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A Front-Line View Of ISIS At War: 'They're Not Backing Down'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Rukmini Callimachi covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She was just on the front line in Mosul, embedded with Iraqi forces trying to liberate the western part of the city from ISIS. Mosul was overtaken by ISIS in 2014 and became ISIS's most important stronghold in Iraq. The eastern half of Mosul was liberated in January. Callimachi was in Iraq during part of that battle, too. We're going to talk about the fighting, what she's learned about life under ISIS and the extra sanctions imposed on women and what it's like for her to be a woman covering ISIS on the ground and on social media.

Callimachi has written some remarkable stories. She wrote about how ISIS turned some women they've captured into sex slaves. When she was based in Africa for the Associated Press, she uncovered a trove of thousands of al-Qaida documents that revealed a lot about its inner workings, including how operatives had to turn in expense reports. My interview with Rukmini Callimachi was recorded yesterday.

Rukmini Callimachi, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you were embedded with Iraqi troops on the frontline in Mosul. What is the importance of Mosul in the larger battle against ISIS?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: So Mosul is really the most important city that ISIS has in Iraq. It's the second largest city in the entire country of Iraq. And it was really when they took the city in 2014 that I would say the world woke up to the importance of this terror group and to its growing reach.

Now, the thing is I don't want to make too much of it. I think people are erroneously thinking that once Mosul falls, that ISIS will be on its back legs. And the fact is that even after Mosul falls, in Iraq, they will still hold the city of Hawija and the city of Tal Afar. And the most important thing that they will still hold is Raqqa, which is the capital of their self-declared caliphate.

GROSS: So when you were embedded with Iraqi troops on the frontline in Mosul, what is the frontline? Where were you?

CALLIMACHI: So I was initially in eastern Mosul. And I was there at different points in the battle. So the battle started in October of last year. I got there in November. And initially, they were fighting for a Christian village, one they called Qaraqosh, Karamles (ph) and Hamdaniya. And I was there to watch sort of the aftermath of that. And then when I came back in February, the frontline had moved all the way to the middle of the city of Mosul. The city is divided by the Tigris River. So at that point, the frontline was the river. And so I was doing day trips to neighborhoods that were abutting at that point.

And then in the middle of February, they started to move into western Mosul, which is the most populated part of the city. And there were several targets that they were going for. The first was the Mosul Airport, which was considered strategic. And I was there to see that. And then I was in a neighborhood called al-Josak, which is just south of the old city of Mosul, considered the most dense part of the city. And that's where I was on my last day in Mosul.

GROSS: So we you traveling in a tank?

CALLIMACHI: I was traveling - initially on most of my embeds, I was traveling in a Humvee. And in parts of eastern Mosul, which are considered now safer, I was sometimes going in my own car and then catching up with Iraqi troops. But whenever we were up on the frontline, whenever we were on the actual frontline, we had to be in a hard car. So that was either a Humvee or an armored car that we could rent in Erbil, which is in northern Iraq.

GROSS: So are we talking about, like, hand-to-hand fighting in a city? What's the nature of the fighting that's going on? Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: No, what you're - not at all. I mean, what you have is basically a street that becomes the frontline. And the troops that reporters are with will typically be a block or several blocks behind that point. And so it looks like a residential neighborhood. You know, so you'll be going from house to house. But you can hear the sounds of mortars or the sounds of outgoing fire nearby.

For the reporting I'm doing, I don't really need to see the bang bang, Terry. I mean, I'm going there to try to understand ISIS. That's my beat. And I can do that just fine, you know, from a couple blocks away or from an area that has just recently been liberated.

GROSS: So one of the things you've reported is that ISIS is using small drones that you can buy in shopping malls.


GROSS: How are they using those drones?

CALLIMACHI: So they're using them in a variety of ways. We knew that they were employing drones as far back as really 2014 because in their most horrific execution videos, including of American hostages, we saw that they were including aerial footage. And the only way to have done that was through a drone. So initially, they were using it for that purpose. And then starting I think sometime last year, they began using their own engineers to add small munitions to these drones. And they would then send them out over areas where the Iraqi troops were based. And they would drop these munitions when they saw a cluster of Humvees or a cluster of cars.

And initially, like most things with ISIS, they hyped it on their social media and in their propaganda. And the reaction initially was we're not sure if this is a big deal. You know, we're not sure if they're really capable of this. But very quickly, their capacity has increased. And now, when I was on my very last embed when I was in the al-Josak neighborhood with a unit called the Rapid Reaction Force of the Iraqi military, they actually had appointed two soldiers whose only job in that day of the embed was to basically look at the sky. They were looking for ISIS drones because the only way you can protect yourself from them is to shoot them out of the sky once you see them.

