How One Journalist Use Social Media to Get Inside the Minds of ISIS

Rukmini Callimachi is arguably the best reporter on the most important point beat in the world. As a New York Times correspondent encompassing terrorism, her run explores not just what jihadists do but how they do it . Youve read her stories on ISISs use of birth control to maintain its supply of sex slaves, or the Kouachi brothers path to the Charlie Hebdo assaults in Paris, or the nature of lone-wolf attacks like the recent mass shooting in Orlando. Her byline often appears on the front page of the paper; at merely 43, shes received three Pulitzer Prize nominations. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Callimachi, though, is how she gets her insights into the worlds most hostile and secretive organisations. Sure, she spends months every year out of the country reporting, but increasingly her run requires as much time staring at her phone and computer screen. enables Callimachi to access what she calls the inner world of jihadists; she lurks in Telegram chat room, navigates an endless inundation of tips on Twitter, and carefully tracks sources and topics all over the Internet. Her cell phone battery dies up to four times a day. The truth, she has received, is as much online as it is on the ground.

Wired: How did you start encompassing terrorism ?

Callimachi: In December 2006, I became the West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press. As it happened, that was the year that a group there pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and became their North African branch. Very promptly, large swaths of their region were deemed too dangerous for a Westerner to visit, and I insured my own world shrink as a result.

Then in 2012 they succeeded in taking over northern Mali. The region that they controlled with two other groups was enormous, the size of Afghanistan. They enforced Sharia law, cut off peoples hands. An adulterous couple was stoned to demise, and women had to be veiled. It was one of the biggest tales on my beat, but it was frustrating because I couldnt go there, so I was encompassing it by phone. Then in 2013 the French went in to push back the jihadis, and abruptly reporters were able to go in behind them.

Was there a massive influx of press ?

Other than Hurricane Katrina, I dont believe Ive ever seen so many journalists as I did then in Timbuktu. We were all traipsing around the city doing similar stories, so I started asking the local people if they could show me the buildings where the group had been. They took me first to a bank that had acted as the Islamic police center, and they took me to a hotel that had been was transformed into a Sharia court, and they took me to a tax building that had been the jihadists administrative office. In each of these houses, I noticed dozens and dozens of loose newspapers on the ground that were written in Arabiceven though Mali is largely a French-speaking country. Because I couldnt read them, I didnt think they were very important. The next day, I realized, Oh my God, that must be the stuff the jihadists left behind. So I went back with a bunch of trash bags, and I simply went build by house, at the least 10 in all, and scooped up every single thing that I could find. People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu. I started to translate the documents in my hotel with a translator.

I had wrongly assumed that these were just a bunch of guys in a cave in a desert, very primitive and wedded to an ideology for no good reason. But in the following documents I saw something much more nuanced: There was everything from ideological debates on aspects of theology to expense reports.

What did all of that tell you ?

I realized that this was a much more complex movement than I had thought and that the style I had gone about reporting on ittalking to officials, trying to talk to intelligence peoplewas not the most interesting approach. The group itself offer so much raw material that if “youre starting” digging youll discovery an enormously rich source of tales and reporting targets.

Your reporting entirely changed my understanding of these groups. Until I read your work, I couldnt ensure them with any subtlety .

When I was publishing those stories in 2013, there was so much pushback on me from editors and then from readers. The criticism was, How dare you give these people a voice? How dare you ensure them as anything other than the disgusting puppies they are? The thing is, my reporting doesnt deny that theyre perpetrating crimes against humanity, but I think that our chore as journalists is to understand and to bring gray where there is only black and white. Because theres always gray.

How is this beat different from others ?

If youre doing a story about a shooting in America where lots of people died, you would without fail call the lawyer of that crazy person to get the criminals response. You might not dedicate it much consideration, but at the least youd get their no remark. This is the one group where we dont even try. I had to wrestle with a lot of criticism for reaching out to them and trying to speak with them. The criticism is that by reaching out, Im giving them a mouthpiece for their propaganda.

Isnt that a real risk ?

Im always wrestling with it. But the approach where we dont listen to their side at all is, in my opinion, why so many people, so many officials, missed the rise of . They put something out and we said, No , no , no, were not going to listen; its propaganda. As is someone who been listening to them since 2012, it was really clear to me that ISIS was the next big thing. And I argued with people over this. The first indication to me was when the French broke up al Qaeda in northern Mali and those jihadists scattered into the desert. The few that I was still in touch with started telling me stories about their brethren leaving Mali and going to Syria to join ISIS. That was a red flag for me, because the natural thing would have been for them to join the Nusra Front, which is the al Qaeda affiliate in Syriabut instead the latter are choosing a group that was openly in conflict with it. To these young men, there was something so exciting about ISIS and the caliphate project that I merely assured the ranks of al Qaeda being drained by this new group.

