Rukmini Callimachi is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times covering Islamic extremism, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. She seems to have access that other reporters just don’t have. Part of the way she gets that access is by communicating with extremists online. She talks to PJ about how she communicates with her sources.
Also – we debut a new segment that were calling “Super Tech Support.”
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PJ VOGT: One of my favorite reporters is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers Islamic terrorism for the New York Times. And she just finds the craziest stories. Last month, she wrote about this Sunday school teacher in Washington who was almost recruited into ISIS. Before that, she had the inside story of how a group of hostages who were later executed by ISIS spent their final months. She reports on people who are too dangerous to actually visit, and she does it by using the internet. I wanted to know how exactly that works, how she accesses these unknowable worlds. The day I talked to her she was on a reporting trip in Iraq. We connected over Skype.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: So I’m sitting in the Sheraton in Dohuk in Iraq.
PJ: And what’s the Sheraton lobby like in Iraq?
RUKMINI: It’s very posh, I mean it’s got like, you know kind of these enormous chandeliers, and a geometric aquamarine carpet, yeah.
PJ: Is the WIFI good?
RUKMINI: It’s actually crap!
PJ: The audio quality of this interview is spotty at times. You can direct all complaints to the Sheraton Dohuk Yelp page. Anyway. Rukmini says that the moment that changed her life as a journalist happened back in 2013. A local Al Qaeda franchise had just been driven out of Timbuktu. And Rukmini was part of the first wave of reporters to show up.
RUKMINI: I was led to the various buildings in Timbuktu that the jihadist group had occupied. They included the Ministry of Finance building, the tax building, et cetera. And what was shocking, is that in their hurry to leave, they had left thousands, and I’m not exaggerating, thousands of pages of internal documents behind. And I went back armed with trashbags and plastic gloves and I ended up picking up, and filling I think it was eight trash bags full of these documents. Some of them had boot prints on them, some of them were caked in dirt.
PJ: Rukmini found a translator, studied the documents for almost a year
RUKMINI: And what was in them just blew my mind.
PJ: Completely uncensored documents. Letters between local commanders and senior Al Qaeda leaders. And the strangest part was that in a lot of ways, it was like eavesdropping on any other office. Jihadis had to file receipts, receipts for things as small as a single lightbulb, a soda, a kilogram of tomatoes.
RUKMINI: Because they needed to do a monthly expense report.
RUKMINI: Yeah, yeah. There was, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was an Islamic Maghreb commander and one of the letters I found was a letter from essentially his boss reprimanding him, for, among other things, failing to turn in his expense reports. And like, I mean like it’s this twenty-page letter, and all you have to do is remove of the names of who these people are, and it reads like something that you would, you know, like a manager at the New York Times might send to an errant correspondent.
PJ: Mokhtar’s boss also yelled at him for ignoring company policy. He’d taken two hostages and ransomed them which was fine, but he’d done it without talking to his boss first.
RUKMINI: Look at this meager sum that you brought. And it said, it said seven hundred thousand Euros and it had like, in parentheses “Only! Only seven hundred thousand Euros!”
PJ: After 9/11, most reporters covering Al Qaeda had stopped trying to get anyone from the group to comment on terrorism stories. It wasn’t like there was a PR hotline you could call. But with these documents, Rukmini suddenly had insight into how these jihadis thought about their own actions. For example, at one point that local Al Qaeda group, the one Rukmini was covering, the one that had taken over Timbuktu, they got a lot of attention because they destroyed these ancient beautiful mausoleums, that they considered blasphemous. But reading these letters, Rukmini learned that there were militants who had argued against the mausoleums’ destruction.
RUKMINI: Their commander wrote them a letter of reprimand and said, “We are here for the long game, and the mausoleums of Timbuktu are incredibly precious to the people of Timbuktu so therefore, you need to avoid hurting the heritage of the city.” And, you know, you read this stuff, and you go, Oh my god! These people, this group that I thought was really just a bunch of dudes in caves you know, these primitive people, I suddenly realized that despite the evil, that many ways that they represent, that there was actually a system of thought behind it, that it wasn’t something basic. And so these documents, I mean, it gave me a dimension that I just did not know existed to this beat called terrorism. It made me realize how much richer it actually is, and then I started to look at the reporting around me, and then I realized, just like my own reporting up until that point, that it was so lacking, so so skin-deep.
