English, please / Media&digital

The journalist who talks to ISIS members: “I am not fearless”

By Diana Meseșan

Published on 15 October 2019

People ask her all the time: Why do you go through all this trauma?  “Sometimes we are the only witnesses”, Rukmini says. “Bearing witness to these events is important. If not, it’s as if they never happened.”

I discovered Rukmini Callimachi by listening to her voice in my headphones. I had no idea that she’s a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, one of the leading world experts on ISIS or al-Qaeda, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, or that she was born in Communist Romania, from where her family escaped in 1979, when she was almost 6. 

I was only familiar with her clear, reassuring voice from the Caliphate podcast, published by The New York Times last year. My heart skipped a beat when I hit play. You hear a woman asking “How does ISIS prepare you to kill people?”, and a young man answering “We had dolls to practice on. We also have cut-outs of ballistic gels. It would feel a lot like human. Inside the ballistic gel, they’d have sacks where major organs would be, and then you go to slice, practice, behead, stab, just practice.” 

Despite the heavy topic, the conversation was smooth, even calm. You never heard a man confessing to his crimes, while somebody was holding a gun to his head. No. It was a young man telling a journalist about his ISIS membership, as if he were talking to an older friend, whom he respects. And Rukmini listened to him without any prejudice, asking specific and very straightforward questions.

At the time, I was discovering a new type of podcast, one without a voiceover or a host, in which the characters were the journalist Rukmini Callimachi and this young man, who returned to Canada after fighting in Syria. It was like a movie you’d watch breathlessly, but it was for real and it was just audio. 

Caliphate was produced by Andy Mills, one of the most talented audio producers worldwide, whom I interviewed last year. He then told me that he had known right from the start that there has never been anyone like Rukmini at the center of a podcast. 

One year after having listened to her voice in my headphones, I saw Rukmini at Romania’s National Art Museum in Bucharest. Wearing a green dress and long boots, she was preparing to join a debate at the Unfinished festival, to which she had been invited at the end of September. “Journalism is only as powerful as the ability of the readers to connect with another person”, Rukmini later said during the talk. She had also come to Romania to baptise her son in an old monastery, which is just a few meters away from the cemetery where her grandmother rests. It was like the meeting of two worlds; seeing a picture of her son held by an Orthodox priest above a baptismal font on Twitter, discovering that this journalist who enters ISIS chat rooms on a daily basis actually grew up in a building that is right across the former headquarters of Scena9 magazine, listening to her talk in Romanian for more than an hour and a half at a local radio, on her family’s departure, the shame of growing up as a refugee in Switzerland, and then the shame about having felt shame. 

In short, Rukmini became part of Romania’s familiar landscape for a few days. I sat down with her for an interview in English in the art museum’s courtyard. She talked about being the Other for a while and the way it shaped her worldview, about bringing poetry to journalism, but also about bringing truth to it, by refusing to only talk to the sources in the government, and by going to the actual terrorists, joining their chat rooms, searching for their documents. 

She also talked about the decision to show herself vulnerable in the podcast, by mentioning how the terrorists were making fun of her weight, or how she called 911, thinking there were ISIS members at her door. During the interview, Rukmini showed me the latest updates on the ISIS chat rooms on Telegram and read a very beautiful poem about her grandmother. 

The only personal detail in your Twitter description is “ex-refugee”. Why did you choose that?

I used to tell people and I used to believe that my personal story had very little to do with my outlook on life, that I was just like everybody else. But I realised in retrospect that I was wrong. The experience of losing home, being a political refugee specifically, has in a way shaped my worldview. Because the people I’m attracted to in my reporting are people that are often seen as the Other. When I got to Switzerland my family was the Other. We were seen as not from there. So I’d say I realised in the last couple years that it’s important for me to share that with people.

What made you realise that you were wrong, and that your story has actually shaped your worldview?

