Being a Target

A reporter learns how to dodge terrorist threats to get the story
By Rukmini Callimachi

The convoy of cars flying al-Qaeda’s black flag swept across northern Mali in 2012. Within weeks, it felt like a curtain had been drawn.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

Over scratchy phone lines, I dialed and re-dialed the numbers of city officials, which usually rang unanswered. When someone occasionally picked up, they couldn’t hear me. By the time the amputations began, many were too afraid to speak.

I had been the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press for less than a year when al-Qaeda seized and began to govern the largest slice of territory they had ever held. The sweep of desert under their control, which the terror network’s North African branch held with the help of two allied groups, spanned the size of Afghanistan. It should have been a riveting story, except that I couldn’t cover it: The branch of al-Qaeda that had seized the territory had bankrolled its rise to prominence by kidnapping foreigners for ransom. Soon after the group planted their black flag in the fabled desert outpost of Timbuktu, a Swiss woman – who had refused to evacuate – was abducted from her home.

For the next 10 months, I watched from more than a thousand miles away in neighboring Senegal as reports surfaced of women being flogged for refusing to wear the black veil. I did my best to describe how they destroyed the centuries-old mausoleums of Timbuktu, spending an afternoon trying, and failing, to confirm anything beyond the most basic details. “Are you sure they used a sledgehammer?” I yelled into the phone one afternoon. “Or was it a pickaxe?” Mostly, I threw up my hands.

A Timbuktu resident walks past a room where he and other residents say Al-Qaeda held European hostages at Mali's Ministry of Finance regional audit department. (AP/Rukmini Callimachi)
A Timbuktu resident walks past a room where he and other residents say Al-Qaeda held European hostages at Mali’s Ministry of Finance regional audit department. (AP/Rukmini Callimachi)

If I’m honest with myself, I failed to cover the story both because it was too hard and because it was less exciting: Instead of being out in the field, I was stuck in my office, forced to report on a speakerphone.

I was schooled not by another journalist, but by a report put out by a human rights group. Beginning in the summer of 2012, Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka traveled to Bamako, the capital of Mali. She spent her days at the central bus station, waiting for the buses making the journey from Timbuktu, carrying fleeing residents who had witnessed the group’s brutal rule. Her report was full of the details I longed to cover: How the terror group had banned music in all its forms, going so far as to outlaw cell phone jingles. She described how one young man frantically tried to hit the answer button on his phone when someone called him and the ringer played Malian music, within earshot of the jihadists. He was beaten until he bled, her report said.

It was a watershed moment for me. Huge swaths of the world are now off limits to reporters. Much of Syria and Iraq, where the militant group Islamic State has built its caliphate, are no-go zones both because of the regular dangers of war and because reporters are now targets. So is much of Libya, where until recently Islamic State ran its most important “province.” The area where we can operate in Afghanistan has progressively shrunk. And despite Western-backed or funded military interventions, most of Somalia, much of northern Nigeria, chunks of Niger, Chad and Algeria remain areas of extreme risk for journalists.

And yet what happens inside those no-go areas has become more important than ever.

For the past three and a half years, I have been approaching the edges of territories held by terror groups, inching as close as I can to the line of control, metaphorically peeking over the sandbags. In Mali, I also eventually headed to the bus stop to await the fleet of GDF buses making the days-long journey from the heart of territory controlled by al-Qaeda. I, too, spoke to the passengers as they exited the bus, the women visibly relieved to no longer have to wear the suffocating veil.

And I got better at using the telephone in my office, learning to use the redial function. I kept a notepad next to my landline and tallied each call I made, telling myself I wouldn’t give up until I had dialed the same number at least 20 times. The interviews would sometimes last less than a minute before the line went dead, forcing me to redial yet again. I begged each person I called to introduce me to someone else, so that each call became part of a daisy chain of interviews.