PJ: Groups like Al Qaeda, to most of us they don’t seem human. They’re monsters, monsters who communicate with us only through random, horrific acts of violence. They’re the closest thing we have to bogeymen. But Rukmini was realizing that these people, even if they were evil, they might be more understandable than she’d thought. And at the same time that she was having this epiphany, something else was happening, something unprecedented. Al Qaeda had started using the internet in a way they never had before. Publicly.
RUKMINI: You suddenly see them setting up a Twitter account, setting up, you know, social media. Setting up, you know, various kinds of press release mechanisms.
PJ: A jihadi corner of the internet. Social media run by militants and their sympathizers. Rukmini was fascinated. And the hot topic on Jihadi internet in 2013 was this new group called ISIS. At the time, ISIS was being ignored by the West and by most reporters. But on this part of the internet that Rukmini had started listening in on, people were really concerned about ISIS.
RUKMINI: Al Qaeda was worried about the rising ascendency. They were seeing attrition in their ranks to ISIS, and they were seeing travel from great distances. So people from Africa were leaving the theater in Mali to go to Syria. They were joining ISIS.
PJ: And Rukmini sees that this new group, ISIS, they are even more crazy about the internet. They’re all over Twitter. Which is especially crazy because in real life, no journalist can really talk to ISIS. In 2014, ISIS allowed one Vice cameraman and one German writer into their territory, but besides that, everybody stayed away because the main thing ISIS was known for was kidnapping and murdering journalists. So Rukmini got good at finding them online, where it was safe.
PJ: What’s your typical like, what does a pro ISIS Twitter account pick as their profile image?
RUKMINI: Okay the most stereotypical one is anything with a lion. The women tend to put up pictures of lionesses. Anything obviously that has the black ISIS flag, a horseman, like a rider on a horse. Galloping stallions seems to be another one, and for a while last year because they realized that people were onto them because of this, they were moving from avatar to avatar that had nothing to do you know with the Islamic State. So for awhile it was coffee mugs.
PJ: Why coffee mugs?
RUKMINI: I have no idea. It’s just like, yeah, just a thing. Then a lot of them do kittens and cats because the favorite pet of the Prophet Muhammad was a cat.
PJ: One of the problems for Rukmini is that she’s not the only Westerner trying to talk to these guys online. There are other people who are claiming to be ISIS sympathizers who she’s pretty sure are actually undercover FBI agents.
PJ: How can you tell, what’s the giveaway?
RUKMINI: Cause I think they go over-the-top in sounding crazy? So you know, they’ll just be sort of like touting beheadings, and you know, you know, just like, sounding completely anti-Western and anti-American. And and the reality is that most of these, most of these ISIS accounts are being run by very young people.
PJ: The young people who she follows mostly write in English and French with some Arabic thrown in.
RUKMINI: You know, they’re like in their teens, early twenties. So the posts don’t look polished. They’ll be a stream-of-consciousness, kind of, “I had ice cream today.” Combined with them, things that have, ISIS messaging. And a lot of spelling mistakes. A lot of like, weird teenageresque appreviations: IDK, I don’t know. LOL, L-O-L. You know, there’s that kind of stuff, and usually these security people are older people and they’re just not with it when it comes to the lingo.
PJ: When Rukmini finds an actual ISIS member or ISIS sympathizer, she then has to get them to talk to her, which isn’t easy. She’s a Western non-Muslim journalist. So she tries something counter intuitive. She’ll find some claim they’ve made online and she’ll fact check them in public. Like say somebody posts a photo that they say shows the aftermath of a US airstrike, Rukmini will jump in and she’ll say, No, no, no, actually we both know that really that was a Saudi airstrike. She just wants to try to get them talking.
