Amy Martin: Were you always interested in terrorism?
Rukmini Callimachi: My interest developed organically from my time in northern Africa working for The Associated Press. I saw the encroachment of terrorism starting in 2007 when an Al Qaeda branch emerged there. In 2012, a branch of Al Qaeda took over an enormous stretch of land in Mali, about the size of Afghanistan. They established an Islamic tribunal, gave out leaflets on how women had to dress, for example, and it got progressively worse. At first, they were mostly ignored by the West. Then, when it started to look like they were going for the capital of Mali, the French went in. Within three weeks, they had taken back Timbuktu. I got to Timbuktu about three days later.
AM: Is that when you found the documents that resulted in the groundbreaking series The Al Qaeda Papers for which you were a Pulitzer finalist?
RC: I was in the first wave of reporters, and one of the places we went was a bank that had served as an administrative headquarters for the Al Qaeda operatives. Here were thousands of pages of documents all over the ground. I knew instantly that because they were in Arabic—Mali is a French-speaking country—they belonged to Al Qaeda. They had boot marks on them, so obviously the French forces had seen them, but no one had picked them up.
I spent the next year translating them, and these documents turned out to be one of the most precious troves of Al Qaeda documents ever found. That was the moment that terrorism became interesting to me.
AM: These documents revealed that Al Qaeda was a very complex operation run like a modern government or Fortune 500 company.
RC: I had always thought of them as men in caves, carrying out this ideology. But I found things like a letter from a commander berating a commander in Mali for not turning in an expense report on time. It’s not primitive at all. It’s an ideology that is very well thought out. They have their own scholars, books and literature, and they trace their heritage back a very long way. It’s much more layered and rich than I initially thought.
AM: How do you cultivate your sources?
RC: The first person I spoke to was a senior commander for Al Qaeda in Mali, a guy named Omar Ould Hamaha. He’s the only one I’ve spoken to on the phone; every other one has been through an encrypted app on my phone.
He was talking to other reporters at the time, too. But they have this way of greeting in West Africa, where they go back and forth with these niceties: “How are you?” “How’s your mother?” “How’s the country?” “How are the animals?” It goes on and on, and of course theanswer is always “fine.” It used to drive me crazy, but I realized that in West Africa, you can use it—you can call the president and it would be considered rude for him not to answer, “How is your mom?” I kind of guess that I was the only one who did this with Omar Ould Hamaha. I built up a little rapport with him. It got to the point where I started to call him almost every day.
AM: Do your sources ever want to know more about who you are?
RC: It’s interesting because other than Omar Ould Hamaha, who was killed, they all go by aliases, and I don’t actually know who any of them are. But I never bullshit them. They always want to know: Who are you? What do you believe? I tell them upfront that I’m a Christian, a practicing Christian who goes to church. They just want to know where you stand.
AM: These are terrorists. How do you know you can trust the information they are giving you?
RC: The accepted idea is that because they are terrorists, they must be liars. It actually doesn’t follow. There was never a time Omar Ould Hamaha lied to me. He told me things I didn’t really believe, but then when I got to northern Mali myself, I realized they were true.
AM: Can you give an example?
RC: There is this weapon that can take down an airplane. It is a very scary thing because, as it is, there is so little security in Africa. So I asked him, “The U.S. is very worried about the SA-7. Do you guys have them?” And he said, “Yes, we have the SA-7A and SA-7B.” It was very specific. Of course, there was nothing I could do with this information. It would look alarmist to print that this one terrorist said they have this very dangerous weapon. But when I finally got to Mali, one of the stacks of papers that I found were manuals—stacks of them—for the SA-7A and SA-7B. The French forces found parts too—they had clearly tried to fire them. I was like, “Oh my god, he was telling me the truth.”
AM: In The New York Times, you wrote about a 23-year-old Christian American woman who was “courted” by ISIS. The story reveals a comprehensive strategy behind the recruitment of westerners. Should this be a major concern for average U.S. citizens? Should we be looking for warning signs in our own communities?
RC: The Islamic State has seeped into our living rooms through nothing more than an internet cable. They prey on young people like “Alex,” a young woman who was still living with her grandmother into her 20s and who had no full-time employment. What I find most worrisome is how they use Islam as the entryway. Just about the only signs that Alex’s family saw were signs of growing Muslim religiosity: wanting to wear the hijab; showing an interest in praying; trips to Barnes & Nobles to buy books on Muslim theology. It’s hard for me as a person who spent nearly eight years living in a Muslim country to say that these are “warning signs.” But sadly ISIS is using religion as the avenue of recruitment.
AM: What role does technology and social media play in your reporting?
RC: Quite simply, I could not do my job without social media, and more specifically without Twitter. Twitter is the engine through which jihadi groups pump out their propaganda to the world. As someone who is studying the extremists, being able to see their posts in real time—versus the way it used to work years ago, where the posts were on the deep web on passwordprotected forums—has meant that I can understand and follow the groups more intimately.
AM: Are you ever concerned for your own safety?
RC: I think all journalists covering the Islamic State in, or near, the group’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria need to think about their safety. Following the execution of [American freelance reporter] James Foley, it’s clear that there is no longer any room for error.
AM: Some smaller recent attacks have been portrayed as not necessarily the work of ISIS, but ISIS “supporters” or “wannabes” of sorts. Do you think this is an accurate characterization?
RC: One of the reasons that governments and media outlets continue to underestimate ISIS is because they do not understand the role of so-called lone wolf attacks. These attacks are part-and-parcel of the terror group’s strategy. They are inciting them through their propaganda, and they are doing so in a very explicit way.
I found it troubling that the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris were seen as having come out of nowhere. I set out to correct the record in the piece I published in March in The New York Times, showing how ISIS’ external operations branch had been churning out fighters since two years before the Paris and Brussels attacks. I counted 21 ISIS operatives who trained with the group in Syria and who returned alone or in pairs to carry out medium-size attacks in France, Belgium and beyond. Because most of these attacks failed, officials and journalists once again failed to connect the dots.