From the time ISIS rose to become the most infamous terrorist organization on Earth, no reporter has done more to explain and expose the group than The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi. She has covered everything from ISIS’s “theology of rape” to its alarmingly large presence in Europe. Before taking on her current beat, the Romanian-born Callimachi wrote about Hurricane Katrina and al-Qaida’s role in Africa for the Associated Press, as well as South Asia for Time. When we spoke by phone recently, Callimachi was in France, where she had just finished a story on the difficulties, for law enforcement, of dealing with people who might become terrorists but have not yet committed major crimes. Since that time, she has written about the attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh.
Callimachi has been criticized by people who think that such an intense focus on ISIS only serves the organization’s goal of gaining attention and stoking fear. (She is fond of going on tweet-storms after breaking news; following the most recent major terrorist attack, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she took to Twitter to try to puzzle out in public whether it was a sign of a new ISIS strategy.) Callimachi’s intensity when discussing her work—and one gets the sense she could do so endlessly—sits side-by-side with a generous laugh and a self-deprecating sense of humor. She seems entirely ensconced in her beat, despite its harrowing nature.
During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we discussed ISIS’s strategic thinking, the perils of getting close to dangerous sources, and the emotional toll of reporting on terrorism.
Isaac Chotiner: Did covering violent extremist groups fall into your lap, or was it something you actively wanted to pursue as a journalist?
Rukmini Callimachi: It fell into my lap, and it was something that I resisted for a while. In the summer of 2006, I was posted to Dakar, Senegal, as the AP’s West Africa correspondent. Within a year, a small group called the GSPC, which was based in Algeria, had pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and had become al-Qaida’s North African franchise. Places that I should have been able to go to report became too dangerous for a Westerner to cover. From 2007 until 2012, I covered the expansion of the terrorist group casually and without much interest. To be perfectly frank, I found it quite boring because there were no primary sources to speak to. I would call the same small group of diplomats and analysts who repeated the same specific talking points. Every story started to sound alike.
In 2012, Mali basically imploded. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was able, in conjunction with two other jihadi groups, to take over the northern half of the country. It was an area that was equal in size to Afghanistan. It was an enormous stretch of land and they established a capital in Timbuktu. They basically turned Mali into something that is very similar to what we’re seeing in Syria today. They established a sharia court. Women had to be veiled. They destroyed the ancient houses of Timbuktu because the mausoleums were considered to be un-Islamic.
Still, at that point I was covering it without my heart really being in it. It was hard reporting. I couldn’t go there, so you are calling people over scratchy phone lines in Timbuktu. Most of them are afraid to speak to you. You are trying to get some kernel of detail out of them. We heard all sorts of crazy things—there were awesome stories that we’d get wind of—but you just couldn’t confirm anything. Anyway, I did it as best I could, but I wouldn’t say I shined in any way.
And then everything changed for me in January of 2013 when the French went in. I was able to get to Timbuktu three days after they flushed out the jihadis. I got there in the first wave of reporters that arrived. There were so many reporters at my hotel within a couple of days. At first we all went and interviewed residents. What was it like to live under sharia law? We went and looked at the places where they had executed people and the square where they had cut off somebody’s hand. Then residents began taking me to the buildings that had been occupied. Unbelievably, there were thousands of pages of internal documents that the al-Qaida cell had left behind.
I bet you are going to ask me: How did I know they were al-Qaida documents? In the very first place that I went into, I picked up one of them and went, “This is in Arabic. I can’t read it.” And I dropped it back down. [Laughs.] It took me getting back to my hotel to realize, Oh my God this is Mali. Mali is a French-speaking place. People that went to school here learn French. They don’t learn Arabic. By definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force. I then rushed back to these places with trash bags. I began going building-by-building and just picking up every single thing that I could find and bringing them back to my hotel.
The documents were incredible. They had letters from commanders, communications between leaders where they were reprimanding section commanders for failing to turn in their expenses because they were keeping expense reports every month showing their accounting structures. Most interesting to me, I saw evidence of internal debates they were having. We assume that they are monolithic in what they think, and in fact they’re not. Is it OK to kill civilians? Is it OK to kill children? The destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu: Was that a good thing for us to do?
