Behind the scenes of the Islamic State: Who are we really fighting?

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As the wave of attacks that took place in Western Europe in 2015-2016 calmed down, news about ISIS has slowly faded into the background over the past couple of years. Media attention on the Islamic State turned to how much land it has lost since its prime, when the group controlled over 60,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq. The new picture painted is not much more than a fringe, beaten, weakened alliance desperately holding on the last strip of land it still rules directly.

Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times’ foreign correspondent and resident terrorism expert, shakes up this picture. Her extensive investigation of ISIS culminated into Caliphate, the New York Times hit podcast released in April 2018. In a ten-episode long series, Callimachi attempts to turn the chaos and complexity of terrorism and political Islam into a well-defined narrative.

In a series of interviews with a Canadian ex-ISIS fighter (code name Abu Huzaifa), Challimachi puts a voice, and conversely, a face, to the horror of ISIS. As Huzaifa opens up to her,  he takes you on a journey from his recruitment, his trip through Pakistan and Turkey to Syria, his duties under ISIS, to the two murders he committed, and then his return to Canada, and his ideology today. Listening to Huzaifa speak, he does not only sound human – he seems relatable. He could be any Canadian guy with a thick accent who sits two rows behind you in your weekly Political Theory lecture, and for exactly that reason, he is almost scarier than the ISIS fighters beheading American journalists on videotape.

“I am looking for ISIS’ diary, their internal correspondence and receipts. Their personal tiffs with co-workers that end up getting sent to the equivalent of ISIS HR. The things they’re struggling with and writing letters back and forth about.” – Rukmini Calimacchi

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The message Callimachi tries to convey is two-fold. On the one hand, she says, we shouldn’t underestimate the Islamic State. Abu Huzeifa is back in Canada. Like so many others who left their homes to fight in Syria, to this day he has not been arrested because of lack of forensic evidence. He confirms, when speaking to Callimachi, that he is becoming more and more adamant in his ideology and his extremism, although he does say he won’t let it manifest itself violently ever again. He confesses that he considers Callimachi herself, a woman with whom he is still in contact and who, it seems, he respects very much, one of the “others.” Hopefully, he says, she will one day join Islam, but until then, she’s basically the enemy.

Although she is very careful not to make any firm conclusions, Callimachi guides the listener from Abu Huzeifa’s journey to Mosul and back with a clear voice. As you listen to her speak to family members of fighters, sex slaves and Iraqi translators alike, the ghost of ISIS dawns on you. This is not the end of ISIS’ story, however badly we would like it to be. As Callimachi puts it, the podcast leaves the listener with the appreciation that “deradicalisation is not some sort of neat process. And it’s not necessarily a linear progression.”

Callimachi reiterates that for these reasons, we have to think long and hard about how these groups come about and how they manage to appeal to so many people from different backgrounds around the world. Highlighting the potential consequences of how Islamic State is viewed by the West, the conducting factor of her reporting is the everlasting debate between, as she puts it, “the interventionist and the pacifist camp.” She doesn’t evaluate which of these approaches is better or worse, but instead just points towards what it is about either of them that can help us understand how it’s come so far.

The series reminds us how powerful and threatening ISIS was not so long ago, bringing the death, manipulation, hypocrisy and terror of ISIS closer to home than it ever has been. A very last-minute plot twist in the last episode reflects the idea that in real life, there are no real endings or absolute truths; there are just facts, and everything turns on how you interpret them. In her soft, fearless voice laced with determination to get to the bottom of her four-year-long investigation, Callamachi invites you to follow her into a behind the scenes of ISIS itself. Don’t expect any clear-cut answers; not everything is expressed with as many words, yet the perfect balance between direct witness statements, explanatory voice-overs, emotional testimonies, real-life newsflashes and horrifying soundbites speaks for itself.

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