Caliphate Chapter 1: The Reporter | New York Times Audio Series (Transcript)
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AM: Chapter 1: The Reporter.
AM: You have a moment?
RC: Yeah, I‚Äôm just like‚Ä¶ Can you give me five? Can you go back there?
AM: I‚Äôll just meet you in that room with your stuff.
RC: Hello, hello. Do I need to bring it closer? Here we go. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
AM: So Rukmini, before I started following you around all the time, I knew that you were a reporter, I knew that you talked to terrorists on the Internet, I knew that ISIS was your beat, but I don‚Äôt think I had any idea what that reporting actually looked like.
RC: Hey, Hawk, when you hear that, it‚Äôs outgoing? Outgoing.
AM: I didn‚Äôt know you are going right up to the frontlines of the war against ISIS.
RC: There‚Äôs a building that appears to have been air striked‚Ä¶
AM: And as the coalition soldiers are pushing ISIS back, you are right there directly behind them.
Mal: What are you doing right now?
RC: I‚Äôm trying to get out some trash bags. We‚Äôre about to go into the building.
AM: And you pull out garbage bags, trash bags that you‚Äôve brought from home, and you just start picking stuff up.
RC: Let me look at that. A bunch of computers, hard drives yanked out.
AM: Like garbage out of buildings.
AM: This is this group of people.
RC: We‚Äôre in the right place.
AM: And when I tell people about that part of your job, they almost always ask two questions. First‚Ä¶
RC: There‚Äôs a backpack right there and I really want to search it, but I‚Äôm a little scared to put my hand inside it.
AM: Isn‚Äôt that dangerous?
Mal: It could be booby-trapped.
RC: It could be.
AM: And I‚Äôm always like yes, very dangerous. There are explosions and gunfire.
Mal: Hey, smoke. You see this?
AM: And air strikes.
Mal: Three or four? Try like ten.
AM: And the other question they ask is how is that worth it?
AM: Like what do you say to that?
RC: So, look. Every reporter that covers conflict and war knows that you have to be there. You have to be on the ground if you want to try to understand the story. And, as for me, I‚Äôm trying to understand ISIS and one thing I‚Äôve learned is that, if you‚Äôre able to get to the buildings that they occupied right after they are liberated, and I mean right after‚Ä¶
Mal: Rukmini, can you describe what you‚Äôre doing?
RC: Well, we‚Äôre in a room off the side of a church that ISIS had used as a base. I‚Äôm looking at a notebook here.
RC: You often can find the documents that they left behind.
RC: Look at this. It‚Äôs a little diary.
Mal: It‚Äôs day by day.
RC: These are not documents that are meant for publication.
RC: Looking at what is left. This is a prayer mat and then over there, these are the rockets that they manufactured.
RC: Imagine if you walked into my home right now. If you walked in right now, you would probably find my Bank of America statement. If you found that, you would find all of my daily transactions. You would know what diet I have, you would know that I have a penchant for buying a certain kind of rice milk, you would know the stores that I go to shop at, so you might conclude from that that I‚Äôm probably middle class. If you walked over to the bookshelf, you would find books in Romanian, in English, and in French and you could deduce from that that I most likely speak three languages or that members of my family are bilingual or trilingual. If you went upstairs and you went into my bedroom and you found my diary, you would find my most private thoughts. And you‚Äôre saying you do that. And so I did. So I am doing that to ISIS and. I am looking for ISIS diary. I am looking for their internal correspondence their receipts their personal tiffs with co-workers some of which end up getting sent to the equivalent of ISIS are the things they‚Äôre struggling with that they‚Äôre writing letters back and forth about.
AM: And you‚Äôre saying you do that to ISIS?
RC: And so I did. So I am doing that to ISIS and Al Qaeda. I am looking for ISIS‚Äô diary. I am looking for their internal correspondence, their receipts, their personal tiffs with co-workers, some of which end up getting sent to the equivalent of ISIS HR. The things they‚Äôre struggling with that they‚Äôre writing letters back and forth about.
AM: And so the documents are generally what you are using now to answer this question who are we really fighting?
RC: You drove to Syria with your friend from Bremen, right?
Mal: For most of them go down there and live under Sharia.
RC: Of course, I‚Äôm a journalist, so I also want to talk to them.