I don’t know why that should be so surprising. They’re of course human beings, you know?
What’s interesting is that you said you weren’t that into the subject at first. Now you are giving me details of what you found on the floor in Mali.
You sound a little bit obsessed with it. I’m wondering how you got to that place.
That was it. First let me just say that there are very few stashes of original al-Qaida documents. There’s basically the stash that was found …
You’re proving my point. Go on.
Yeah. So, yeah. I suddenly found myself in possession of this stash of documents that everyone from the FBI to analysts wanted to get ahold of. I became quite possessive of it. I spent the next year really working with a translator trying to go through it. Basically it opened a window into this secret world, this world that we very rarely get to peer into.
So was this the moment, or were there others?
I think there were a couple, but one of them was, after getting the first trash bag of these documents, I came back to my hotel in Timbuktu. We came to a letter. It was addressed to “my brothers in Mali.” It was a letter from Sheikh Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. We are there going Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. Who the hell is that? The name sounded somewhat familiar. But I hadn’t heard of it.
Suddenly it was my fixer, Baba Ahmad, who was sitting next to me going, “Oh my God, Abdelmalek Droukdel.” Droukdel was the head of al-Qaida in Africa. This guy was this boogeyman that for years and years I’ve been following. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud was his nom de guerre. Suddenly I realized I’m looking at an internal letter from this guy to his fighters in Mali where he is giving them instructions on how to behave in Mali. It just suddenly felt like … I don’t know, it felt like … you know the fantasies you have of, What would happen if I could be invisible and be able to see what people are actually doing in those closed rooms where they are having important meetings about world-changing things?
In that letter he was saying the most surprising things. One of the things he said to them was, I saw that you destroyed the mausoleums of Timbuktu. He says in that letter, theologically you’re right. Theologically these things are un-Islamic. But tactically you were wrong. By doing this you have turned the people against us. And for this reason I need you to listen to me. I need you to understand that our project of jihad is like a seedling, like a small tree. We need to provide good soil and good water. It needs to blossom on its own and for that to happen we need the people to be on our side.
I had thought of these jihadis—you know Osama bin Laden, all of these people—as just black and white, almost caricatures of evil. And suddenly, I’m seeing a shade of gray, that they are more complex than we give them credit for. When analysts were coming to me and saying, “Rukmini can I read that document?” I started to realize what a treasure trove I had.
The final point is that I also realized how little true in-depth recording there is on this subject matter. We cover terrorism all the time. All the time. But there is actually very little in this reporting, even in the books that are being put out, beyond the obvious that really tries to understand what these groups are about. I realized that that was something I could contribute.
How did you start getting in touch with people in ISIS and other terrorist groups?
So the very first jihadi I was staying in close contact with was a guy called Oumar Ould Hamaha. He was a commander in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He is well-known to the poor Westerners that got kidnapped in that region because he was one of the chief kidnappers. After the group took Timbuktu he was appointed its spokesman. For about eight months, he had a cellphone. I still have it programmed in my phone. You could actually call him and speak to him on the phone. At first I was speaking to him every week or every few days. It got to the point where he was calling me three times a day. [Laughs.]
We were having these long drawn-out conversations that often involved him trying to convert me to Islam and him laughing when he didn’t succeed. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I suddenly felt like I had a human interlocutor in this crazy group. I could call him. I could start texting with him. We would call him whenever there was breaking news, like when they announced they were going to destroy this next mausoleum or when they announced they stoned to death a couple for adultery. But on some of the other stuff he told me, I just never felt comfortable quoting him because I didn’t know if he was telling me the truth. It wasn’t until I got to Timbuktu that I was able to actually go to the places that he had described.
I suddenly realized overall he was pretty accurate. He didn’t try to mislead me. I’ll give you one example. I don’t know if you recall when Libya was falling. Qaddafi was on his last legs. There were enormous amounts of concern then that the sophisticated weapons he had in his arsenal would essentially end up in the hands of terrorists in Africa. Do you remember that?
