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How Rukmini Callimachi searches for humanity on the ISIS beat

After the international community and local security forces won a series of hard-fought victories against the Islamic State in recent years, ISIS is regrouping in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who covers ISIS, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss her 10-part podcast “Caliphate” and her search for the militant group's motives.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    U.S. military officials announced Saturday that efforts to fight the Islamic State in eastern Syria are nearing an end. This after U.S.-backed Syrian forces captured the town of Hajin, which is one of the largest urban enclaves controlled by the Islamic State in the region.

    But as we've reported on this program, despite efforts to quell the growth of Isis, strongholds are regrouping, and localized groups are emerging, as recruiters exploit the war and political factors.

    I recently sat down with New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi who covers Isis. Her in-depth podcast "caliphate" takes listeners inside the terror group and their motives through her relationship with self-described former Isis member Abu Huzaifa.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You had a 10-part podcast series that looked at so many different layers of ISIS. And for people who might go back and subscribe now but didn't hear it then, what were you trying to accomplish?

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    I mean, first of all, I was trying to accomplish what I'm always trying to accomplish, which is: I'm trying my best to understand these people that in many ways look like monsters to us. These are people that are doing acts that we consider are so horrific that it's hard to even conceive of them as human. And yet I've been on this beat now for four years. And as a result of my work, I've over and over had a chance to speak to them mostly, in jails in Iraq and Syria, but occasionally in the West, which was the case of Abu Huzaifa, who was the Canadian recruit who agreed to speak to us. And what strikes you when you speak to these people is just how normal they come across. And, in fact, it's something that is in a way more frightening, and I'm trying to go as deeply as I can into the ideology that makes them tick, because we typically don't talk about that — in an effort to not, you know, give it more oxygen — but unfortunately it's important to try to understand it, if we're going to try to stem the growth of this group.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How did you get this beat? Did you opt in? Did your editors? You joined the Times what… a few years…

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    2014. So it's been almost five years. I really just happened upon it. And it was back when I was at the Associated Press. I was back then the West Africa bureau chief for the AP. In 2012, a group that was affiliated with al Qaeda took over the north of Mali. And very quickly that became the most important issue on my beat. I was being asked to file on that all the time. In 2013, French forces went in to flush them out. I followed behind them, and that was the first major discovery of documents that I made. Basically, I realized that this is a group, al Qaeda, just like ISIS is a group that is highly organized. It has an enormous amount of paperwork to go along with the bureaucracy that it is trying to run. And I realized then in 2013 that much of what Washington sources, from the Pentagon to the State Department, had told me about this group was wrong, was dead wrong. And I realized at that point in time that there was something that I could contribute to the study of this phenomena.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As you see people that are in this world… I remember one of the things that was kind of at the end of your podcast, you caught up with this a year later, the same story, whether or not this individual is gaming the system.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    Yes, Huzaifa and I and our team spoke to each other over the course of a year and a half. And we got to him in this, in what I think was this really critical moment, which was that he had managed to get back together without getting arrested. He got through the airport no issues. So he thought he was scot free. Nobody had come to interrogate him, and he was starting to think real hard about the awful things that he told us he had done. He claimed that he was so upset by some of them that he could no longer sleep, he was sleeping on the floor next to his mother's bed. And so I think we caught him in this moment of what seemed like true remorse. Immediately after we interviewed him, 12 hours later, police come and banged down his door. He then starts this year-long process of constant interrogations, constant surveillance. He would come out of his house and see a car parked there. He would get in his own car, that car would come behind him. And so he suddenly went from, I'm scot free, which gave him the space to sort of feel guilt, to, "these jerks are after me, you know, like how dare they, you know I was just doing my duty as a Muslim." These crazy things that he tells himself. Right. And then when they could file charges against him, this arrogance came out that you see in…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Emboldens him.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    ..this boldness this, "you know, they can't get me. You know, I'm free, check it out. You know, I've gamed the system." It was a really bad look, and I told him as much, you know. I kept on trying to push him on this and say, listen, you have talked about killing two human beings. What about their families? Right. What about their families? And he would always sort of shut down when we went back to that. Beyond that first period of time, he did not want to talk about the murders again.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In his brain and probably the brains of a lot of these people, they think they are on the side of good.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    Absolutely.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The rest of us perceive this, we hear their words, and we say, what are you talking about?

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    The critical experience that who's ever had that propelled him towards this group was him in front of his computer in his bedroom at his mom's house watching and rewatching these horrific YouTube videos of Syrian civilians being killed in airstrikes. These images cause all of us pain. But at the moment when he was ingesting those images, he was also speaking to ISIS recruiters who were saying, these are Muslims who are being killed by the West — of course, they're being killed by barrel bombs by Assad, in their own country, but they gloss over that — these are Muslims that are being victimized by the West, you are one of their Muslim brothers, it is your duty to help them. And then at a certain point, he bought their rationale and found himself in what was their self-proclaimed caliphate standing behind a Muslim man about to shoot him to death.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, you can see her reporting on the website as well as listen to the podcast "Caliphate." Thanks so much for joining us.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI:

    Hari, thank you for having me.

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