RUKMINI: It works probably in one percent of the cases. It’s kind of a very laborious and sort of frustrating process, and the approach is: I want you to explain this to me. Explain this to me like I’m a complete idiot. Why are you doing this? Why is this important? What’s your justification for that?
PJ: Her sources have their own agenda. They want to convert her to Islam. And there’s actually a script they have for Christians. Rukmini’s a Christina. And the script is based on their very in depth knowledge of the Bible.
RUKMINI: They’ll just pop them out and be like: Matthew, you know, verse 25, you know, whatever. And they’ll sit there and argue with you and say “Look, Christ himself tells his followers, ‘Pray not to me but god the father.’ The person that we call Allah is the deity in the Bible that Christ calls god ‘the father.”
PJ: It’s a long script.
RUKMINI: I literally wasted two weeks of my time, spending probably an hour on Twitter a day
PJ: Oh my god.
RUKMINI: Talking to this guy in ISIS who just, would not stop, and he was claiming that he was, and I just, I kept on interacting with him, hoping that we would get to the end of that tunnel. And that he would realize, he would just give up and realize, Okay, I cannot convert her, she’s got her faith, I’ve got mine, and let’s move on. And, at the end, he basically just got really fed up and he was like, Screw this, you’re an infidel, you know, you deserve to die. Done. And cut me off.
PJ: Rukmini says that at this point, her reputation as a nosy interloper seems to be preceding her in the world of ISIS Twitter.
RUKMINI : I’m apparently blocked by all of these people, because as soon as I see an ISIS account and I try to follow them, they must have me on some list, because people I’ve never interacted with have already blocked me.
PJ: Oh my god! Rude!
RUKMINI: Yeah, it’s so rude! I mean, ISIS is very fond of saying to journalists that we’re spies. And, I mean, this just drives me mad, I’m like, What do you mean I’m a spy? I’m telling you, I am on Twitter with my real name and my real photo, okay? You, on the other hand, have a picture of a kitten.
PJ: Sometimes all of this work pays off. Rukmini’s formed online acquaintances with jihadists who will talk to her because they want her to get the facts of her stories right. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, a lot reporters thought ISIS was probably responsible. But Rukmini’s source told her, Don’t write that, it’s not true. He said that he was sure because it was his group who was behind the attack. And that turned out to be right. But there are limits to what Rukmini and her sources can talk about. At one point, an American photojournalist named Luke Somers was taken hostage by an Al Qaeda affiliate, called AQAP. Rukmini’s source, the one who had told her about the Hebdo attack, was a member of that group. He said Luke’s a spy and we’re going to kill him. Rukmini had friends in common with Luke and so she tried to reason with the guy.
RUKMINI: “Look, this is a civilian. This is a person who is there, and who is providing objective reporting on the situation in Yemen. Why in the world would you want to hurt him?” And he got very aggressive with me, and he said, We have confirmed Luke Summers is a spy. Which was of course, total BS, you know, I mean Luke Summers did not even speak Arabic. And he said, We’ve done our own investigation, we know this to be the case, and I said, That’s not true it actually led to a bit of a clash, and he got angry at me and he kind of cut me off for a while.
PJ: Luke Somers was eventually killed in a botched rescue attempt. Rukmini was never able to get her source to change his mind.
PJ: Do you think he knew? Do you think he knew that you were right and organizationally that wasn’t an opinion that he could hold? Or do you think he thought you were lying to him?
RUKMINI: You know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t til after that, that I began to have a much more interesting, you know, interview or source relationship with him. And I never came back to that, just because it was, it was sort of this red line for me where, you know, it’s just something that we’ll never agree on.
PJ: You must feel that way all the time, like you can know some things, but that eventually that you hit a wall that you can’t get past?
RUKMINI: I mean with these people, in general, I sort of have to suspend part of my being in speaking to them. You know there’s, obviously, the fact that they’re a terrorist is something that’s unacceptable to me. And if we start to, actually consider what they stand for, then I can’t even talk to them at all. Right?