Yep. One of the specific weapons that had this greater-than-life allure was a surface-to-air MANPAD called the SA-7. There was so much ink that was poured over this issue. Is al-Qaida going to get their hands on it? If they do, are they able to take down a civilian aircraft because that is a big weapon. They’re very light; they look like a rolled-up poster or tube. You put them on your shoulder and they’re guided. You can aim them at a civilian aircraft and allegedly take it down. One day Hamaha called me. I said to him, “Hamaha, everybody’s talking about this. They’re saying that al-Qaida might have gotten his hands on the SA-7.” And he got very excited and said, “Yes yes yes, Rukmini, we have the SA-7a and the SA-7b. I went to Libya myself to buy them.” Anyway he was extremely excited about it. I don’t know these weapons very well myself. I was just writing down what he said.
So what do you do with a quote like that? You’ve got a terrorist, right, whose organization of course tries to spread fear? So what do I do, report that? Report what he claims? Of course I couldn’t. And then, when I got to Timbuktu, one of the things I found was a stack of documents and it had a picture of a weapon on the front. I was with a very poor Arabic speaker who was trying to translate for me. And he says, OK the headline says, “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.” I was like, OK great, what does the bottom say? And he says, “OK here it says, ‘a bomb on the ground and a bomb in the air.’ ” That’s literally what he said. And he says, “Here in parentheses, they are saying SA-7a and SA-7b.” And I said, “You mean a surface-to-air missile?” And he said, “yeah yeah yeah, that’s it! A surface-to-air missile.”
As journalists we are taught to be very skeptical of these people, much more skeptical than when we deal with almost any other entity. In fact, my interactions with them have been different from that. Sure, there are plenty of them who lie. But there are also good sources among them who tell you things that are truthful.
Have you ever found yourself trying to convince a source to take a different path?
I try very hard to keep some separation there. I was in a strange situation with a member of al-Shabaab who I was speaking to for about a year. This is al-Qaida’s group in East Africa. They’re based in Somalia. This is the group that carried out the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. I was introduced to him by another al-Qaida source that I trusted. From the get-go, I felt I knew who he was. I felt like I knew he really was a member of the terrorist group, because what happens a lot times is you’re meeting with anonymous people on social media. You end up spending a lot of time just second-guessing and wondering, “Is he really ISIS?” or “Is he really al-Qaida? Or is he just some guy trying to get a kick out of pretending he is?
It’s like online dating. You meet this girl. She seems nice. You think, Is she really ISIS? Is she really al-Qaida?
[Laughs.] That’s right. That’s right. I was talking to him for a while. He helped me a lot when there was an awful attack by their group in Garissa. This is a town in Nairobi. They attacked a Christian college. It’s in a poor place. The victims are just poor Christian kids. I remember having a long discussion with him and going, “Okay, so, great, you guys have attacked this place and you’re killing 19-year-old girls in their school uniforms who are the furthest thing from Western. They’re just Kenyan girls.” What was really interesting about him is that about six months into us talking he confided in me that he was starting to think about defecting from al-Shabaab. It put me in this really weird position where I thought, if I wanted to help him I could find a way to introduce him to the FBI, say.
But of course I can’t do that as a reporter. I can’t get involved at that level. He would suddenly confide in me, and he was telling me all of the things that al-Shabaab was doing that were violating sharia, because actually in sharia law you’re not allowed to kill women, children, and the elderly. You’re supposed to do operations in a way that avoids those targets. Obviously when they’re doing an operation on a school, there are a lot of girls. He showed this very human side of himself. I don’t know his age. But I’m guessing he’s was a young man. He spoke English so well and with so many Americanisms that I’m almost positive he’s an American citizen. I saw him waffling and I saw him struggling with it. I had to ... I basically had to do some soul searching and decide what to do in this situation. His name was Bilal. Anyway, I finally came back to him and said, “I can’t put you in touch with these people. But I can point you to people on social media that you can reach out to this if this is what you want to do.”
He shut it down and said, “No, I can’t do that because I know that if I get in touch with anybody in the U.S. government I know the only reason they would want to help me is if I turn on my brothers and I can’t turn on them.” A couple of weeks after that he told me, “They’ve become suspicious of me” and then a little bit after that he said, “I think they’re going to put me under house arrest. I’ve left your name and your contact details with a friend. If they come and take me away my friend will get in touch with you.” Then after that he said, “I’m under house arrest but they haven’t taken away my communication yet.” Then suddenly there was a period of violence. It coincided with an important drone attack that the U.S. did over Somalia. For a while, I thought he could have been killed in a drone attack.