How were you listening to these jihadists ?

Well, I was trying to talk to them, I was reading their propaganda as it was coming out, and I was watching their activity on social media.

Isnt that what our should be doing ?

Look, when I discovered those documents in Mali, the last Obama election had just happened and so had the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was obviously a very big deal. What was coming out of Washington was that we had decapitated the snake, that without top-down control, al Qaeda is in disarray. Like everybody else, I bought it. I wrote a bunch of stories that basically rephrase that line, because thats what officials who seemed well informed were telling me. But in Mali I realized how incorrect the latter are, because Im standing here holding letters from the general manager of al Qaeda to some dude in Maliletters that were couriered across the desert, across the ocean from Yemen. And this is an organization that has no control over its affiliates?

They have expense reports !

That was when I ran, Oh my God, Ive been taking what the government says at face value. Because this is such a difficult beat, you often dont have anywhere else to turning. Somebody at the US embassy or the NSA tells you something; they never share with you how they know what they know, but they sound sure of themselves, and where are you going to go to disprove that? But eventually I had real datum, and I started to realize that theres a politicization to intelligence.

The administrations narrative was that they had defeated this terrorist group. The Obama administration had killed bin Laden, but the analysis was wrong. Al Qaeda had created a structure that was meant to regenerate itself and no longer be dependent on simply one person. And thats exactly what happened. The ideology is now a living, exhaling thing, even more than it was at 9/11, because of Twitter and other modes of social media. You no longer have to go to some closed dark-web forum to see this stuff.

How do you find them online ?

Back in 2012 and 2013 they were use these closed forums that were mostly in Arabic, and you would need a password to get in. The only way to try was to impersonate a jihadist, which is not within the ethics of my professionnot to mention that I dont speak Arabic. So at that point I relied on what they said publicly, though I was speaking directly with one senior al Qaeda member.

Theyre smart enough to know the reporters who are covering this beat, so when journalist James Foley was executed by ISIS, they tweeted the video directly at me. It was awful. As Twitter has become more aggressive in shutting them down, theyve migrated to Telegram, which is basically an encrypted app where they create a channel, like a little chat room. You have to know the exact address to be invited, and the address is complete nonsense. With Twitter you can guess; you look for certain words and you end up discovering these accounts. And then its kind of organic: You go to one account, then you go to their followers and you follow all those people, and suddenly youre in the know. Telegram is much harder.

How do you figure out the crazy Telegram addresses ?

You have to be speaking to someone who is a jihadist. The real hardcore ISIS members dont talk to reporters like me unless its to insult us. But there are always people on the fringes of these groups who have one foot in. I suppose Ive merely ever quoted one or two jihadists, because I could substantiate who they were, but the vast majority are basically just tips. I expend an enormous amount of day chatting with them, but I cant say with certainty who the person is, so I cant quote them. So I stay in touch with these people who are on the fringes, and they share a couple of these Telegram groups with me, and once I get into one, theyll post the link to another one, then a third, then a fourth. These Telegram channels are being shut down just like the Twitter accounts, so theyre now actively putting up backup channels. Theyll say Brothers and sisters, please follow us on these backup channels. It feels like a Sisyphean chore every morning when I have to go onto Telegram on my commute to work. Im standing here on the bus, joining, joining, join, and half the channels I was on the day before arent there anymore or are no longer good. But its no longer password-protected; I dont have to lie to join.

What kind of username do you have ?

I have a vapid nameIm not going to tell you what it isthat makes clear Im a journalist but doesnt devote my affiliation. With my own name I was constantly being blocked.

Do “theyre using” a lot of platforms ?

Its a very nimble group. In the past two years, theyve been experimenting. Twitter is the main engine, but theyre also using Tumblr and Instagram, so theyll have multiple tentacles to push stuff out. Theyve became so good at it, its unbelievable.

Do you wish the government and tech companies werent as good at shutting them down ?

Twitter truly needs to take them severely because theyre not just talking to each other, to people who are already radicalized, theyre also fishing for people who are maybe interested and maybe not.

Can you give me two examples ?

There was the case of Alex, this young woman in Washington statea Sunday school teacher who was as American as you can get. The found her on Twitter; within three months she had converted online and was flirting with the idea of marrying one of the fighters and moving to what they were calling a Muslim land, which was pretty clearly Syria.