A couple of years ago, there were tens of thousands of refugees that were pouring out of Syria, coming through Greece and into Europe. There was one moment. I don’t know if you remember that they went through Hungary and they were attacked. That actually brought back a flood of memories. (...) When we left in ‘79 we were stopped in Hungary. My mother was taken out onto the train platform. The official said We know that you are trying to flee, even though we had Visas that technically gave us permission to leave, and threatened to send us back. I remember how frightening that event was. I also remember that my mother started weeping. This official, for whatever reason, took pity on her and let us go. 

How did you deal with the shame of being an immigrant? 

The experience of America was completely different from the experience of Switzerland. I remember my first day of school. The other children asked me Where are you from. I remember answering with hesitation. I said to them I am from Romania and one little kid said You mean where Nadia Comăneci is from? Yeah. Oh my god, that’s so cool! (...) My relationship with it started to change then. But Switzerland was a whole different thing. And even now, when I’m in Switzerland, even now as an accomplished foreign correspondent for The New York Times, when I’m checking into my hotel, they take my US passport and they’re putting in my name and they see the place of birth. And I’ll see them go, Oh, you’re from Romania. I’ll see the clouds in their eyes. The judgement in their eyes. 

Does is still trigger something in you?

Now it makes me angry. Very angry. 

Why do you think some people manage to overcome the shame of being the Other, while others are buried by it, like Abu Huzaifa, the central character in Caliphate, and a lot of these young men and women who joined ISIS. 

There was a report about ISIS that found that people that were especially susceptible to the recruitment message was what they called the 1.5 generation. The first generation are the immigrants who come and the second generation are their children. But the 1.5 are the children of immigrants who come as children. They struggle the most because unlike their parents who are very firm in their identity - they are Romanians who have come and are now in America, or they are Arabs or whatever-  these guys seem American, they play Pokemon and they read Harry Potter, they go to school there, but others around them don’t recognise them as being fully American. This creates a dissonance that sometimes leads to what led to Huzaifa becoming Huzaifa. 

“I’ve always brought the techniques of poetry to journalism.”

How did you transition from writing poetry to becoming a journalist? 

As a poet I realised it’s a very interior life. You’re in a room by yourself writing and I actually really love being with other people. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I need to be alone to recharge, but I also want to be with people. And that’s what journalism is.

Does journalism leave you the space to write as poetically as you want to?

I’ve always brought the techniques of poetry to journalism. It doesn't always make it into the copy, I’m not sure my editors are as pleased with those techniques as I am. (laughs)  Also, by virtue of being between languages. I speak Romanian with my mother and all of my relatives. My husband is French so I speak French at home and then I work in English. So I’m sort of between languages. That has created a sensitivity for words. I’m constantly saying to myself, this is X in English, Y in Romanian and Z in French in comparing the words. 

How was it for you to show yourself vulnerable during the podcast, to share some personal details?

It was something that I was initially not comfortable with. Andy convinced me to do it. (...) But I remember going to have drinks with a very good friend of mine who is also a New York Times reporter, telling her the story. And she expressed concern. She said I’m worried that if that anecdote gets out people could take it the wrong way. They could see you as weak. Because it’s actually been very difficult for me to establish myself as a war correspondent. And I think part of that has to do with my gender. (...) Obviously it was absolutely irrational to think that ISIS was ringing at my door bell. It makes no sense. But it was the place that I had ended up in after having one too many warnings, one too many close calls. (...) I believe that I’m up to six times that the FBI has come to see me. There’s threats all the time, but then there’s the ones that the FBI took seriously enough to actually contact my newsroom and to call and say we believe that this is a credible threat and we’re warning you about it. 

I think that it was hugely important and brave to show yourself as vulnerable because most investigative journalists are often represented as heroes who are never afraid. 

I don’t wanna talk for other people, but my impression is that a lot of people in the field portray themselves as fearless. I am not fearless. I feel fear a lot. I wasn’t planning on talking about it, but Andy convinced me that it was important for the sake of the narration of this. 

