The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi on How She Gets Close to ISIS

Rukmini Callimachi. Photo: Courtesy of The New York Times

The New York Times recently launched Caliphate, a new podcast that follows foreign correspondent and terrorism expert Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on ISIS. The series is simultaneously addictive, thrilling, and terrifying. Callimachi speaks of the intricacies of the Islamic State and the harassment she’s endured from the group, including rape threats and even getting fat-shamed online by ISIS members. The podcast is a truly fascinating portrayal of the horrifying group — providing new insight into how ISIS operates, a look at some of its members (including a Canadian man you wouldn’t think would be affiliated with ISIS), and how Callimachi was able to get close to the group to report.

The Cut chatted with Callimachi about the podcast, the dangers of covering ISIS, and her reporting methods. The interview has been edited and condensed.

First off, how did you get into reporting on ISIS?
I started covering Al-Qaeda around five years ago, when I was the West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. At first, I reported on that group much like other reporters all over the world: I called officials in Washington, I tried to get interviews at the State Department, and I spoke to the political attachés at various American and other Western embassies.

Everything changed for me in 2013, when the French military launched an offensive inside Mali to try to push back Al-Qaeda. I followed the French troops as they were liberating various areas, and in the rubble of buildings that Al-Qaeda had occupied in the city of Timbuktu, I discovered thousands and thousands of documents they left behind. Those papers revolutionized the way I looked at this group. It was the start of the journey I’m still on today. In 2014, I was hired by the Times. Within a couple of months, ISIS had taken over northern Iraq and northern Syria. That became my next beat.

You don’t just interview members of the group — you actually visit their homes and offices after raids. What does that teach you?
The documents they leave behind are the most honest portrayal you can find of these people. It’s not filtered through anybody. They’re not meant for public consumption; they are letters between commanders, receipts showing the various transactions they’ve engaged in, memos outlining policy.

If I were trying to do a profile of you and I go to speak to your neighbors — they probably don’t know much about you other than maybe they see you come out of your house once in a while and wave your hand. But what if I went into your house? What if I was able to find your diary? What if I was able to find your bank statements or the correspondences you left behind? That would be much more telling.

What have you learned about the structure of ISIS through your reporting? I was really surprised to hear that there’s an ISIS HR department…
We’re in the habit of saying theirs was a “so-called state,” but I think that’s wrong. The documents show that they had a functioning state that was not recognized by anyone else. They had an administration that in some ways outperformed the government they usurped. They had every department you could imagine, from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Sanitation, an HR wing, a medical department. They had their own ambulances, made their own license plates for cars, and they had receipts for everything. Their ambition was to be a state, and they behaved like one.

Does reporting on them as a female journalist present even more difficulties?
For every woman that is in this space — and it’s not just covering ISIS, but women who are covering Trump or other conflicts — online harassment is a constant. We face abuse that is gendered in the way it is delivered. A very easy way to threaten a female journalist is to threaten rape. I’ve had my share of those, just like other female journalists.

It was particularly interesting that they were fat shaming you, of all things. That sounds like teenage behavior.
It was pretty funny to me, too. But that’s when you remember that a big cohort of ISIS is millennials. They’re these young kids, and their sophomoric behavior online mimics that. One of the names they called me was “Oink-mini Fat-machi.” It’s like being back in junior high.

You also mention that people constantly ask if you ever get afraid when covering this group.
I personally am really put off by reporters who cover this type of stuff and say they never get afraid. I don’t even know how that’s possible. Fear plays an important role; the purpose of fear is to warn you that you’re approaching danger. I’m lucky that I work at the New York Times because they have very thorough protocol for sending reporters into these areas. We don’t just show up somewhere; there’s an entire security plan and there are a lot of levels of approval that you go through before you go anywhere. That of course gives you some reassurance.

But then there are things that are out of your control. Reporting in Mosul, I was always with Iraqi troops. So in many ways, they are by far the more courageous ones because they would enter the buildings before me. But even when you’re walking behind them, you’re still wondering, “Is this unstable rock I’m standing on going to detonate something?”

You talk about ISIS making specific threats on your life, and a procedure that was put in place with local police to help if you were ever in danger. Shortly afterward, you called 911 when someone repeatedly knocked on your door in the middle of the night. As a listener, I felt terrified for you.
It was so weird. Who knocks on someone’s door at 12:30 a.m.? To this day, I want to call the water department in my little area and ask, “What were you thinking?” I ran into my neighbor the next day, and she of course doesn’t have the whole ISIS backstory. She told me that her husband was so freaked out that they went to the kitchen to get a knife because they didn’t know why somebody would be knocking on their door at this time.

What story are you trying to tell with this podcast?
We’re so used to doing a caricatured approach to ISIS. Their actions are so vile, their violence is so savage, that we fall into this very black-and-white style of reporting, where they are the boogiemen and the other side are the victims. I wanted to see if we could go into the gray, because I have met these people.

What always strikes me when I meet them, is how normal they seem. So then you ask yourself, how does that person join this group? The vehicle we found is this young man in Canada, who is basically the backbone of the podcast. I chose him because of how normal he is. He’s neither rich nor poor; he’s not particularly in a bad way in his life. He had a nice family; he wasn’t abused. What he ends up doing just becomes that much more difficult to understand. As you hear it from his side and you hear the steps he took to get there, I hope that it starts to make more sense to people.

New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi on Getting Close to ISIS