Prize-Winning Journalist Rukmini Callimachi Risks Her Life Reporting on Islamic State

New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi received a death threat from the Islamic State terrorist group last week. She says she’s received many such threats while reporting on terrorism.

Her career has taken her to the front lines of conflicts around the world, including the liberation of Mosul by Iraqi forces where she collected ISIS documents the terrorist group left behind.

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A three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Wired magazine called her “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world.”

Callimachi’s incredible stories have been turned into a highly praised 10-part podcast “Caliphate” on the New York Times website. But before she was tracking ISIS around the globe, she was rounding up the police blotter and covering other suburban stories for the Daily Herald newspaper, first as an intern, then a reporter. 

Callimachi is in Chicago to give a lecture Tuesday evening at Dominican University. She joins us in discussion.

Below, an edited Q&A with Callimachi.

Yours sounds like an incredibly dangerous job. Do you fear for your life?

I do get death threats, but we take precautions. I cannot go to areas where ISIS is in control. Journalists are no longer seen as objective witnesses to conflicts. ISIS treats us as they would a spy, which means they would kill us, and that is just too high a risk to take.

You’ve become an expert on the use of social media by ISIS. How exactly do you do that?

I never use a fake name, per the New York Times ethics policy. FBI agents might take on a Muslim name to make people in the chat room think they’re Muslim. But under the New York Times’ policy, I can’t do anything misleading like that. What I do instead is take on a name that doesn’t mean anything, for example it might be a poem. My profile picture is pretty scenery. It’s non-descript, but it’s not lying. I do occasionally interact with ISIS members on social media. But when I start interacting with them, I always do it under my @rcallimachi Twitter account or @RukminiCallimachi Instagram account.  

President Donald Trump says the Islamic State has been “completely obliterated.” Your thoughts?

The Pentagon estimates that ISIS has more fighters today than it had in its peak in 2014, when it held a territory the size of Great Britain. Former presidents have also tried to declare victory over ISIS. Yet the notion that the territorial defeat of ISIS is somehow akin to the organization’s defeat is just not right. From 2003 to 2014, ISIS didn’t hold any territory, yet it caused enormous casualties. Now it’s simply gone back to where it was pre-2014. ISIS is not even close to defeated.

True that your career started at the Daily Herald?

Yes! I had been a freelancer for a year before in India, but I’d only succeeded in publishing one clip. That wasn’t enough money for me to live off of. So I came back and became an intern at the Daily Herald and they basically taught me the profession. And it’s more complicated than I could have imagined.

Did you have a specific beat at Daily Herald?

Yes, I was hired to cover Streamwood, Illinois. I covered the village board and park district meetings and police blotters. My big promotion after a year was to cover Barrington. At the Daily Herald I’d write 8-10 stories a week. That really forced me to practice the craft day in and day out. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and I kept thinking how do I get from here to there? A colleague of mine gave me the best advice ever: whatever assignment is put in front of you, do the very best you can. I’d get a story about a bench dedication at a park. My challenge to myself was how to make it interesting. In the end, everything can be made interesting, if you give it some attention.

Today, when something enormous happens, I feel I have the tools to turn that into copy that will be interesting for people. I see so many young reporters who end up with some amazing thing happening in front of them, and they’re not able to capture it and present it in a way that makes sense to the general public.

I understand you sent out some 100 resumes looking for a newspaper job.

Yeah, I had two newspapers call me back. One was in Corpus Christi, Texas. The other was the Daily Herald. Daily Herald is based in Arlington Heights. I had no idea where that was. When I accepted the internship, I thought I might be in Central Illinois. I was so excited when I found out it was right outside Chicago!

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The travel. I think the travel is so much fun. I think perhaps because I’m an immigrant and left my home country when I was 5 years old and moved to three other countries before we settled in California. I’m used to moving and there’s something about my job that puts me in constant motion and I’m happy in that environment. I love airports and being on flights and adore checking into hotels. I really enjoy the camaraderie I have with my colleagues in the field. In Iraq, I really care about my translator, my drivers. 

Contact Andrea Guthmann: @AndreaGuthmann

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