Matthew Caruana Galizia, whose mother was murdered in Malta in October 2017, said at a conference last year that investigative journalists lack an instinct of self-preservation. How do you see that?

Years ago that would have been the case for me but I’ve had enough close calls and I’ve done enough reporting that I’ve realised that we’re basically in a zero-sum situation. You can’t make a security mistake anymore. You can’t make even one, really. For instance, when I’m in an area near the frontlines where ISIS is on the other side, if God forbid I go beyond the frontline, I’m captured by ISIS it’s over. I’m gonna be killed. Killed, raped etc. There’s nobody that comes out of that situation. So I’ve become much more aware of that as time goes on. 

“There’s threats all the time, but then there’s the ones that the FBI took seriously enough to actually contact my newsroom.”

What drew you to the topics of terrorism and war?

Terrorism was just an accident of fate. When I was in West Africa, I was there for seven years, in 2011 I became the bureau chief for that region and in 2012 al-Qaeda took over the North of Mali. Mali was one of 20 countries that I covered. But that story very quickly became the most important story on my beat. That sort of became the opening. But everything really changed for me in 2013. 2012 the al-Qaeda entity was holding this territory, but 2013 was when French forces went in to push them out and I was able to follow behind the French. I got to the city of Timbuktu three days after it was liberated and in the buildings that al-Qaeda had occupied I found thousands of pages of documents. 

Do you remember that particular moment when you found the documents?

There were sort of two moments. The al-Qaeda group had taken over a local bank and they had turned it into the headquarters of their Islamic place. A lot of journalists had been there. I was not the first to get in. So I walked in and most of the stuff had already been picked up. I saw one piece of paper on the ground and I picked it up. It was in Arabic and I went. Oh, it’s in Arabic, I can’t read it and I dropped it back down. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel that night that I suddenly went Mali is a francophone country. People go to school and they learn French. That’s the national language. They don’t learn Arabic. And we knew that the group that had come in they were mainly Algerians, some Mauritanians, some Tunisians, some Libians, but they were North-Africans and they were Arab speakers. I suddenly realised Oh my god, that thing that I left it there, that I just dropped it  on the floor, that was most likely some al-Qaeda record. The next day I went back to that building, that piece of paper was no longer there. Then I asked the locals can you take me to the other buildings that had been occupied by the group. We went building by building and that’s when we found literally thousands. I put them in trash bags, I went to the local pharmacy and got a bunch of trash bags, a bunch of gloves cause they were very dirty. I had a system where I had one trash bag for each building so I would remember which thing came from where. And of course I can’t read them cause I don’t read Arabic and at that point I didn’t have an Arabic translator. But I just went and picked everything up and then we started working through it with a translator and the material was just incredible. It was letters from the most senior leaders of al-Qaeda, the guy who was considered the general manager of al-Qaeda, who was writing letters to the guys in the field, giving them instructions on how to run the territory and it just revolutionized my idea of who this group was. (...) The key takeaway remains the same, which is that in general news organisations are not doing this kind of work. They are not working on documents, they are not looking for documents and they are not trying to talk to the terrorists. That’s changed slightly with the fall of the last territory that was under ISIS rule because all of these Europeans are now in camps so you can literally go and talk to them in the safety of a controlled environment. But back in 2012 I had one al-Qaeda source that I was talking to on the phone. He gave me his phone number. 

How did you get a terrorist’s phone number?

When this al-Qaeda group took this territory in Mali they appointed him the spokesman and he gave out his phone number to reporters. I’m not the only one who called him. There were a bunch of us who called him. He ended up being killed in a coalition airstrike with a drone a couple of years later. But he used to take my call all the time. He liked me. He used to call me “My sister”. 

Why do you think he liked you?

I think he liked me because I tried to listen to him. I spoke to him dozens of times. I probably quoted him four or five times. 