How did you find out about her ?

I will interact with pretty much anybody on Twitter, anybody who DMs me and is reasonably polite. I still dont know the real name of the person who introduced us; he seems to be someone who expends an inordinate sum of time online and is a little crazy. He noticed Alex and messaged me, and within a couple of weeks I was at her house.

One of the all-time great tips-off. How did this guy notice her ?

So you have all the ISIS people and all the sympathizers of jihadist groups, and on the other side you have the Anonymous groupand Im utilizing Anonymous very loosely. Its a group of do-gooders, some of whom are hackers, some of whom want to be hackers, and theyre in this online vigilante realm: identifying ISIS accounts and flagging them to Twitter, trying to get them suspended. They follow the jihadists online very closely. Just like the ISIS guys, theyll never tell me whom they really are, so Im not going to do a story on them, but theyre doing stuff that I cant do. A lot of them are going undercover and pretending to be Muslim. Theyll have names that make you think they might be a jihadist, and as a result theyre finding stuff out in a space that I cant occupy. Theyve turned out to be pretty helpful to me.

So how much are you on these digital platforms, reporting ?

When we stop talking, Ill have probably 37 or so notifications on my Telegram, God knows how many on Twitter and other platforms, and Ill just go and start looking through them. Most of the time I dont do anything with them, Im merely constantly storing this information in my intellect so I have an understanding of what theyre talking about, what theyre messaging about right now. So, for instance, right now theres a lot of stuff regarding snoops; theyre beheading people left and right, and theyre always was regarded as spies. Maybe they are spies, who knows. But it demonstrates me that they dont feel very safe in their current state.

Theres also an enormous amount of propaganda about air strikes. Every single thing that falls from the sky is called a coalition air strike. Theyre messaging truly heavily on that and trying to create a perception that the Brussels and Paris attacks were a reaction to aggressivenes against them .

How close can you get to the jihadists geographically ?

Obviously I cant go to places the hell is ISIS-controlled, but I can go just outside them, like the areas of northern Iraq at the feet of the Sinjar Mountains, where you can speak to recent escapees. I also try hard to get to ISIS and jihadi strongholds right after they are liberated, as in Timbuktu in 2013. Thats when the terrain is most raw and you can get the most original reporting. I was in the city of Sinjar on the working day it was freed from ISIS last November and in the province of Hasakah, Syria, on the working day it was declared cleared by a rebel group.

Are you ever afraid for their own lives ?

I dont seek out danger. Although Ive traveled to areas that has only been recently liberated, I always do it with preplanning and forethought. So Ive rarely determined myself in situations where there was a real menace to my well-being.

How did you find out that ISIS captors were forcing birth control on their Yazidi sex slaves ?

When I was reporting on ISISs system of bondage in 2015, I contacted scholars to try to understand what the scriptural basis was for slavery. Professor Kecia Ali at Boston University asked me if the fighters were checking for pregnancy and explained that if they werent, they would be in violation of established principles in Sharia law. That topic spawned a whole other reporting trip-up to northern Iraq to ask the women what happened if they became pregnant. It was then that I learned about the fact that many were given birth control.

Has the style you pitch stories to your editors changed at all ?

I suppose my editors now only trust me, but when I first came to the paper a couple of years ago it was a bit of a hard sell to convince them that ISIS was a threat when our government was calling it the JV team.

Is Twitter a crucial tool for you to cover terrorism ?

Now that I have like 90, 000 Twitter followers, Im no longer having semiprivate conversations with 18 -year-old hotheads who think theyre into ISIS. But Twitter has become such an interesting medium, in the sense that I can use it to get out everything that objective up on the cutting-room floor, to kind of storify it in a series of tweets.

Do you ever shut it all out? Twitter, the noise, all of it ?

Whats nice about Twitter is theres a block button, and Ive used it to great effect. I entail, I dont know if they have a tally of how many people Ive blocked, but Ive blocked a lot of people. And its not just ISIS people, its the Tea Party. The strange ones come from all sides; you have people who loathe Muslims who are just as aggressive as the ISIS folks.

How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by it all ?

Ive come to the point where I metabolize it pretty quickly. I love what I do, and I think my body understands at some level that I have to put some distance between myself and my work. My very first big story as a journalist was the earthquake in Gujarat, India, in 2001. I had never seen a natural disaster on that scale before. I had never seen people piled up dead, and I recollect walking through the streets with tears streaming down my face. It was so intense and poignant and big. Its never been like that again.

Caitlin Roper ( @caitlinroper) is WIREDs articles editor . This article appears in the August issue .

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