And then, a couple of weeks after that, I suddenly got a message from his Telegram ID from somebody who was speaking in a different cadence of English with more mistakes. He said, “I’m Bilal’s friend and he told me to tell you that he has been taken away. He’s now being charged with treason.” I asked this person what that means. He said that if they find him guilty of treason he’s going to be executed. I just felt ... I don’t know. It’s hard not to care about this person when they’ve become your source, you know, even though I know that he belongs to a group that has done terrible things. The final email came, I think it was May 12th. It was just a single sentence. It said, “Brother Bilal was executed today, may Allah accept him into jannah,” which means paradise.
How did you feel when you got that email?
I felt really sad. You know, it’s … first of all, it’s so hard to get that far with a source of this kind. He was one of four or five where I felt there was a real intimacy and the person was truly sharing interesting information with me.
Have you also felt that intimacy when you’re reporting on people who are rape victims and victims of violence?
Oh, of course. Of course. That’s much more straightforward. When I’m talking to these people, I often feel like every couple of days l have to put in the disclaimer, “Hey Bilal, do you know that I don’t condone what you guys are doing?” I feel l have to go on the record, in case Big Brother is watching, to make it clear that I’m not somehow complicit in this. [Laughs.]
Oumar Ould Hamaha was killed in a drone strike in Mali in 2013. A guy from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that other reporters and I spoke to was also killed in a drone strike. Bilal was executed. One ISIS guy that I was speaking to was killed in a drone strike. I can’t claim that he was a great source. He mainly sent his comments insultingly. Then one other guy just disappears one day. To this day I don’t know what happened to him.
How do you think these people you speak with treat you differently, if they in fact do, because of your gender?
Well, hang on. Let me just … I just want to get into my email to see when the email from Bilal’s friend arrived. [Pauses.] It was the May 12th. [Pauses.]
It makes the process absolutely more difficult. I get shut down by a lot of people who say, “I’m sorry but I’m not allowed to speak to a women that is not a relative.” If they take that tack, which is certainly something that is supported by the scripture there, or is something they live their lives by, then I’ll have no recourse.
I’m always talking to men. If I get past that initial boundary, it can go one of two ways. One, they start hitting on you, which is just annoying as all heck because it doesn’t go anywhere. Or they go into this older sister mode. I’m always older than them [Laughs] because these are guys in their 20s and 30s. There is kind of a sweet spot there. I have less of an authoritarian presence than if I were male. They see me potentially as a confidante, as a sisterly figure, and then it’s usually useful.
I just want to—
By the way, the email [from Bilal’s friend] was sent on May 12th.
I can read you the exact message if you want it. “Brother Bilal got executed. May Allah have mercy on his soul and grant him jannah.”
Thank you. Have you gotten to a point where you’ve been so knee-deep in some of this stuff that you need to step back emotionally in your life? Has anyone in your life ever said to you, “Rukmini, Jesus Christ …”
My poor husband who sleeps next to me at night when I’m in the States—we basically have a rule that I shouldn’t be flipping through my phone when we’re both about to go to bed because he doesn’t want to accidentally see a beheading video.
That’s a good rule.
[Laughs.] That’s generally like a good thing. There was a period of time after they murdered the last of the American hostages. It really felt so dark. I had first hoped … I had naively held out hope that a negotiation or something might spare the life of at least one of them. Obviously there was nothing surprising about what had happened. It felt ... it felt ... it was so saddening to see that they did that. I felt really angry and just kind of disgusted by them for some time. That was when I kind of pivoted into doing something slightly different, which was looking at the Yazidi women. The focus wasn’t on the group; I could focus on the women.
What you just said to me is that you were so freaked out by this hostage being killed that you turned to the plight of Yazidi women.
Exactly. [Laughs.] Thank you for pointing out how stupid that statement sounded.
No, no, no. I wasn’t saying it was stupid.
I see exactly what you’re saying. You’re right. You’re right. I know this might sound odd but the Yazidi story, for the women that I’m speaking to, have a happy ending because those women got out. In essence, these are the hostages that escaped, right? Even though they’re emotionally destroyed and dealing with this wasteland that has become their lives, there is some glimmer of hope.