Why were you calling him?

I was still trying to figure out this beat at that point in time. First of all it was incredible that you could speak to a member of al-Qaeda. Whenever anything was happening regarding the group I would call him. For instance. His group had destroyed the mausoleums in Timbuktu. The mausoleums were these ancient, hundreds and hundreds of year-old shrines. They destroyed them because there is a saying from the Prophet Mohamed about how graves should not be a number of centimeters above the ground because if the graves are big that becomes an object of worship, and worship should be a hundred percent to god. They destroyed these mausoleums, put out a statement about it so I called him. Hey, what’s the deal with the mausoleums? Yes, yes, yes, let me explain to you why we did that. I started to realise by speaking to him that what looked on the outside as just this irrational behaviour, it was actually a very controlled thing. It was something that they had thought through. Which doesn’t make it right, but it became more interesting to me. 

“I got to the city of Timbuktu three days after it was liberated and in the buildings that al-Qaeda had occupied I found thousands of pages of documents.”

The first step was finding documents. What was the second step?

Speaking to [the terrorists]. Considering them sources. This remains controversial. There’s one group of people that would think that we shouldn’t give them a voice at all. But listening and giving them a voice are two different things. There’s nothing stopping me from listening to a thousand terrorists, as long as you don’t let them use you and use your platform. 

When did you start entering their chat rooms?

That was in 2014. That’s when they migrated to this app called Telegram where they were able to create these rooms. People joined the rooms. The rooms are suspended almost every day. So you have to stay in the room and look for the link for the new room. I’ll show you. This is an ISIS room. See, they have 30 subscribers. Not very many. They don’t realise that I am who I am. Let’s see if we can find links. There’s no links in here. Ok, this is a new link. My brothers and sisters, …(reads something) This is the word that they use for going to join the Islamic state… and Shahada is martyrdom. So here’s another one. This has already been suspended. Every day I’m doing this. I’m going to this thing. I am basically reading it every day and it becomes important when there’s an attack. When there’s an attack this is where they go to claim it. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this. And it’s helpful because they are constantly articulating their ideology. What are the principles that they believe in. It’s like a news wire for them.

Do you speak Arabic?

No, I don’t. I work with a translator.

You are considered one of the leading experts on ISIS and terrorism. Has your expertise ever been challenged just because you’re a woman? 

Yeah..yeah... Of course, but this is not something that I want to share too much cause it’s a little bit ...But just recently I was named a research fellow at the George Washington University’s program on extremism. Which I think underscores this idea that I am a journalist, but I also have some real expertise. There’ve been a lot of challenges in my own newsroom because I’m coming from an unconventional approach. The major way that people report on terrorism is by speaking to officials. Getting a source in the US Government, in the intelligence community, who’s been to Iraq, who’s been to Syria, who tells you this is what ISIS says. And my approach has been I have those sources, I go to them, but I also want to go to the terrorists themselves and understand what they are saying about themselves. Because the assumption is that these people are lying. That isn’t right. Yes, they lie. They lie like any other source. But they don’t lie all the time. So you have to find the moments of truth and to me there’s a lot to be gained from that. 

“I also want to go to the terrorists themselves and understand what they are saying about themselves. Because the assumption is that these people are lying. That isn’t right. Yes, they lie. They lie like any other source. But they don’t lie all the time. “

Have your sources ever felt betrayed? 

Huzaifa is an interesting case. He shared all of this with us. We had this incredible interview where he talked about the killings, about the things that really were incriminating for him. And then less than 24 hours after we finished the interview, Canadian officials came and banged on his door. He realised that he was under investigation. I think that he became scared. The reporting process for Caliphate took a year and a half. So we were in touch with him for a year and a half. But in the course of that period, he got more and more scared until he got to the point where he asked me not to publish it. And at that point we were too far in. It was one thing if he had said it in the first day, but our ground rule was We are not using your name, we are not saying what city from Canada you’re from, we’re not gonna identify your father’s restaurant. We had a couple of ground rules, and he wanted to change them. That was a very painful conversation for me to have, where I had to say I am sorry but we are going to publish this. He then became really aggressive towards me, he started sending me threats. 