It was difficult, often tedious work, but it paid off in the first weeks of 2013, when France scrambled fighter jets over northern Mali, beginning a military intervention to flush out the jihadists. I reached the city of Timbuktu days after it had been freed, part of a wave of reporters who cascaded into town, filling every available hotel room. I was not the first to reach the fabled city, but I was the last journalist to leave, staying for more than a month, until the manager of my hotel informed me that I would need to start paying a 5,000 francs (around US$10) fee each day to pay the cook. “There are no other guests, so he’s coming just for you,” the manager reasoned.

Because I had spent so much time on bad phone lines covering the occupied city, I already knew it intimately before ever stepping foot on its sand-enveloped lanes. I headed to the branch of the Banque Malienne de Solidarité (BMA bank), which had acted as the headquarters of the Islamic police. I knew the jihadists had turned the city’s once-chic boutique hotel into the seat of their Shariah court, and headed there next. Residents pointed me to the garage where Abou Zeid, one of the top commanders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, responsible for kidnapping numerous Western hostages, had waited for a mechanic to fix his Toyota SUV, to the tax building where his men had typed out their set of edicts, and to the other municipal offices and private villas that had served as the infrastructure of their occupying government.

In each building, I found and collected dozens of pages left behind by al-Qaeda’s men.

Those documents, totaling more than 5,000 pages of internal correspondence and ideological treatises, have formed the core of my understanding of al-Qaeda, and helped orient my insight into its offshoot, the Islamic State.

It was another way to peer over the sandbags, this time through the peephole of what they wrote to each other and about themselves.

I finally left Timbuktu in March 2013, and during the next two years, my focus shifted almost entirely to the Islamic State group. I struggled at first to find the metaphorical bus stop, where I could interview the passengers leaving the territory under their control. I finally found it on the first of four trips to Iraq in 2015, in the tent cities that had sprung up on the edges of the northern town of Dohuk. It was there that the Yazidi minority, whose women had been targeted for enslavement by Islamic State, found refuge. I filled my days going tent to tent, speaking to dozens of women held by the terror group. They related the horrors of their captivity – the rapes that had by then already been reported by numerous news organizations, including my own. For me, those interviews were the most intimate of windows into the state of mind of the men claiming to be acting in the name of God. The women and girls described how their abusers used scripture to justify acts of sexual violence. They told me that the fighters described their rape as “ibada,” the Arabic word for worship, and they described how the men holding them prayed before the rape, then took a shower and then prayed again, bookending the abuse in an act of religious devotion.

I was in Iraq on November 13, 2015, when my editor called me and asked me to rush to Paris.

I arrived the next day and it took me an hour and a half to drive the normally 40-minute distance between Charles de Gaulle Airport and my hotel, as we were forced onto side streets to avoid the barricades erected by the security forces hunting the surviving attackers, who killed 130 at the Stade de France, cafes and the Bataclan theater. As their names were revealed, I joined the flocks of reporters going from street to street, knocking on the doors of former neighbors, a frustrating and mostly futile exercise.

It was then that I found the next peephole in the form of interrogation documents and court records, traveling by train to Brussels to pick up the first folder.

France has sent more fighters to Syria than any other Western country and dozens have been arrested upon their return. In transcripts of hours-long interrogations conducted by France’s Direction Generale de la Securite Interieure, the country’s domestic intelligence unit, I was able to glimpse the outlines of a branch of the Islamic State dedicated to exporting terror abroad. In mid-2016, a source handed me a USB stick containing more than 100,000 pages of investigative documents, and I have been combing through them, using them as the spine of stories on how Islamic State mounted the machinery of terror in Europe. More recently, I have begun to collect similar interrogation records from Asia, showing the group’s global reach.

I am never happier than when I am in the field, and I cannot help but read with longing the accounts of reporters who covered conflict years ago, when journalists were still considered off-bounds. It was only 20 years ago that Osama bin Laden welcomed an American TV crew inside a hut on a cold mountaintop in Afghanistan. I wonder if those opportunities will ever come again for Western reporters.

Until then, I’ll keep on working as close as I can to the edges.

Rukmini Callimachi is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who covers the militant groups Islamic State and Al-Qaeda for The New York Times.