A three-time Pulitzer Prize Finalist, Rukmini Callimachi has been covering the Islamic State for The New York Times since 2014. She began reporting on extremism in Africa, where she was posted for seven years as the West Africa correspondent and later the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. Her reporting on the Islamic State and on al-Qa`ida has earned her the George Polk Award, the Michael Kelly Award, and the inaugural Integrity in Journalism Award from the International Center for Journalists.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
CTC: You are well known in our community for hunting down primary source documents from jihadis in dangerous places all over the world, from Mali to Iraq. We get an excellent glimpse of what your life is like through your new podcast, Caliphate. In fact, sometimes you are literally minutes behind the jihadis who left this material behind. Can you describe how you even got into this dangerous business in the first place?
Callimachi: Sure. Well, to be perfectly honest, I really just stumbled into it. I started covering terror five years ago when I was the West Africa Bureau Chief for The Associated Press. My beat included a 20-country stretch of West and Central Africa, including the nation of Mali. In 2012, al-Qa`ida’s affiliate—known as al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM—took over the northern half of Mali in conjunction with a couple of smaller rebel groups.
Because the jihadists controlled the north, it was deemed too dangerous to go, so I had to do most of my reporting by phone, which is how I think the majority of reporters were covering terrorism. And as somebody who really loves being in the field, that was pretty frustrating for me.
I would call people at the Pentagon. I tried to get meetings at the State Department. I tried to get in touch with the political attaches and defense attaches in the various Western embassies in the region. And I spoke to other analysts who spoke to all of these same people. This was roughly a year after the death of Usama bin Ladin, and the message coming out of Washington was that the head of the snake had been cut off and al-Qa`ida was in disarray, if not decimated. As for groups like the one in Mali, I was told that the fighters had opportunistically taken the al-Qa`ida name and that entities like AQIM had no real connective tissue back to the core.
The lightbulb moment for me came in January 2013 when French forces entered Mali to help local forces take back the country’s north. When they liberated the city of Timbuktu a few weeks later, I followed behind them. The next day, I walked into a bank building in the center of Timbuktu, which had been used as the seat of AQIM’s hisba, or its religious police, and I literally stepped onto documents that had been left behind by the fleeing fighters. In the weeks that followed, I ended up finding thousands of pages of documents that AQIM had left behind, and those documents directly contradicted the narrative I was hearing from Washington.
I was being told that AQIM really wasn’t a franchise of al-Qa`ida, and yet there I was, holding a letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of AQIM, where he is talking about his fealty to al-Qa`ida and specifically to Usama bin Ladin.
There I was holding letters from [Nasir al] Wuhayshi, the general manager of al-Qa`ida and the emir of AQAP based in Yemen, in which he was giving them detailed instructions on how to govern the territory that they held. He was telling them the importance of maintaining the electricity and “keeping the lights on” to prevent the people from revolting against them.
So it really kind of broke open my world because I didn’t realize then, what I know now, which of course is that the war on terror is politicized. And intelligence about it is often politicized for political gain. One way it was politicized was to portray bin Ladin’s death as the end of al-Qa`ida. It was later politicized to basically miss the rise of ISIS and to depict ISIS as the JV team. And so I realized at that point that there was a real value to going directly to the terrorists themselves.
By that, I mean going to the documents they leave behind, which was also a revelation, because I had no idea that these groups leave such a voluminous amount of paperwork behind.
By going to the terrorists themselves, I also mean interviewing them in jail. In Iraq, in Syria, a handful in Europe, and even one of the defectors in Canada that we are speaking to on the podcast.
And the third way is online, tracking their chat rooms and their channels on Telegram.
Of the three ways, finding the documents is obviously the gold standard, but it is hard. The only way I have been successful in recovering these documents is by embedding with the security forces that are liberating areas that the group controlled. I do it by asking for their help and getting their permission to take the records at the moment of the recovery.
CTC: Now I know that you speak three different languages, but unfortunately for your current line of work, Arabic is not one of them. How do you get around that obstacle in places like Iraq?
Callimachi: In my line of work, I am always working with Arabic translators, and The New York Times and I have invested a lot of effort in finding talented Arabic-to-English translators. For example, for the ISIS Files story, every record I used in that reporting went through two translators—a junior translator back in Iraq who gave me the general gist of the document and a senior translator here in New York, who is a retired United Nations interpreter. Our senior translator is himself a native of the Mosul area, so he is able to catch nuances of dialect that might otherwise be missed. The extra layer of complication is that these documents are not written in just any kind of Arabic; they are what my colleagues call “jihadi Arabic,” heavy on religious references and replete with its own, distinct lingo, and you need to find translators who are in tune with that.
