The reporter ISIS hates — and respects

August 8, 2017

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi last week broke the little-noticed drama of a South African man freed by Al Qaeda after five years as a hostage in Mali.

She’d originally interviewed a guard who’d seen the abduction of four tourists from a Timbuktu hotel back then, including one murdered when he refused to get in the terrorists’ van. It’s the Al Qaeda business model of abductions for ransom, with the South African government using an intermediary and paying $4.2 million for the release (a Dutchman and Swede were let go in June).

Callimachi disclosed the tale both in a traditional online story and in a series of tweets, or tweetstorms. In her hands, those often have a staccato allure, packed with significant happenings but also small morsels that, in and of themselves, may not be head-turning but together can be alluring, at times deceptively shocking.

They’re also reasons that, after her own very humble professional beginnings, she’s a known quantity to the likes of Al Qaeda and, even more, ISIS. She’s a persistent chronicler of them in an unlikely evolution from rebuffed journalism job seeker to unrelenting and insightful observer of terrorism.

Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago (2001) that Callimachi applied to 100 newspapers for a job. Only two responded, landing her a three-month internship at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where her very first assignment was covering a Christmas tree lighting in Streamwood.

She wound up with a full-time job there but acknowledges now practicing a ritual whenever she found herself in downtown Chicago: putting her hands on the outside of the Chicago Tribune’s gothic headquarters whose façade includes bits and pieces from landmarks worldwide. She’d close her eyes and pray that one day she’d get a job at the Tribune.

It never happened. But, now, she’s one of the most astute reporters of perhaps the biggest story of the era, and a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. This week she’s in what as been a home away from home of late, namely Mosul, Iraq on her fourth reporting trip to the area in the past eight months.

She did not go right from suburban tree lightings to the world’s most famous newsroom. After Chicago, she worked for the Associated Press in Portland, Oregon, and New Orleans. Then it was on to West Africa for the wire service before coming to the Times in 2014.

In Africa, she came to know al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as offshoots. In no small measure it had to do with reporting in Mali, where she began to be disabused of the prevailing wisdom that many terrorists were merely primitive and blindly dogmatic, a point she underscored in a profile last year in Wired.

She proved a nimble and creative reporter, even finding revealing evidence in trashcans that underscored that the movement leading to ISIS was far more nuanced than most reporters — indeed, most of the world — had assumed.

It prompted alterations in her basic reporting approach, not relying quite as much on government officials, even intelligence experts, and instead trying to delve into the minds, organizations and social media of jihadists.

That meant penetrating encrypted chat rooms, among other gambits, with their hidden addresses and URLs. The jihadists these days are fond of Telegram, a de facto encrypted app. She uses guile, but not fabrication (she doesn’t lie about being a journalist), and gets invited to addresses that can be total nonsense.

It means that terrorists know who she is and may sometimes tweet directly at her, including video of the beheading of journalist James Foley.

The tweetstorms are a reason that they know her. It’s enabled producing more content more often and inevitably raising her profile. Check out this one on her reporting on Yazidi women being raped — “3 years of sexual enslavement by ISIS” is the title of these words and images transmitted in July and August — tipped off to her by sources close to ISIS, including a woman herself taken aback.

It’s a stylistic mode perfect, too, for lots of smaller disclosures and anecdotes that reveal much about the world of terrorism and extremism.

“It all grew out of a frustration of not being in the paper as often as I desired,” she told me. “So I would start seeing news and then start tweeting about.”

“At the AP one couldn’t tweet about a story until it was out. Problem is that on a breaking story, it can still take hours to get it (the story) out. And, still, there may be part of the story you don’t use.”

Here is a tweetstorm from July when she entered Mosul as Iraq declared victory over ISIS there. The situation was exceedingly bleak. Then this poignant one on Muslims saving Christian neighbors in the city.

During the period of several hours before the primary story is published, “you can miss the space where people live on Twitter.” She recalls being on a so-called “embed” in Mosul a few months ago when the reporter at another prominent paper said, “Your newsroom allowed you to do this?”

It’s not a flawless process and can have its own inherent frictions with editors. She’s very grateful at the Times’ willingness to let her be creative. But it’s not carte blanche, and her freedom is not license to write whatever she wants, whenever she wants.

She thus runs tweets on breaking news to her desk. The trick is to be smart in both the spaces of traditional storytelling and social media.

In a larger sense, she feels it’s enabled her to both engage readers and underscore larger points with regularity. For example, conventional wisdom remains that ISIS will take credit for attacks in the West even if it’s not involved. That, her reporting has made clear, is generally wrong.

“They do take their time and don’t claim attacks in the West that do not have a link to the group in some manner. But they do consider people acting in their name, even without a direct connection to be involved with the group.”

As one listens to Callimachi, 44, one also realizes how laborious and even outright exhausting her work can be, as well as the underlying challenges, even peril, of reporting aggressively on some pretty nasty folks.

One realizes the enormity of the paper’s commitment, including the investment in her travels. Not many media organizations have the will to support such work.

Then, too, there is her ability to smartly capitalize on the endless space of the Internet. Often, she’ll come across a tidbit, maybe just some vignette in some faraway and desolate locale that makes a small point even if it would not justify a separate story.

“So I will find a vignette that day that elucidates some aspect of this incredible fight and use that in a tweetstorm.

It was like going to a suburb of Mosul and seeing a man who had painted one of the walls, putting beige paint over it and “making a beautiful pattern with beautiful calligraphy.”

The man told her he’d been hired by a seniors collective that bought his paint and paid him to paint over ISIS slogans and replace them with sayings that spoke to notions of peace and community.”

Indeed, he used a saying to the effect that in life one should aim to be like a sugar cube, so that when you’re gone, the “only thing people will remember of you is sweetness.”

It inspired “the perfect tweetstorm,” she says amid the tranquility of a conference room at the newspaper.

As a result, readers wrote in offering to send the man money. The tweetstorm’s substance had “really resonated. I was able to take readers to something they don’t normally see, and to share this little bit of Mosul.”