Although there are some of us who become so focused in our lives that we overlook what’s happening in the world, Alexandra Bradford is the complete opposite. With her mission to find the truth and her wish to spread awareness, she’s currently a freelance journalist who travels and covers stories on humanitarian issues, terrorism, conflicts, and politics in the Middle East.
Her relentless pursuit to write the untold stories of people around the world is proof that passion is meant to be felt — and voices are meant to be heard. Here, Alexandra shares her journey as a reporter, her thoughts on women in foreign affairs, and her reason for staying positive throughout it all.
Name: Alexandra Bradford, Freelance Journalist, covering war, conflicts, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East
Location: New York City
Education: BA Joint Honors degree in Politics and History from Goldsmiths College, University of London. MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College, London
What was your first job, and how did you land it?
I started my professional journey conducting research on the radicalization of western women to ISIS. For about year, I worked independently tracking a network of western women who left their homes in Western Europe for ISIS. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of interest in this research because large numbers of western women joining an Islamist terror network had never been seen before. And my research completely disrupted the idea that violent acts of terrorism were unique to men.
I had to fight to get the research taken seriously and to get it published. I ended up working with the London based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and with them, I published Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS (ISD), which was the first report of it’s kind to explore the trend of western women joining ISIS.
I am so grateful to ISD because they took a leap of faith with me, which I think they were willing to do because they saw a young woman who was very serious about the study of radicalization and who knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. I knew that I was passionate about telling the stories of these women and that it was important for me to find a way to distill this information in a nuanced way so that the public could understand this trend as well.
You studied History and Political Science, then also received a Master’s in Terrorism, Security, and Society — topics many people choose to push under the rug and ignore. What sparked this passion in you, and why did you choose to pursue a career in it?
I have been fascinated by politics and history for as long as I can remember. I spent a lot of time as a child getting lost in the histories of the early civilizations and I considered being a historian. I also grew up in a household where, from a young age, my sister and I were expected to know what was going on in the world and to hold our own in family discussions about foreign affairs. Being raised in an environment where I was encouraged to be curious about the world, to explore that world and think critically about foreign affairs was an important foundation for me.
I was 13 when the September 11th attacks happened, and this sounds cliché but that horrible event is what launched my interest in terrorism research. I become obsessed with trying to understand why the attacks happened and through this quest, it became immediately clear to me that there was a huge lack of understanding about the world and I felt this really strong conviction that I wanted to understand the world as deeply as possible.
I have always been hungry for knowledge and have always wanted to get down to the essence of what was going on, to get to the bottom where there is no lie left — where there is only truth. This hunger to understand the truth and to answer the “why” question is the reason I am here today, in this career, and why I have such a passion for understanding the choices that people make.
How did this transfer to a passion for journalism?
When our report was published we received an enormous outpouring of press attention and interest from the public and this made me aware of how much the public was really thirsting for information about terrorism. I saw this huge gap in knowledge and I wanted to find a way to fill that gap and to create a cross-cultural understanding through journalism. I became really dedicated to telling the stories of those impacted by terrorism, whether it be stories where I interviewed innocent civilians who live in ISIS occupied Syria and Iraq, the parents of radicalized youth or those involved in acts of terror themselves. Through this work, I found that my passion was really in telling the stories that would otherwise go untold and this realization caused me to quickly transfer from think tank policy work to freelance journalism.
Do you have formal journalism training? If so, tell us more about it. If not, tell us how you gained the skills necessary to report successfully.
I don’t have formal journalism training. Much of my reporting is focused on covering conflict in the Middle East and homegrown radicalization. My education and my expertise in radicalization provided me with the knowledge base to cover these subjects.
When I first started freelancing, I was very honest with my editors about my lack of formal journalism training and as a result, they have all been great about providing feedback and guidance. Expertise, I think, is built by time spent working and success only comes with an enormous amount of hard work; I am certainly not scared of putting in the legwork to build my credibility.
So you hail from the US, went to college in London, now call NYC home, and report from all over the world. Where is home, and how does your traveling lifestyle affect your work style?