This is the protocol that we use for translating the recovered documents. Then in the field, I work with a team of translators and fixers, one for each area of Iraq. So number one, you are never in these places alone. I’ve always embedded with whatever force was fighting that area to take back that territory. I’m relying on these local forces to keep me safe because, of course, as a reporter you’re not armed and you’re not a combatant. So the only way to do this is extremely slowly and with a lot of false starts.
For example, I think I spent five weeks in a hotel, waiting for the city of Sinjar to fall in 2015. When Sinjar did fall, it basically fell right around November 13th, which was the day of the Paris attacks. That evening I got a phone call from my desk telling me to rush to Paris. So after weeks and weeks in a hotel and waiting for Sinjar to fall, I think I had one or two bylines to show for that time, and I never found any documents there because I had to leave the same day. But that’s my life.
CTC: I’d like to go back to your discussion of recovering the Islamic State documents in Iraq. Your work seems to have sparked somewhat of a debate about the ethics behind removing this type of material from Iraq. Some are questioning whether this practice is justified or not, and critics are saying that you should have never taken these documents out of Iraq in the first place. How do you respond to these critiques?
Callimachi: Right. So first of all, thank you for giving me the chance to talk about this issue. There are three points I’d like to raise. The first thing to understand is my colleagues and I were never alone when we were doing this work. The buildings we were searching were on or near the frontlines. As a foreign correspondent, the only way to access these areas is by being embedded with Iraqi security forces.
And at the beginning of every embed, my team sat down with the commander in charge in order to outline our goals. In these meetings, we clearly explained that we were looking for ISIS documents, and asked for their help both to access the area in question and to find the documents we were seeking. I explained to them that my aim was to use these documents to shed light on the enemy’s complexity and organizational depth.
As a result, they would assign one to sometimes as many as four or five soldiers to accompany my team on the battlefield. They led the way into buildings. They showed us where to look, and in several instances, they literally held the garbage bag open for me to help me collect records.
Sometimes they would find things and say “sorry, you can’t take this.” We didn’t have carte blanche to take whatever we wanted. Often, we were being taken to buildings that they had already searched and what we were allowed to take were the records they deemed had no intelligence value.
Second, the Iraqis were systematically burning the documents that were left behind. To this day, I don’t completely understand why, but the best answer I got was that these ISIS documents were like a dark part of their past and they didn’t want that stuff around.
I think there is a part of the conversation that is missed, however, when people get upset about us taking these documents. What people don’t seem to understand is that it wasn’t me taking them versus these documents existing elsewhere in Iraq. It was me taking them versus these documents disappearing, either burned, or destroyed or ruined in the elements. That’s the real dichotomy.
I think we can all agree that saving these documents has value. And you of all institutions, the CTC, knows intimately the value of these documents in helping us understand these terror groups. The New York Times is committed to making these documents publicly available, and we’ve already starting the search for potential partners in order to create a digital database. My dream is that we are going to be able to create a place online where these documents can be available to all.
CTC: Well, you know where the CTC stands on that issue. That has been the foundational idea behind our Harmony Database for over a decade. Switching gears a little bit, you mentioned another thing that helps your understanding is not just the primary sources but also talking to former, and in some cases current, jihadis. You have interviewed those who have lived in the caliphate and those who have returned to their home countries. In talking to all of these individuals, are there any common characteristics or threads that connect them? Or is the story here that there aren’t really any commonalities at all? What is your take?
Callimachi: I have a couple of things to say about that. Number one, since ISIS is famous for the horrific things it has done—like the ghastly videos, which show savage acts of cruelty—I believe that people think that in order to be a member of this group, you are therefore either a psychopath or a bloodthirsty, crazy murderer. We gravitate to the extremes.
But my experience in speaking to them is actually something a little more frightening I think. Sometimes when you’re sitting across from them, they come off as rather … normal, if that makes sense? Look, of course I’m not a psychologist. I can’t do a psychological analysis of them, but they strike you as more normal than abnormal.
The second thing that I think is very hard to talk about in the media is the element of ideology and religiosity. By that, I mean I think we can all agree that this is not a normative form of Islam. This is not a form of Islam that in any way represents how Muslims generally practice their faith around the world. But I think that we lose ourselves when we refuse to accept their expressions of sincere faith.
CTC: Pulling on that same thread, you have interviewed a number of jihadis in prison, and in your podcast, you even interview a Canadian citizen who fought with the Islamic State in Syria and has since returned. And, as far as the listener knows, this individual is flying under the radar of law enforcement. How do you respond to people who say you have a moral obligation to alert law enforcement about these individuals?