PJ: Suspending entire parts of herself isn’t easy. Particularly when she deals with ISIS. The group’s known for beheading their captives, including journalists on video and then distributing those videos online. As part of her job, she has to watch all of those videos. She studies them.
RUKMINI: You have to think that for every one of these beheading videos, the ones that are: especially the ones that are, that are well-crafted. They sat around and they thought about every single aspect of it. They think about the lighting, they think about the quote that they’re going to take from scripture. They thought about what they were going to allow the victim to say and with all of that, they are trying to communicate something to us, and also something to potential recruits.
PJ: These videos are reported on in the mainstream press once every few months, but Rukmini says when you’re looking directly into that world? The violence is non-stop. She says that she sees a new beheading video once every couple days.
PJ: I didn’t realize they were so frequent.
RUKMINI: They’re so frequent, yeah.
PJ: And do you worry about the effect that it has on you?
RUKMINI: Yeah! Yeah, sure, I mean, I sort of know the point where they’re going to kill the person and I’ll just my hand over the worst part of it, and I’ll just see the edges of it, rather than having to see the agonized expression of the poor person. You know, just as a way to kind of let less of it, you know, come into, come into into me.
PJ: When we finished our conversation, Rukmini had to get back to work. She was visiting a Yazidi refugee camp in the Sinjar mountains of Iraq. You can follow Rukimin on Twitter @rcallimachi . Also, you should absolutely check out her interview on the Longform podcast. It’s two parts, it’s super in depth, Sruthi and I are obsessed with it, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes. After the break we are going to wildly switch gears we’re premiering a new segment that we are very excited about, Alex Goldman is going to strap on his khakis and return to the life that he had before he was a podcast host.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. Today is a big day at Reply All because we are rolling out a new segment called Super Tech Support. This is the theme song, by Breakmaster Cylinder of course. So Alex, in your past life, I mean, not your past life, in your previous career you worked in IT, in technical support.
ALEX: Yes, I was a network administrator.
PJ: And this is a new segment where you put the old superhero costume and you go out on one last ride.
ALEX: Should I have like a saying, like He-Man? I have the power, tech support assemble…
PJ: No wait, I know your saying, I know your saying, you ready?
PJ: Did you try restarting it?
ALEX: Once you said, I’ve got it, I was like, oh it’s going to be, Did you try restarting it?
PJ: So this first assignment should be an easy one. I don’t know if you know this about me, but starting a few months ago I started experimenting with housecleaning apps. Basically you pay online and a professional comes and cleans your house for you.
PJ: So I was cycling between a bunch of introductory house cleaning app rates and for maybe two months I had a very clean house.
ALEX: Okay, s o you were basically just using them up through their introductory offers and then switching to the next one.
PJ: Yes. And I felt very clever about it and then something happened.
ALEX: You weren’t as clever as you thought you were.
PJ: Exactly. So there’s this one called Handy. Their rate was super super low and so I hired them and then maybe a month later I got a notification on my phone that said, Hey we’ve charged you for your next recurring Handy appointment. And I looked on my phone and I tried to figure out how to cancel it and I couldn’t figure out how to cancel it, so then I went on the website. There’s no way to ever cancel a recurring appointment on their website, like there’s no, there deal is you sign up for recurring appointments, they come to your house once a month and you give them money until one day you die. And so I tweeted at them, I tweeted at the company and said, hey there doesn’t seem to be anyway for me to get rid of your recurring service, and very quickly they responded and they said, no problem, give me your email address, and I gave them my email address and they said it was cancelled. But then, I said to them, they’d been so friendly and responsive and I said, hey it really seems like there is no way to cancel service on your website, is that true and if it is, why? And they disappeared and never said anything again.
ALEX: So is the super tech support that we are providing today talking to them and figuring out exactly how it is that you can cancel and why they make it so difficult?
PJ: YEAH. Like I know that a lot of web-based companies, that’s a thing, they try to make cancelling a service really hard, but doing it to this degree seems exceptionally diabolical. I just want you to go find out what’s going on, find out if it’s actually possible that my very cynical read on what’s going on here, find out if that’s actually true.
