Abandoned documents yield second big scoop for AP reporter

Associated Press West Africa bureau chief Rukmini Callimachi had a tremendous scoop Tuesday night: A letter she discovered showed Al-Qaida considered terrorist Moktar Belmoktar a “difficult employee” who “didn’t answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings and refused time and again to carry out orders.”

Al Qaeda Has Expense Reports” a Daily Beast aggregation of the story read. “Al-Qaida Fighters Have to File Monthly Expense Reports Just Like You,” Slate’s Josh Voorhees noted. And on “Morning Edition,” Renée Montagne interviewed Callimachi for a story titled “Al-Qaida Letter Reprimands Difficult Employee.”

I wondered whether the letter was among the others Callimachi found in Timbuktu in January after French troops liberated the city. In an interview with Poynter in March, Callimachi said she found a rare internal Qaida document — a memo from Abdelmalek Droukdel, whom Al Qaida promoted instead of Belmoktar — in abandoned government buildings. She and AP Bamako correspondent Baba Ahmed had canvassed the buildings, filling garbage bags with documents.

Reached by email, Callimachi said the Belmoktar letter was indeed from that cache: “I came back to Dakar with 7 trash bags full of Arabic documents,” she wrote. The translator she’s using now charges $50 per visit, and so far it’s taken a few visits to get through the bags. “We got to Bag No. 6 a little over a week ago. And that was where we found the Belmoktar letter.”

The document went to AP’s Cairo bureau for a “proper professional translation,” Callimachi told me, and it finished that job Sunday night. She turned in her story on Memorial Day.

One problem with the dumpster diving: A nonspecialist translator, she said, “can waste hours of your time translating something that sounds interesting” that turns out to be in the public domain. “You really need an expert,” she wrote. She said she was lucky to know Droukdel and Belmoktar’s noms de guerre, which made this letter stand out.

She’s going through Bag No. 7 now.

Correction: This post originally misidentified Callimachi’s interviewer on “Morning Edition.”

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