I have a dogged determination to go everywhere. I spent much of the past year living in Asia and surprised myself with how much I loved creating a home there and working from the region. Home tends to be wherever I am at the time, I can create little nests of comfort wherever I go. As a journalist who spends much of her time traveling, I have had to become flexible with my work schedule. You have to find pockets of time to work wherever you are, even if that means filing a story via text while sitting in a dirty field in the middle of the countryside (which is what I had to do last week).
How do you prepare yourself to travel to a region full of political and socioeconomic turmoil? Many people would be scared — but for you, it’s part of the job.
By gathering as much knowledge as possible about the region I am traveling to. Each time I travel I become better prepared because I am continuously learning to look for the stories, be aware of my surroundings, and seek out the trustworthy sources. My editors are also really cautious about danger and ensure that when I am traveling to a potentially dangerous location that the story is worth it, that all the pros and cons have been weighed and that once I am on assignment I am working with a trusted network of sources and interpreters who know the location well.
As a freelance journalist and researcher, your workday is certainly atypical (especially since you’re often reporting from around the world). What’s a typical workday like for you?
The 24 hour news cycle means that there isn’t a typical workday for me and there are many times where I am up all night covering a story as it develops or working across time zones with colleagues who are spread out in different bureaus. I think what people don’t understand about this job is the amount of pressure there is to immediately respond to the demands of the news cycle, getting enough material from sources to do good work, making sure you are filing your stories, and being able to respond immediately to edits so the story can go live. When I am covering an important story I enter into a zone where the story is all consuming and nothing else matters until that story is filed.
As a freelancer, because I am not sitting at a desk from 9-5 every day, I think that some people assume that the work is flexible or that it isn’t a “real job.” This is something that is frustrating for me and, I think, does a massive disservice to the work of journalists. To travel the world telling people’s stories, to record history as it unfolds, and to bear witness to people’s suffering is something that is really sacred to me and I feel privileged to spend my days doing this work.
Reporting on such topics as terrorism, humanitarian issues, conflicts, and politics is no easy pill to swallow. What keeps you positive and uplifted?
It’s true that I have reported on stories that are deeply traumatic but in some weird way, I find these stories to often be more real then what is happening in my everyday life. I hold these stories with care. For me, service is imbued in this work and that makes it worth it.
What I have learned is that humans aren’t exempt from pain and some of us have to face intense pain and grief every day. Striving for positivity is great but happiness is just a temporary state and I have learned that if you chase a temporary state then you are setting yourself up to fail. Human emotions, even sadness and anger, aren’t emotions that should be pushed down or devalued but embraced as beautiful parts of the human experience. I find positivity in all of that.
Having a counterweight to your job is really important. Outside of work, I take a lot of time to self-evaluate, to check myself and to make sure that I am processing the experiences of my life in a healthy way, that I am learning and growing from those experiences. I take a lot of joy in the sweet mundane parts of life, walking through a park, dancing with friends, sharing a glass of red wine with someone I love, spending hours reading a really great book. This simplicity is what I value and what elevates my soul. I have a lot of laughter, friendships, and love in my life and all of that sustains me.
Why do you think there are more men than women who work in foreign affairs? How can this problem be improved upon?
The disparity between men and women working in foreign affairs is is troubling considering the evidence that women’s participation in foreign affairs, especially in peacebuilding, increases stability and security, improves child survival and education rates, and creates economic growth across generations. I can’t see a path that leads to a successful future, as a country and in the world as a whole, if women aren’t given an equal seat the table and included in foreign affairs.
It is possible to close this gap and to demand that there is not only equal gender representation in our government but that the policies of our government elevate women or at the very least, don’t negatively impact women. I look to Sweden and Finland as examples of that. These are two countries where women hold government positions, where policies both at home and abroad are only approved if they don’t have a negative impact on the lives of women, and where there is ample maternity leave so that women can have a baby while remaining financially secure and without giving up their careers or career progression.
Equality is possible and we have to speak up and make demands to make it a reality.