GROSS: One of the things that's particularly frightening about that is that for a while, like, the U.S. seemed to be, like, the country that had drones.

CALLIMACHI: Right (laughter). Yes.

GROSS: And if ISIS can get drone - can use drones in warfare that they're buying in shopping malls, what does that say for our future?

CALLIMACHI: Well, in the immediate battle, it's changed the dynamic. So up until I would say last year, the Iraqi troops and coalition forces in general were used to owning the sky. You know, that was from where we attacked them. You know, we had an air force. We had surveillance aircraft. And now the dynamic has changed. And ISIS is also able to do that, and that the use of drones is combined with their use of tunnels.

In all of the areas that I have visited, ISIS dug a complicated network of tunnels. And so what they're able to do is they retreat inside the tunnels. And then from there, they're able to send a drone up into the air. So they're completely protected and unseen from our surveillance. And yet, they're able to see. So what they suspect is happening is that the drone is sent out to collect information to identify the location of where the enemy troops are. And then from there, they're able to pinpoint that place and then start aiming mortars at it as well as aiming munitions from the drone itself.

GROSS: And the tunnels that you mentioned, you describe them as having, like, electricity and lighting.


GROSS: I mean, they're sophisticated tunnels.

CALLIMACHI: They're sophisticated tunnels, yeah. And I interviewed one family that told me this remarkable anecdote. And I didn't fully believe the anecdote until I was able to enter liberated parts of eastern Mosul and then saw this myself. So what the family told me is that as the Iraqi army was advancing towards them, so that the Iraqi army was only a couple of streets away, they said that suddenly a group of about 30 ISIS fighters basically just barged into their home. And they came in carrying two things - a sledgehammer and a generator. And so they dragged the sledgehammer into the family's home. They then made the family sit in one of the four bedrooms. They locked the door.

So the family wasn't able to see what was happening. And from the other side of the door, they heard this deafening sound. And they understood that ISIS was drilling a hole into the floor of one of their rooms. They were there they told me for I think two to three days. There was always a guard at their door. They were only allowed to go outside to go to the bathroom. They weren't given any food. If they wanted water, they said that ISIS just threw them bottles of water. And then finally on the third day, the sound had stopped. And there was a period of quiet. And then they realized that ISIS had probably left. But they were too afraid to open the door. So they waited there for several hours.

And then in the evening, the Iraqi troops arrived and opened the door, let them out. And when they walked out into their house, they discovered that there was basically a hole the size of their living room in their living room. And in every other bedroom - so they had four bedrooms they said - in every other bedroom there was dirt up to the ceiling. And so when, you know, when you hear this, it sounded sort of like hyperbole. But I then was able to go to this very neighborhood. And I - although I did not see this particular house, I saw four or five other houses where I saw this very thing - an enormous hole in the middle of one of the - one of the rooms and then dirt literally up to the ceiling in the other rooms because you have to have somewhere to put the dirt, right? And so what they're doing is they go into a place where there are civilians.

They understand America's and the coalition's rules of engagement better than I think - than I think almost anybody. They know that our rules of engagement does not allow us to target a building that is full of civilians. So they use the civilians as human shields. And then they use their house to drill down and use that as an escape to get out. In the case of the family that I spoke to, they said that the tunnel basically went underneath their house, across the street and then up into a house on the other side of the street. So they could basically just slip in, slip out and get away.

GROSS: As you're describing this, I'm thinking of something that Donald Trump said when he was running for office. And he said that what he would do is bomb the blank out of ISIS. And what you're describing is the impossibility of that strategy.

CALLIMACHI: It's absolutely impossible. And, you know, what - before I went to Mosul, I used to have - I used to have similar thoughts. You know, I used to think, why is it that they don't just - you know, just bomb the heck out of these places? The reality is Mosul is a city that had a population of 2 million before ISIS came. After ISIS, the estimates that we hear is that the city retained a population of 1 million. Now, only a small percentage of those people are actual ISIS fighters. Another group within that is the families of ISIS fighters.

But the vast majority of those people are civilians. You can make the case that at some level, they agreed to live under ISIS rule. And perhaps they have members of their family that are in some way collaborating with ISIS, whether it's paying taxes to the group under duress or, you know, in a more - or in a more involved fashion, actually working for the terror group. But no matter what, there are a lot of civilians there.