But it seems like from what you are saying—and I don’t think would be true for many people—is that you have never felt like you had to go to Hawaii for two weeks. You feel like you can handle this emotionally.
I can. I’ve done a couple of things. I don’t watch these disgusting videos to the end anymore. I watch the beginning. There is always the same formula. They don’t start killing people immediately. It starts with the black screen and usually with someone ranting at you. Then a couple of minutes in, as they’re trying to build up this rant, that’s when they start killing these poor people. I spare myself the emotional heartache of having to see a poor person being executed. I do that because I am a sensitive being. It’s so awful that it just kind of seeps into your life and I don’t want that.
What was different, if anything, between al-Qaida and ISIS?
ISIS is just al-Qaida in Iraq, you know? It’s the branch of al-Qaida that was always the most brutal. It was the one that rebelled against the leadership of Bin Laden and Zawahiri. The rest of al-Qaida has attempted to “moderate” itself, and put moderate in quotes because they are obviously still doing horrific acts. But they are at least having a discussion about whether it is legitimate to be killing Muslim civilians. ISIS has swung in the other direction, and the lesson they have learned from past defeats is that they weren’t brutal enough. By stamping down any semblance of dissent is how they will be successful.
One critique of your work is that you give ISIS too much credit, and draw too much attention to ISIS, for things like the Orlando attack, which plays into their narrative. What do you think of this critique?
Well, it’s something that we debate internally in my newsroom a lot, and I’ll tell you if we were to cover ISIS in the way that I cover it in my own life—meaning the way that I keep up-to-date on it in my own life—nobody in the U.S. administration would ever have been able to describe them as the “JV team.” That that statement was made by the president of our country is a reflection of a great ignorance towards the group, which was so evident to anybody that was covering it as far back as early 2013. It’s a double-edged sword and we’re always dealing with this. Obviously what a group like ISIS wants after Orlando is for us to talk about ISIS. But at the same time I don’t think that we can ignore the facts. This was a troubled young man who repeatedly dedicated these attacks to the Islamic State: on Facebook, in his last 911 call, to negotiators, and in what he said to his victims that were inside that bathroom. I don’t think not talking about it or not confronting it would serve national security in any way.
But what about when you start tweeting about ISIS and the connection to Orlando? ISIS wants publicity and it seems like there’s a danger there.
That’s true, but you have to keep in mind that there is an incorrect perception that ISIS claims everything. The reality is that they don’t. They have been following up on a strategy that was created by al-Qaida more than six years ago, which is the strategy of inciting lone wolves through the internet. They have created a system for radicalizing people who have no direct connection to the core: Giving them this toxic ideology and encouraging them and pushing them and applauding them as they go out and do these attacks. In America we’ve only had two attacks claimed by ISIS through their established media protocol, starting with a claim published by the group’s Amaq news agency, followed by an official ISIS release. Those were San Bernardino and Orlando. They cheered several others, including Elton Simpson’s attack in Garland, Texas, and a few others, and named these attacks in Dabiq magazine. This is not—as people wrongly assume—a group that opportunistically claims anything and everything.
Secondly, I think there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding about this question that we get asked over and over again: Does ISIS direct this attack or does ISIS inspire this attack? ISIS-inspired attacks are part of their strategy; are part of their design; are part of what they’re trying to do. That’s what people miss. This young man was inviting the ideology to the point that he understood some very specific things. No. 1, that he has to pledge allegiance to this group, and not just to the group itself but also to the group’s leader in a public forum before the attack is over. That is something very specific. It’s not something that I think somebody casually looking at the internet or casually researching the group would know.
How do you see the debate between scholars on this, with some arguing, to vastly simplify it, that Islam has become radicalized and others arguing that these radical or messed up people are turning to Islam rather than to something else?
I think that people make the mistake of trying to distill things to one force. What I’ve seen in profiles of these attackers is that the motivation is almost always a jumble of things. What came first: his homophobia or his extremist ideology? Don’t know. The fact remains that the ISIS ideology is a perfect place for somebody who is homophobic. This an ideology of a group of people that are throwing homosexuals off of buildings in Iraq and Syria as punishment for what they consider to be their devious sexuality.