Callimachi: More will be coming out in the podcast, but I’ll tell you this much. As you mentioned, one of the main characters of the podcast was an individual named Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi, who we interviewed in Canada. First of all, let me just be clear. When I went into that hotel room, I thought we were going to meet an ISIS fan boy.
I had no idea that this guy had gone as deep as he had gone. My colleague Andy Mills and I were just kind of in shock at the information he shared. I mean, he confesses to murder on tape. And there was no slight of hand; our recording equipment was right there in front of him. Anyway, it did weigh on us very heavily as we left that hotel room, the notion that we just heard somebody’s murder confession and that we ourselves are not law enforcement. But this is where, as a journalist, there is a firewall that you just can’t cross.
I can’t behave, or be seen to behave, like an extension of law enforcement. If I’m seen as an extension of law enforcement, I’m done in this profession. That’s when everything ISIS says about us being spies, us being informants, becomes true, right? That said, as a human being, as somebody who cares about the well-being of other people around me, we were concerned.
In fact, we had very long and protracted discussions inside our newsroom to figure out what was the right thing to do, understanding that going to law enforcement couldn’t be one of them. You will see sort of a two-part solution to this in … well … future episodes of the podcast.
CTC: I see what you did there. Well played, Callimachi, well played. In all seriousness, in your opinion, where is our understanding of the Islamic State lacking? What is it about the organization that we understand the least? Where are we missing the mark here?
Callimachi: Look, I’ll tell you the things that I still grapple with, and there are many. I think it’s important to recognize that in the end, this is a secret organization. We are always uncovering things about it.
What I find remarkable about ISIS is on the one hand, this is the most micro-managed terrorist organization I think that there is, right? I mean, in the caliphate, you have an emir, and below him is a deputy emir, and then they have their little platoon. Nobody can move around without a permission slip. If you’re wounded, you even need a permission slip to be moved from the battlefield to the hospital for treatment.
So we’re talking about total control on the one hand, but on the other hand, this is a group that allowed itself—it seems by design—to encompass an entire online universe comprised of people who are basically acting as online entrepreneurs for them. These are people who are just riffing on the ISIS brand, creating posters calling for attacks in this or that country, doing their own videos, publishing their own how-to guides. And this loose coalition of online sympathizers, which appears to be managed by no one, is also part of ISIS.
I’m very curious to understand if that is something that just happened? Or was that thought out ahead of time and always part of their plan? Because as a model for a terrorist organization, in a way, it’s brilliant. It’s super controlled, but it also allows for the lone-wolf model of terrorism to really run wild.
CTC: Okay, you were in Mali in 2012 and 2013 and Iraq in 2015. If we’re interviewing you five years from now, where will you be saying you were collecting documents in 2019? Beyond the obvious culprits, is there a country where you see the threat moving to next?
Callimachi: I think the Sahel is a real tinder box, partially because of how weak the institutions are there and partially because the state has never really exercised control in those areas. Just days ago, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara took another hostage, a German national in Burkina Faso. They have this bank of hostages they are holding in conjunction with the former AQIM, and are presumably making millions of dollars each time one of them is released. That, coupled with the unfortunate event that happened in Niger last October, which I think is spelling the retreat of American forces in that area, looks like a really bad movie in the making.
CTC: Is there anything that our readers should look forward to in some of your upcoming podcasts? Care to give away any spoilers?
Callimachi: Well, I think the thing to brace yourself for is, the person we are following [the Canadian who fought with the Islamic State in Syria and returned home] is going to go really deep into what he did and how it feels to have done what he did. And listeners are also going to find out that he lied to us about key aspects of his story, and the lengths we went to untangle truth from fiction.
CTC: Last question. Throughout my two decades in the military, I have sensed a palpable stand-offishness between the military and the media. I don’t think it is unreasonable for either side to have a healthy dose of skepticism about the other. In fact, it would be surprising if this wasn’t the case. However, in my opinion, sometimes this lack of trust has been detrimental to the interests of the military. On the other hand, I have seen cases where the media and its interests have suffered due to its distrust of the military. Is there a way to bridge this divide?
Callimachi: You know, I wish our sources would understand how seriously we take the phrase “off the record.” It’s like a magic wand. Whenever you wave it, whatever you say next is something that we cannot use unless we find a secondary source to say it. I realize that members of the military view the media with suspicion, but one way to get comfortable is to simply allow reporters in for an off-the-record chat and use that as a way to have a frank discussion. Then we can negotiate later about what is on the record. Instead, what happens is just a complete inability to communicate. CTC