ALEX: Okay so I’m going to reach out to our buddies at Handy.
PJ: You got to say, you got to say your saying though.
ALEX: Oh. Did you try restarting it?
PJ: Yeah that’s real good.
ALEX: Okay so it’s been four days since that first conversation. Are you ready for this?
ALEX: Alright so as your tech support concierge.
PJ: Concierge, I like it.
ALEX: I decided to just double check that you knew how to use the website properly.
PJ: I appreciate that.
ALEX: So, first I googled, how can I contact Handy? And there’s a webpage on the Handy website that says, How can I contact Handy? and then it says, We’re here to help! Contact us here:
PJ: And then there’s just a picture of a brick wall?
ALEX: And when you click on it, it gives you their help center which gives you the options to check your existing bookings, make a new booking, look at your account, or other. There’s no, and none of those things are, how do I-
ALEX: Cancel the account.
PJ: Okay so this, like I experienced this but I couldn’t relate it to you because when I experienced it I was just like in a rage state and so I didn’t remember the individual steps I just remembered the feelings I had which were strong.
ALEX: So it says, how can I contact Handy? We’re here to help, Contact us here, and it takes you to the help center and then, underneath it it says: Still need help? Contact us. And there’s another link. And that link takes you to the same place. Finally, after a bunch of googling, I found this page that said: to completely deactivate your regularly scheduled cleaning service: contact us. And I was stoked beyond belief and I clicked through and it takes you to the help center.
PJ: See! That’s not right! That’s not right. That is like three-card monty.
AG: So I went to their website and looked for a phone number.
PJ: Did they say our phone number is help center?
ALEX: There is no phone number that I can see on their website. I had to go to gethuman.com, are you familiar with gethuman.com?
ALEX: It’s a great website. You put in the name of a business it give you the number of the business and the buttons to press in order to get a person.
PJ: Oh my god.
ALEX: It’s very very smart.
PJ: So was there a gethuman.com thing for Handy?
ALEX: Yes there was.
ALEX: So I called Handy.
SHARMA: Thank you for calling Handy, my name is Sharma, may I ask who I’m speaking with?
ALEX: My name is Alex Goldman.
SHARMA: Hello Mr. Goldman, How are you?
ALEX: I’m good. Just to be clear, I’m recording this phone call. I hope that’s okay.
SHARMA: Yeah of course. Sure!
ALEX: Is there a way to cancel recurring bookings online?
SHARMA: It’s kind of difficult. I can do it for you.
ALEX: I’m actually interested to see if there’s a way for me to do it. Is there no way for me to do it?
SHARMA: Of course. If you give me a brief moment I can check on that for you. Okay?
ALEX: Thank you.
SHARMA: You’re welcome. One moment.
ALEX: Now I just want to pause and let you know that you are about to hear the fucking best hold music ever.
PJ: Okay. Oh this is good.
ALEX: So I was on hold for two and a half minutes. The whole time, totally happy to listen to this song. They could have kept me on hold for half an hour.
PJ: Is she asking like Handy himself?
ALEX: Yeah, Charles Handy. So then she finally comes back.
SHARMA: Thank you for holding Mr. Goldman, I do apologize for that. But I have been advised that we would have to cancel the recurring bookings if you would want to do that.
ALEX: Okay, just to be clear, I’m curious why I can’t cancel a recurring booking myself. It seems awfully customer unfriendly.
SHARMA: Okay, I can ask them that.
PJ: She’s totally nice and professional.
ALEX: Yeah she’s totally nice and professional. Then she says, Alex, Mr. Goldman. Hold on a second, I need to ask someone, can I put you on hold again?
PJ: And you were like hell yeah.
ALEX: And I was like please.
PJ: Play that funky hold music.
ALEX: Okay so yeah you get it, the hold music plays.
PJ: Oh you can keep playing the hold music. It is really good.
ALEX: It’s great hold music. There’s like a solo if you get further into it.
PJ: It’s the theme to an end of a long struggle. Do you know what I mean? It’s like everything is okay music.
ALEX: Yeah I assume there’s a certain psychology to it that’s not accidental.