Mal: They said, ‚ÄúWe need people who are willing to give the life especially in suicide mission.
RC: That‚Äôs incredibly difficult, but I‚Äôve been able to speak to around two dozen of them, both in prisons in Europe‚Ä¶
RC: What did he do before ISIS came here?
RC: And in jails in both Syria and Iraq.
Mal: He worked four months with him as a mechanic.
RC: Those interviews have been crucial for me in understanding the general framework of how ISIS works and the motivations that push people to join them, but many of those interviews have also left me frustrated‚Ä¶
Mal: They tied him and put him‚Ä¶ bent him over his chair.
Mal: And he chopped off his head.
RC: The overwhelming pattern is that they‚Äôll have witnessed an execution. They‚Äôll have witnessed a beheading, they‚Äôll have been present when a stoning took place.
RC: When you saw those things, did you feel sick to your stomach? What was your reaction?
Mal: I was shaking because I was shocked.
RC: But they never took part in it themselves.
RC: It seems to me that, many times along the way, you said no. They weren‚Äôt getting suspicious of you at this point?
Mal: Yeah, they were. They were all looking at me and asking me, ‚ÄúWhy are you here then?‚Äù
RC: Over and over, this is the story theyt tell.
Mal: [foreign] When they did so, he said, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt want to work with you anymore,‚Äù so he quit.
RC: They were a cook, they were a driver, they were a translator.
RC: Bashir, do you want to tell me what really happened or do you not want to be interviewed at all?
RC: They present themselves as having been witnesses to horror but never having carried out the horrors themselves.
RC: I‚Äôve lost interest because he‚Äôs contradicted himself so many times, I just can‚Äôt tell that anything he‚Äôs saying is true.
RC: That‚Äôs usually how it goes. Usually.
RC: You know, in these suicide attacks, like the Paris attacks, obviously, children and women were also killed. How did they justify that?
Mal: They said that‚Ä¶ They use the exact same justification for every attack, it‚Äôs that they do it to us, so we do it to them. They bomb our women and children indiscriminately and we do it to them.
RC: At a certain point, you decide that you want to quit. Was there one moment or a series of moments?
Mal: The second time I killed someone.
AM: What are you‚Ä¶ What are we going to call him? The Canadian?
RC: He wants us to call him Abu Huseifa.
AM: This is his code name that he‚Äôs chosen?
RC: Right, this is his nom de guerre as they call it and every ISIS fighter has a nom de guerre. They don‚Äôt enter the terrorist group with their own name and the reason they do that is as a security measure to try to protect their identity.
AM: So Huseifa?
RC: Huseifa, Abu Huseifa.
AM: Abu Huseifa?
AM: All right. And how did you find him?
RC: It started with Instagram. He came to my attention through a researcher named Anat Agron. She, like me, trolls these chat rooms and these platforms and she had gone online and found Abu Huseifa‚Äôs Instagram feed. In that Instagram feed, she was able to put together that Abu Huseifa is a Canadian, that he had been inside the Islamic State some time, we believed, in 2014, and that he had returned to Canada and was somehow living in the general population.
AM: Did you ever see his Instagram?
RC: Yes. Yeah.
AM: You‚Äôve got it. These are screenshots that you took?
RC: These are screenshots that Anat took. He‚Äôs taken it down since then. Okay, so basically his profile just shows the smiling kid, looks like he‚Äôs wearing, what? Like maybe a workout shirt, but if you go back through it, there are some things that are‚Ä¶ That are somewhat disturbing. So for example, he reposts an image of a knife. Hang on, let me we find it. Here it is. To me, it looks like a combination between a screwdriver and a normal knife that has a circular, this kind of spiral shape, so that wherever you insert it, it doesn‚Äôt cut along just one edge; it cuts in a spiral direction. There‚Äôs a caption on the image that he reposted. The caption says, ‚ÄúDeadliest knife ever. It takes a team of surgeons to seal the wound. Victim bleeds out in minutes. This is one evil knife.‚Äù
So Anat ended up doing a report on this and she sent it to me and I passed this on to our research team at the New York Times and they were then able to cross-reference that material with his LinkedIn account. On his LinkedIn account, we found his email and I sent him an email expecting, like I always do, that these people are not going to respond to me.