You are truly paving the way for others who wish to study and tell the stories of women involved in religious radicalism in the Middle East. That being said, is there anyone you look up to in the field? Who do you consider a professional mentor?
Yes! Marie Colvin (who was killed while reporting in Syria) is such a hero of mine because her reporting was truly groundbreaking and important. She covered every major war from the past 20 years and her contribution to the journalism world is really unparalleled. I am also a big fan of Clarissa Ward, Holly Williams, and of course, Christiane Amanpour.
My editors at News Deeply have all been fantastic mentors to me, especially Jumana Farouky. News Deeply took me on when I was just starting my freelance career and my editors have been amazing with teaching me the ropes. My reporting has improved so much, in part because of their guidance.
Also, Katherine Zoepf, a brilliant journalist, has been an invaluable mentor for me in terms of providing advice about navigating the journalism world.
What do you say to people who ask you if it’s safe for them to travel abroad in our current global political (and social) climate?
I think that sometimes people have this picture of a world, especially the Middle East, that is always in conflict, and they imagine it’s irresponsible to travel. But that is simply not true. I remind people how important it is to be connected to the world and to live without fear of experiences and travel. The world is such a rich and tasty place and to choose not travel, if you can afford to do so, is do yourself a huge injustice. The majority of the people I have encountered throughout my travels have been warm, loving, and compassionate. There is so much to be gained if you cast away fear and replace it with curiosity about the world.
What’s your advice for anyone looking to gain more knowledge on the subject of current foreign affairs, conflicts in the Middle East, and humanitarian crises? Where’s a good place to begin?
Read as much as possible. There are some wonderful media sites, such as News Deeply, that are doing a fantastic job producing on the ground reporting in brilliant nuanced ways. There have also been some great books produced by female journalists over the past couple of years that provide an introduction to the Middle East. I would suggest checking out Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf and I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
To tell the stories of civilians who have been impacted by war because the voices of those living on the frontlines are the voices of people who are bearing the brunt of conflict and who are witnessing history as it unfolds. It is a privilege to record those stories.
Where do you see yourself and your career in five years? What’s next on your goal list?
There are a few topics that I am really dedicated to and would like to continue exploring through my work. The Syrian crisis in particular, which has dominated the majority of my work for the past four years, because of the complexity of the situation in terms of the jihadi groups, the overwhelming firepower of the Syrian regime, and the devastating impact this crisis has had on civilians. I am constantly devastated by the lack of justice for Syrian civilians and because of that, I won’t stop working to tell their stories.
I am also really passionate about reporting on the landmine free 2025 campaign, which is a campaign to fulfill the promise of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. What I have learned through my war reporting is often when a war is over, the land is left scattered with landmines and unexploded weapons, which will go on to maim and kill civilians for generations. The 2025 campaign is working to rid the world of landmines so that countries can finally be at peace and begin the process of rebuilding their nations. There are some really great stories coming out of the work that the big landmine NGO’s are doing (such as Halo Trust) and they are doing wonderful work to change the security component of countries all over the world.
Being of service is my number one career goal. I am happy as long as I am in a role that allows me to be of service and contribute to humanity in a peaceful way.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Career advice: To learn as many languages as possible. I studied French for four years but only dabbled in Arabic on and off. I am now having to make up for that by taking intensive lessons now.
For my personal life: To be thankful for love in all its forms. Life is this delicate quick little journey and the only thing that really matters is spending time with the people you love.
Alexandra Bradford is The Everygirl…
Favorite way to work out?
Anything that gets me outside. I love hiking and every morning I go for a run where I alternate between running and sprinting. I am also really into weight lifting and doing weekly pilates and kickboxing classes.
Item of clothing you bring everywhere you travel?
A long scarf that doubles as a blanket on the plane and can also double as a way to cover my legs or arms if I am somewhere that requires those body parts to be covered.
Last show you binged on Netflix/Hulu?
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Queen Elizabeth II. She has never consented to an interview before but she has borne witness to and been at the center of so much history, while also interacting with the big political giants of our time. I want to know those stories.