Speaking to the Enemy

Rukmini Callimachi CdeP 1991 shares her experiences covering the Islamic State for The New York Times.
On the evening of Thursday, October 4, Rukmini Callimachi CdeP 1991 addressed the campus community as part of Thacher’s McCloskey Speakers Series. She also held a question and answer session for interested students afterward and visited a journalism class the following day. Her talk, entitled Speaking to the Enemy, chronicled the evolution of Ms. Callimachi’s journalistic career from West Africa AP bureau chief to her investigations into the Islamic State on behalf of her current employer, The New York Times

The speaker was introduced by Daisy ’20, an editor of the Thacher student newspaper whose interest in journalism has been informed by prior email correspondence with Ms. Callimachi. In her introduction, Daisy recited Ms. Callimachi’s growing list of honors: four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, winner of the Peabody Award (for Califate), George Polk Award for International Reporting, Michael Kelly Award for Fearless Pursuit and Expression of Truth, and multiple Overseas Press Club awards.

Daisy also noted a fundamental principle of Ms. Callimachi’s work: proximity. This commitment to getting close to her subject matter and getting to know the enemy was a central theme of Ms. Callimachi’s talk. Her willingness to seek out individual members of the Islamic State, to patiently win their trust, and then to listen to their stories has been essential to her ability to broaden and deepen our understanding of international terrorism. But along with proximity comes the great risk associated with entering war zones, the exposure to brutal truths, and even recurrent threats upon her life. All of this, Ms. Callimachi has accepted as the cost of shedding light on an important subject.

“For me,” said Daisy after the lecture, “it was such a surreal experience to hear her speak in person about her incredible work on ISIS, given the fact that I have listened to all of her podcasts and view her as such an inspiring figure. Her stories are all so impressive, and it was so awesome to see that the entire School truly was captivated by her talk.”

Ms. Callimachi told the story of one of her major journalistic breakthroughs: the discovery of a trove of 15,000 Islamic State documents in Mosul, Iraq. Careful examination of these papers allowed her to piece together a picture of the terrorist regime that was far more complex than the one being put forth by the media and policy makers. Far from a loosely organized collective of radical terrorists, ISIS was, in an important sense, a functioning state, with at least 14 ministries and a well organized bureaucracy overseeing everything from birth certificates and child vaccinations to the expense reports of its terrorist units. 

At one point, Ms. Callimachi digressed from her discussion of these ISIS materials and shared some classified original documents from closer to home: her advisor letters and report cards from her Thacher days. Ever the investigative journalist, Callimachi drew connections between these early assessments of her work and the person she is today. 

In a previous interview Ms. Callimachi expressed the importance to her of the Thacher values of honor, fairness, kindness, truth. To that list she added, integrity. “These are values that are core to me, and core to my journalism. I show people that I trust them—and this goes to what Thacher does—you entrust people with this trust and then it somehow brings out people’s better nature.” 

After receiving a standing ovation for her talk, Ms. Callimachi took a few questions before the School adjourned for Formal Dinner, where conversation continued on the themes of the lecture. After dinner, those still hungry for more gathered in the Thacher Room for a more informal conversation with Ms. Callimachi [see below]. 

“The Q&A was remarkable because so many people went,” said Daisy, “and every time Ms.Callimachi would finish answering one question, ten new hands would go up. She talked about everything from her relationships with her editors, to embedding with troops, to what she wears during her interview with ISIS terrorists.”

The McCloskey Speaker Series aims to bring high caliber, inspirational resources and speakers with a wide degree of expertise and interests to Thacher and to the Ojai community at large. It was made possible by a 2016 donation from the McCloskey Family Charitable Foundation that supports the operational costs of the series in perpetuity. Previous McCloskey speakers have included Atom Factory founder Troy Carter and medieval scholar Willam R. Cook. 

Interviewing the Interviewer

Highlights of the Q&A Session Rukmini Callimachi CdeP 1991 held with Thacher students after her lecture. 

