The 16×9 producer discusses reporting on a story about Al Shabab with Toronto roots and an international reach.

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Hannah James is a producer with Global National’s current affairs show, 16×9. Her work portfolio includes a wide range of investigative, human interest and social justice pieces. We spoke to James about steps she took to produce a series of stories of foreign fighters that joined Al Shabab, a militant group in Somalia. 

J-Source: How do you know when you have a story? 

James: It’s difficult to say when you know, but it’s part solid research elements (whistleblowers, paper trails, expert sources, advocates, first hand witness accounts, etc.) and also a part gut instinct. Frankly, some people have more natural gut instinct than others. 

I generally like to know that a) a story is “getable” and b) that there are solid research elements that can back up and inform what often begins as a simply a tip, a hunch, or a thesis.

J-Source: How did the Al Shabab story come about? What prompted you to work on that story? 

James: I was actually following a lead on a Toronto woman, nicknamed “Mama Shabab” who was allegedly recruiting and acting as a sort of “den mother” for Shabab recruits heading to Somalia. There were a couple stories in the Toronto Star about Mama Shabab, but no one really knew much about her. I started to look into “Mama,” by turning over many, many stones, asking people in the Somali community if they knew her, etc. I started to uncover several other stories of young Canadian men who had gone overseas to join Shabab, as well as discovered that Omar Hammami, the American Jihadi from Alabama had also spent some time in Toronto before heading to Egypt and then Somalia. I started to push forward on those elements and started going online and watching Omar’s Twitter account and the story just kept unfolding from there.

J-Source: What was the most challenging element of putting that story together?

James: The most challenging thing for me, was trying to do an international story from my desk in Toronto. We work with small budgets, so the biggest part of the trip was travelling to Boston to interview a former FBI agent, Clint Watts, who was in close contact with Omar Hammami via Twitter.  There was no way my company was going to pay for me to head to Somalia with security, etc.  

Fortunately, a lot of the fighters are young, and just as addicted to the Internet and social media as the rest of us, so it’s not too hard to find out information and leads online. It’s amazing what sort of footprint people leave behind on the Internet! You just have to be the best one at finding it.

J-Source: This being such a sensitive and dangerous topic, were there times where you felt anxious? 

James: Yes, there were times I felt a bit anxious communicating with former Shabab recruits and some potential ones. I was particularly worried about getting into hot water with law enforcement or intelligence groups. After all, Omar Hammami was on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Terrorists list, and here he was direct messaging me on Twitter. The FBI did ask me if I knew his whereabouts and if he was going to be in our studio doing an interview, which of course the answer was “no” to both questions.


J-Source: Why did you think it was important to tell this story? 

James: The story ended up being very important and continues to be so. Shortly after our story aired, more and more Canadians were flagged as foreign fighters overseas. Some were involved in serious acts of terrorism. Some have died. Stories about Canadian recruits to groups like Shabab and ISIS continue to be part of the daily headlines. I think finding out why Canadian men are identifying with foreign wars, and willing to die for them, is a very interesting area to explore on many levels, political and social.


J-Source: What steps do you take in piecing together complex stories like this one? 

I start with a bit of a research blitz, quickly identifying the issue, and then any people that can talk about it. Then, I begin to pull together my strongest elements, or “characters” and make what I call an “elements list.” I make categories:

  • Characters (victims, advocates, perpetrators, accountability, etc.).
  • Documents (any key documents I need to support my story thesis).
  • Locations  (places I will film).
  • Visuals (what visual pieces I need to tell the story).

I also try to write a story summary, right off the top, to really crystallize what my story is about.

Once my elements list feels solid, I start to think of what my story will look like, how I will tell it on screen. If you don’t have a compelling story to tell, or tell it in a way that draws in your audience, what’s the point of doing the story? 

Finally, the torture begins and I have to start writing. It’s a slog. There’s no easy way around or out of it. It’s essentially keeping your butt in the chair and pushing through it until you get a rough structure that you can begin to polish and rework as you see fit. 

You’ll also have to cut out any extraneous bits. My boss used to accuse me of writing an academic paper, rather than an interesting story script, because I wanted to get in every nuance and every detail. I have gotten much better at cutting out the fat, getting to the point, and sticking to my thesis.

J-Source: What advice do you have for journalists who have to speak to someone from a relatively closed off community, like the Somali community in the case of this story? 

James: Relationship building is everything. And guess what? Most people are suspicious, and dare I say, don’t care for journalists. If you go into a community like a bull in a china shop, you’re going to blow your story right off the top. Go easy. Go casual. Act respectfully, with humility and ask questions and listen. Take someone for coffee, or set up a visit. Know who you’re talking to. If you’re visiting a particular religious place, know what the proper decorum/dress is and follow it.

Another thing (and this is me thinking about Al Shabab), is try to spend some time putting yourself in the shoes of the people who you are trying to access. In the case of Omar Hamami, I knew he had spent time in Toronto. I talked to his friends. I went for pizza at the halal pizza shop where he worked and chatted casually with the guys working there. I went to the bookstore where he liked to buy religious books for his Islamic studies. I walked the streets of Little Mogadishu in Toronto to try to get a sense of place. I love doing this and I think helps with understanding your story foundation in a way you’ll never achieve by sitting at your desk in a newsroom reading other journalist’s articles.  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[[{“fid”:”4349″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”960″,”width”:”960″,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 100px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Eman Bare is currently working in Toronto as an associate producer for 16×9.