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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Reporter on ISIS Beat Discusses ‘Speaking to the Enemy’

Rukmini Callimachi has built a career out of talking to terrorists.

Callimachi joined the New York Times in March 2014 as a foreign correspondent covering Al-Qaeda and ISIS. WIRED magazine called her “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world.” She is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist as of Tuesday, when her written work The ISIS Files and podcast Caliphate earned her another Pulitzer nomination.

During her talk in Wilson Hall last Thursday, Callimachi talked with members of the Middlebury community about creating Caliphate, her career as a journalist and the problematic approaches of the media and the government in addressing terrorism.

Callimachi began her career in as a foreign journalist working in India. She later went on to cover a 20-country beat in Africa and became the West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press.

In her work covering Al Qaeda and ISIS, Callimachi has become acutely aware of the wealth of misinformation that circulates about terrorist organizations. She explained that terrorism is the only beat for which journalists only talk to one side of the issue.

Callimachi is determined to change this.

“I firmly believe in speaking to the enemy, in listening to them, which is different than believing them, in trying to understand them, which is different than giving them a platform, and I do this in the interest of reporting the most accurate version of events I can,” she said during her talk.

“In short, I do this in the interest of truth.”

Callimachi was born in communist Romania. When she was five, she, her mother and her grandmother fled Romania, passed across the iron curtain and were granted political asylum in Switzerland. She still recalls her grandfather breaking down in tears as he hugged her goodbye.

“The experience of being a refugee is the experience of being an other,” she said. Callimachi and her mother immigrated to the United States when she was ten. “That stain of otherness never fully left me,” she said.

Callimachi believes that being a refugee has impelled her to focus her career on reporting stories about outsiders. She sees a piece of herself in these people and thinks this makes it easier to talk with them.

“There is no greater outsider than the people we consider terrorists,” she said.

Since she started at The Times in 2014, she has interviewed more than 50 terrorists. “To me, these people are like a window into this unseen world,” she said.

Callimachi began her talk the same way she begins her 10-episode podcast, with a description of a visit to a Canadian hotel. She was responding to a tip that a former ISIS militant, Abu Huzayfah (a pseudonym), had returned to Canada from Syria. She described this tip as “a tantalizing opportunity.” Only a few hundred North Americans had made it to Syria. Of those, many were killed; only a few are able to return home and most of those who have returned are in jail.

During his interview with Callimachi, Huzayfah admitted to murdering two people at the command of ISIS. If this man was being honest, Callimachi and her team had “met alone, late at night, in an isolated hotel with a murderer,” she explained.

Later in her talk, Callimachi played a clip from the podcast where Huzayfah describes killing a man. “I just instantly thought I’m a psycho killer now,” he said, “what the hell did I just do?”

Callimachi instructed audience members to listen not only to what he said, but how he said it: the rapidity of his breathing, his frequent swallowing. Huzayfah’s emotional distress is clear in his voice.

She cited this as one of the benefits of working with podcasts. “It allows you to live in the gray,” she said. “There’s emotional information that’s encoded in people’s voices.” Print news doesn’t allow a reporter convey emotion with the same intensity.

Through her work, Callimachi has been able to dispel misunderstandings about Al Qaeda and ISIS. For example, while the United States government and media frequently referred to the Islamic State as the “so-called” Islamic State, Callimachi learned that, while it was not internationally recognized, ISIS was a complex and developed organization whose infrastructure mirrored that of an established state.

“Our tendency with the Islamic State has been to discount them, to underestimate them and in my opinion, this doesn’t help us in the war on terror,” Callimachi said.

She has gathered numerous documents left behind by ISIS as it has fled. Supplemented by the findings of others, she now knows that the Islamic State had 14 ministries including ministries of health, education and agriculture. They issued birth certificates and medical examinations as screening measures for children before they could begin school.

“We’re trying to educate people, to tell them news,” she stated as the purpose of her work. She explained that the line between reporting the news and providing these people with a platform is a “constant tension” and something she and her co-workers discuss frequently.

Callimachi spoke of the importance of listening in her work. When giving an interview, she doesn’t talk and rather tries to listen without judgement. “If I approach them with judgement, they’re going to shut down,” she said.

Her work is mentally and emotionally intense. Over time, Callimachi has learned how to metabolize her emotions by allowing these feelings to flow freely through her in the moment.

“If I have felt emotion in an interview, I’ve let myself cry with a source,” she said.

Callimachi recognizes that her job as a journalist is to inform the public, not propose policy, noting that she does not have a solution to the War on Terror. But she does know that, while ISIS has lost its territory, it is not defeated. Instead, it has simply returned to its “insurgent roots.”

In seeking to give advice to young journalists, Callimachi looked back to her time as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth. She suggested that students take advantage of language programs at Middlebury and learn new languages, as she regrets not learning Arabic while in school. Every additional language a journalist learns opens another section of the world for them to investigate.

The MCAB Speakers Committee, led by co-executives Rebecca Simon ’19 and Jade Moses ’20, brought Callimachi to campus. Simon said she was impressed by Callimachi’s talk.

“Ms. Callimachi is a journalist who has proven to be a force of nature,” she wrote in an email to The Campus. “Her empathy, innovativeness, and sheer brilliance is a testament to what journalism is and should always be.”