: ISIS is on the verge of losing its capital — since the propaganda video of Matthew was released, no one has heard anything from him. I spend hours and hours trawling social media, looking at ISIS websites and talking to people on the ground in Syria, in the hope of finding any trace of the family.
I combine all the information I get and create my own maps to track the battle for Raqqa. I’m told ISIS has a limited supply of food and water. And that the bombing is so intense, fighters are only able to move about through a network of tunnels.
As far as I can work out, ISIS has been pushed into a small section of the city, near a hospital.
NEWSREEL: Here in the west of the city, the fighting is ferocious and it has to stay that way. They need to confine the so-called Islamic State to an ever-smaller area of territory…
BAKER: If Sam and the family are still alive this is probably where they are.
NEWSREEL: There are three to three and a half thousand foreign fighters still in the center of Raqqa and the lead American diplomat in the region said they are all going to die here.
BAKER: In October 2017 — two months after ISIS released the propaganda film of Matthew — I’m in the English countryside with my dad, helping him to renovate his salon. He’s a hairdresser, there’s actually 125 years of it in our family. It’s a bit of a disappointment that I didn’t take over the business.
I’m halfway through cutting a hole in the ceiling when I take a break, tea in one hand and phone in the other. I set about my now daily routine of scouring Twitter and Facebook looking for signs of the family.
Then, while balancing on a ladder, I find a video that’s just been posted by a Syrian news agency.
I watch as men in camouflage with guns huddle around a group of people on the back of a dusty white pickup truck. First they help some children to the ground, then a woman, she’s dressed in a black headscarf and an abaya.
As she walks past the camera she keeps her head down. Then I see Matthew. He’s alive.
A female fighter has her arm around him wiping his face and checking he’s ok.
Then I spot Sam, she’s sat against a wall, looking at the floor with a thousand yard stare. On her lap is her daughter, who looks up at the camera, blows a kiss and makes a peace sign.
There’s no sign of her husband Moussa but there are women with Sam, and two babies — they must be the children she had in Raqqa. And there’s also another boy, I recognize him from the ISIS propaganda film.
I send Lori a message telling her I’ve got news about Matthew. This time it's good.
LORI: I just wish I was there. I just want to give them all a hug. I just hope my sister knows how much I love her and how much this whole thing has just killed me. And I’ve been working so hard to bring her back home and that she’s brave; she’s brave for getting out. I don’t agree with what she did but I just hope she knows I love her.
BAKER: The video gives me vital clues as to where they might be. The fighters have these colourful patches on their shoulders, which I recognize as a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia who are trying to defeat ISIS. It looks like Sam and the kids are in their custody.
I start reaching out to people in Syria, I’ve spent months developing contacts there. And after a few days, I have a breakthrough. I manage to get someone to speak to the commander of a special forces unit. I’m told Sam and the kids are in a Kurdish base in a town called Al-Hasakah.
After waiting for so long for information about the family, within 48 hours of watching the video of their escape, I know where I might find them.
So I pack my bags and head for Syria.
BAKER: Josh to Mau? I’m in an office with a man who has pictures of Sam and the kids on his phone. He’s trying to work out if they’re still here.
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New episodes will be available every Monday on the BBC Sounds app, or wherever you get your podcasts.
It’s written by me, Josh Baker, and Joe Kent and we produced it together with Max Green. Emma Rippon is the podcast editor.
Zoe Gelber and Janet Staples are our production coordinators.
Lucie Sullivan is our production assistant.
Additional production by James Edwards and story supervision for FRONTLINE by Jay Allison.
And special thanks to Mina Al-Lami from BBC Monitoring, not just for her appearance in this episode but for all her help and advice.
The composer is Sam Slater. And it was mixed by Tom Brignall.
The commissioning executive for BBC Sounds is Dylan Haskins and the commissioning editor is Jason Phipps.
We’ve made a film as well as a podcast on this story, and if you’re in the UK, you can watch Panorama ‘Return from ISIS’ on the BBC iPlayer. It’s a collaboration between BBC Panorama and FRONTLINE PBS.
At BBC Panorama Rachel Jupp is the editor and Karen Wightman is the executive producer. At FRONTLINE PBS Raney Aronson is executive producer, Andrew Metz is managing editor, Dan Edge is a senior producer, Sarah Childress and Lauren Ezell are senior editors.
And if you want to listen to more investigations, check out The FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast. And you can subscribe to I’m Not A Monster on the free BBC Sounds app.