Around 30 people attended an hour-long Q&A session after formal dinner. Faculty, board members, and upperclassmen alike had questions and curiosity after her talk on Speaking to the Enemy. Here is a brief summary of some of the questions asked:

How do you verify the information you receive?
As with all things, there are some you can’t verify; the area where ISIS primarily operated were and are completely off limits to western journalists, and the ones who went in said regions were killed. The normal primary way to verify things is to go onto the ground and verify things in person, which, as you might guess, is hard to do. What I can do is tell the readers in the story that here are the things that I couldn’t verify. 

The things you can verify however, you can verify through patterns. I understand the pattern behind the way things normally happened after having talked to so many people. For example, on the way recruitment happens; I know the names of recruiters, smugglers, safe houses on arrival, so when someone tells me these things—these facts are online but it is hard to find them—I feel confident that some of it is at least the truth.

It is interesting that the majority of the people I’ve interviewed do not want to talk about the crimes they themselves commit. They’ll talk about what they witnessed—I was present when they held an execution, I walked past an adulterer being stoned to death, etc.—but they never admitted it themselves, so it was interesting to hear Abu Ridwan, openly admit to it.

What does the future of ISIS look like given their significant loss of territory?
They definitely lost one of the big pulls they had, and as a result, their recruitment is down: authorities were intercepting what used to be hundreds going into ISIS territory and that has become no more than a couple of dozen. What ISIS has done, however, is gone back to what it had been before their expansion. This is a group that begins in Iraq in 2003-2004 and from 2003-2004 to 2012-2013 they held almost no land at all, yet they were incredible deadly. They killed thousands of coalition troops and American soldiers in that period. They’ve gone back to what they’ve done for over a decade.

In February we were waiting for the last village under ISIS to fall in Syria and I went to cover the story. To get to that front line you entered Iraq and drove south through an area of Syria that used to be under ISIS control but had been mostly liberated in 2015. It was a three-hour drive to the military camp where the rebels were working with the U.S. to push out ISIS. This took us out to the front line, and that road was technically liberated years ago. That road is now so unsafe to the point that my drivers, who transported me at least four times between the interviews at the prisons and the camp, told me that if we need to do this again, they’re quitting, because it’s too dangerous. There were snipers, mortars, suicide bombers—this is what liberation was meant to look like. The area was technically no longer under ISIS control, but it definitely wasn’t under the control of the coalition.

How does ISIS do their recruiting and what is their appeal to westerners?
Initially using popular western social media like Twitter to reach out, they are now more concentrated in the “dark” internet. Their largest appeal is simple—it’s often people who can’t find a place for themselves in their home country. It’s often not something dramatic. Take Abu Ridwan: he tried to get into dental school but didn’t get in; his parents saw him as a bit of failure and expected better of him. In the dark recesses of the internet, however, he found a place of belonging among people in the group. They made him think that if he joined the Islamic State he would be some sort of Muslim warrior protecting his fellow Muslims. There are many other steps included but he was being offered something really exciting that gave him meaning—in his warped view—that would make him like a hero versus here where he felt kind of like a failure, and he chose ISIS.

How do you prepare and/or dress when you go to your ground investigations?
In terms of dress, if I’m in the Middle East, I have to wear long sleeves despite the heat. I’ve tried going with shorter sleeves but it ends up with everybody looking at you. I cycled through two tunics, washing them in the sink, and I’ve worn them so much now that they’re both in tatters. If I’m in Iraq or Syria, however, I also have my flak jacket that I take everywhere, my helmet that goes into my bag that’s always with me, a first aid kit (that’s unused so far but for emergencies), at least two battery packs for my phone, and a satellite phone for the areas without reception. Recently, I’ve started bringing around a little lap desk, because I have so many hours in the car so that way I can work on my laptop.

In terms of people, the New York Times Bureau in Iraq has been there since 2003. We have the most amazing bureau manager and he is the person who runs the local staff. Every day in Iraq begins with either me in the car with him or me calling him and him setting up other things for me. He’s so well connected and has such integrity in the way he does his work. What then happens in different parts of Iraq is that it’s so balkanized that you have to have other people in that area. I have had multiple amazing translators who have all gotten green cards. I’ve learned that it’s important to have a person from each place with me, otherwise the doors aren’t open.

Rukmini also touched upon the role of social media in these terror groups, her work shifting to a podcast, and more.

The Q&A synopsis was provided by Ian ’20.

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