It’s very much a chicken-versus-egg question. Is this a disgruntled man who then claims the mantle of ISIS as a way to give theatrics and legitimacy to what he’s feeling, or is this a troubled man who drifted into an extremist ideology and was pushed to do this act after ingesting their voluminous propaganda. I don’t think we’ll ever know.
The focus on ISIS, I would argue, has also warped the discussion of Syria, where the vast majority of deaths are the result of the Assad regime. Is this a concern when reporting on the group?
That’s a really good question and it’s so true. Obviously the Assad regime has killed far more people. The reason that I think ISIS has captured people’s imaginations is because of the theatrics of their brutality. The cruelty that they are showing in, for example, executing a journalist who is kneeling on the ground with his hands bound behind his back. That image by itself has made it impossible to not report on them. We are always struggling against that: To what extent are we giving them more credence, more volume, more stature by doing stories about them? It’s a little bit of a non-sequitur for me given that this is my beat. [Laughs.] It’s not like I have a secondary career doing dining reviews.
Your husband might prefer that to the beheading videos. Anyway, you mentioned the political response to Orlando: Has there been much chatter among extremists about the presidential race?
Surprisingly no, and surprisingly there’s been very little about Trump. Somehow I find that curious because of the message that the candidate has been putting out. These are all issues that play very much into the ISIS narrative. For some time now they’ve been promoting the phrase “the gray zone.” The idea is that they want to destroy the so-called gray zone between the black and the white. Black is anybody who is not Muslim and white is them. The gray is moderate Muslims who are living in the West and are happy and feel engaged in the society here. They keep on talking about how one of their tactics is to eliminate the gray zone. Well obviously some of the hate speech that we’ve heard in the election, you would think, would go towards that aim. I don’t know what to make of ISIS’s silence on Trump.
They’re the only people on Earth who are not talking about Trump apparently. Who are some of your favorite writers, whether they inspired your reporting and writing or not?
Oh my God there are so many. My formation as a writer was as a poet. I tried very early on to be a poet and I published about a dozen poems in America and in American journals before I realized that this was a totally dead-end street as a career. In terms of poetry, one of the people who really marked me was Ezra Pound, who was a modernist poet and talks about the importance of distilling an image. The idea is that you have an image that you want to convey. Beginning and even intermediate writers will end up drowning that image in prose. The idea is that you look at the prose almost like a tree. You have to pare it down. You have to take out all of the extra limbs, all of the extra shrubbery so that you can really see the form. That idea, which I tried to practice in poetry, is one that I very much try to practice in journalism: to try to distill the language. I pick my adjectives carefully. I try to build stories around images because I think that’s the way that the human brain works when you are reading a story. Why is it that we love cinema and TV so much? Because we are looking at images.
Have you tried to write any poetry recently?
No, I almost completely stopped writing poetry when I started writing prose. Annoyingly, my Wikipedia page also identifies me as a poet. I have no idea how one goes about changing those things.
That’s how we are going to sell this interview: your poetry.
It’s 15 years out of date.
One interesting thing about Pound was that he was completely out of his mind.
Yes, he was. I came to realize that much later. He was a misogynist, an anti-Semite, all sorts of other things.
I notice some similarities to those ideas and your current beat.
I was incredibly inspired by his writings at a formative time in my own life. I can’t kind of turn my back on that now after knowing what I know about his views. It’s the same thing with Picasso, isn’t it? I adore Picasso’s painting but if I stop to think about what an asshole the guy was, it somehow changes it. You know, maybe I’m wrong to do this, but I think it’s a little bit much to ask that a great artist also be a great human being. The muscles that made him a great poet don’t necessarily transfer to having a great heart.
Do you ever worry that it’s also hard for a great journalist to be a great human being?
That’s such a tough one. I’ve spent my career reporting in places of great human suffering. You know the adage about how as a reporter you’re supposed to be very detached and not show emotion? I did away with that a decade ago. I’ve always tried to be emotionally raw when I’m meeting these people and react as a human being would. Which, in many cases, means crying with them when you’re listening to really sad stories.