Did you feel responsible for him?

I very much did. This was a point of tension in my own team, because other members of my team thought he’s a murderer. He’s done these things so he should pay for them. I felt very conflicted about the idea that somebody had trusted me with their story and that even though I had met my agreement in terms of what he said I could publish and couldn’t publish at least initially, him putting his trust in me might lead to him being put away in prison. As it happened, that didn’t occur. And then I felt conflicted about that. Oh my god, somebody has confessed to murder and nothing’s happened. But much after the publication of Caliphate, months later, he wrote to me with this very sweet message and said that he was proud of me, that he thanked me for everything and that I had done a good job. That was among the nicest things I think I’ve received. 

“Much after the publication of Caliphate, months later, he wrote to me with this very sweet message and said that he was proud of me, that he thanked me for everything and that I had done a good job.”

Are you still in touch with him?

He sent me a congratulations on the birth of my son and we’ve been in touch. 

The last episode creates this sense that there is no real hope for him. I was curious what you felt when you heard him say that he’s more adamant in his ideology. He was more radicalized in a way. 

The way that you would expect this to go is that deradicalisation is a progressive process. And you start being very radicalized and then you deradicalise. In fact it’s illogical to think that it would be that easy. If it was that easy then we would have some sort of template for deradicalizing people. In fact, radicalization is a curve, up and down, up and down. I think that we ended in that year and a half at a place where he was more radicalized than when he started. I hope that down the road there’s going to be progress for him but I don’t know where he’s going to end up. I do know that Canadian authorities are watching him very carefully so I think it will be very hard for him to actually harm somebody. I hope. He has assured me many times that he’d never want to harm anyone again. I hope he’s telling the truth in that regard. 

In the last episode, you hear Trump saying that terrorists shouldn’t even be called people, drawing this line between us and them. Later you hear Huzaifa with a very similar discourse, just reversing the Us and Them. The parallel is amazing. Why do you think people need to make this distinction between Us and Them? What role does it serve?  

I see in my own family, in people that I love very much this troubling trait where because of the humiliation of having been refugees they feel this need to say who’s good and who’s bad and to create this idea that they are in the good place. Members of my own family, who are themselves refugees, are amongst the most xenophobic people that you could find. They are incredibly prejudiced towards Syrian immigrants forgetting that we ourselves were immigrants. And I think that this comes from this need, especially of embattled people, when you feel weak, you want to create this enemy, and put yourself on the other side of it. If everybody is the same then you don’t have anything to stand up on. 

“We’re in such a competitive environment, and in constantly trying to become better, better, better, you can get fixated on what you don’t have instead of thinking on all of the things that you do have.”

Where do you get your hope from? 

I’m an optimist, but also a depressive personality, melancholic. My mom is like she has a tube of serotonin that is constantly flushing her brain. She’s the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and says what a gorgeous morning, I’m so happy to be alive. Despite these really horrible things that have happened to her, that you would think they would destroy somebody. I grew up in the ambiance.

So hope runs in the family.

I guess. I’m just looking at the bright side of things. I’ve also tried to train myself in that regard. One exercise I do before I go to sleep, when I’m lying in bed, I say thank you for all the good things in my life. I thank God for my husband, for my child, for my dog, for my career, for my mom, for my dad. And I go through this mental checklist to remind myself of all the good things, because I think we’re in such a competitive environment, and in constantly trying to become better, better, better, you can get fixated on what you don’t have instead of thinking on all of the things that you do have. I’ve noticed that in doing that is like this warm feeling comes over me. So I give gratitude for all of that and try to remind myself to do that every day.

Cover Photo: Claudiu Popescu





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