ALEX: And when she came back this is what she said:
SHARMA: Thank you for holding sir I do apologize for that wait. But it’s just what I was advised is that the system is not set up for customer’s to cancel the recurring bookings because when you want to cancel, they’re wanting the customers to call in to see if we can help the situation out on actually why they’re wanting to cancel the bookings and offer promotions and discounts and things like that.
ALEX: I see.
SHARMA: So it’s like a, it’s kind of like an opportunity to better our services.
ALEX: I see. Sharma you have been incredibly helpful, I really appreciate it.
SHARMA: No problem. Is there anything else I can help you with?
ALEX: No you’ve been a great help. I really appreciate it. Take care.
SHARMA: You’re welcome. You too. Thanks for calling Handy.
ALEX: Bye bye.
SHARMA: Bye bye.
PJ: I can’t believe that they’re so honest about what they’re doing! That’s not okay.
ALEX: Look I was only tasked to figure out how to cancel your recurring bookings, I wasn’t tasked to justify it.
PJ: But all I want you to do is say as angry as you are, you are right to be that angry.
ALEX: Did you try restarting it?
PJ: I guess at least I do feel that I’ve been super tech supported.
ALEX: So just before this story was actually about to go out, we got a response from a spokesperson at Handy. They wouldn’t agreee to an interview.
PJ: The one time they don’t want ot talk on the phone is when you’re doing a story about them.
ALEX: I did get a statement back: We apologize if Pj had an experience that did not match the high standard for seamless home services that we set for ourselves. Everyday we evaluate and reevaluate our best practices to better serve out customers and as part of that, we’re not piloting different cancellation options including through the app for recurring bookings. So do we want to take credit for this?
PJ: Yeah! We should take credit for this. But also, like can ahhhhhhhh. Like, let’s pretend it was a movie theater, and the movie theater didn’t have an exit and you were like why don’t you have an exit, I’d like to leave the movie when I’m done. And they were like, well, we want to see if we can convince you to see another movie before you’re allowed to leave and you’ve said that was a problem and they sent you a letter saying, You know, we try to reach our best practices every day and we’re piloting, some patrons will be allowed to leave the theater of their own volition.
ALEX: May I remind you that the whole reason you were using Handy in the first place is cause you were trying to scam all of these cleaning services?
PJ: I know I’m the worst person in the world.
ALEX: As long as everybody else knows. That’s it for the first installment of Super Tech Support. If you have a Super Tech Support story you want to share with us, you can email us at email@example.com.
PJ: Hey so Alex, before you read the credits.
PJ: There’s a sort of mini-announcement.
ALEX: I wouldn’t call it mini. It’s pretty important.
PJ: So the mega-announcement is that there’s now such thing as a Gimlet membership.
ALEX: Yes, I know this. You don’t need to tell me because I already know.
PJ: This was more of an outward facing announcement.
ALEX: I understand now.
PJ: So here’s what it is. First of all if you don’t want to be a member, that’s absolutely fine. Gimlet shows will continue to be free and completely downloadable. This is not like a paywall or anything like that. If you want to be a member, then you get some things: early access to the pilot of the new Gimlet show: Awesome Boring, which has Adam Davidson from Planet Money and Adam McKay from a million funny comedy movies.
ALEX: Such as?
ALEX: Didn’t he make Step Brothers?
ALEX: Oh my god that movie is so good.
PJ: So people can hear that pilot. And also, if you sign up for an annual subscription you can get a Reply All shirt. They’re awesome. I’m wearing one right now.
ALEX: And if you don’t want a Reply All shirt, you can also get a Gimlet shirt, or a Mystery Show shirt-
PJ: Anyway so the point is people can sign up if they want to, just go to replyall.limo. Alright, you can read the credits now.
ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin and edited by Alex Blumberg. Production assistance from Sylvie Douglis. Special thanks this week to Eli Horowitz and Emily Kennedy. Our show was engineered this week by Rick Kwan and the Reverend John DeLore. Matt Lieber is an old movie that still holds up. Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.