And you see that when the advance is happening on any neighborhood. The clash begins and the next thing that you see is civilians just streaming out. You know, mothers with babies, old people. And so unless - you know, unless you're willing to court, you know, a real human catastrophe, you can't just bomb this place indiscriminately.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She just got back from Iraq. We'll take a short break and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She returned to the U.S. last week after being embedded with Iraqi forces trying to liberate the western part of Mosul from ISIS.

What about suicide bombers? Am I correct in saying that ISIS has been using both children and animals?

CALLIMACHI: So there was one case of a poor puppy that was strapped with an explosive and sent out into an area where Iraqi troops were located. The only confirmation of this was on Twitter by the PMU, which is an umbrella group that represents various militias in Iraq. That's the only case that I know of of an animal being used. Children - I would say teenagers, right? So they're using 15-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 13-year-olds, even. And they're using those in large numbers to carry out suicide attacks.

One of the saddest ones that happened while I was there was two boys from the Yazidi minority. The Yazidi people, as you know, Terry, are a minority in Iraq. And they were particularly targeted by ISIS in the most savage of ways. ISIS determined that because their belief system was deviant in their eyes that they were - that they were eligible for all sorts of abuses. Men were killed. Children were taken to training camps. And the women of the Yazidi minority were systematically enslaved and raped. And these two boys, they looked to be maybe 12, 13. They had disappeared in 2014 at the moment when their village was overrun by ISIS.

And they reappear basically a couple of weeks ago in an ISIS martyrdom video. And you see them - you see images of them going through their training. They then address the camera and say, we were born into ignorance, and thanks to the Islamic state, we have now found the way. So they're basically being told to criticize, you know, their families and their previous way of life. And then what I found most disturbing is you see them kidding around, laughing and just being kids. And they - in the video they actually look happy. And they're doing that in the moments before they each individually get into a car that's loaded with explosives and then told to drive off into an Iraqi army position and blow themselves up.

GROSS: And you think they understood what they were doing?

CALLIMACHI: I mean, who knows? But they - I mean, they're at the wheel. They're flashing, you know, the tawhid sign, which is the - a sign that ISIS uses, the one finger up in the air, which represents a single god. And, I mean, the cars are very obviously VBIEDs. You know, they're not normal cars. They're strapped with all of these munitions. So you have - I mean, you have to assume that I think they did know what they were doing.

GROSS: Yeah. So in - I think it was in February - a woman journalist...


GROSS: ...Who worked as a reporter and anchor for an Iraqi Kurdish TV station...


GROSS: Her name was Shifa Gardi - was killed - this was in February...


GROSS: ...While reporting from the front lines in Mosul. What impact did it have on you to hear that?

CALLIMACHI: That was a really dark day. Shifa Gardi was killed on one day, and the day before, my team had actually been parked behind her car at one small moment during our embed. We were traveling with the same forces. And so it was really - it was kind of a wake-up call of how dangerous this territory remains. She was particularly loved in Kurdistan. She was a presenter on TV. She was very young. I think she was just 30. And although there are plenty of western female reporters in this base, there's still not a lot of female Iraqi journalists. So she was very much, you know, pushing the boundaries.

And I remember just thinking, you know, what must her family be thinking right now? You know, this is a family that at some level must have accepted what she was doing despite cultural norms. The day that she was killed they sent an ambulance to pick up her body. And they brought her body in basically a convoy back to the city of Erbil, which is the city where the reporters are staging their embeds from. And The New York Times sent one of my colleagues to her newsroom because people were coming to her newsroom to essentially, you know, welcome her body back. It was really sad.

GROSS: Does it frighten you when something like that happens?

CALLIMACHI: What it does is it makes me recalibrate my threat assessment. So Shifa Gardi's death was one of, I think, three moments on this past trip where I was in a particular place that I felt quite comfortable in. You know, I felt frankly safe. The place where she was killed was a village called Albu Saif. And Albu Saif is three to four hours from our hotel in Erbil. And I had argued that we should spend the night there. I saw that some other TV crews had taken over villas there. And it was - and it is actually just really tiring and difficult to kind of move back and forth.

And I had, you know, a conversation with my team, and my team was very much against it. They said, no, it's not safe here. I pushed back and said, well, but look, you know, this TV crew is staying, this TV crew is staying. And in the end I let myself be convinced by them. And of course, they were right. That - you know, that was where she was killed the next day. And it was one of several instances where I felt OK and later on realized that the place was not OK.

GROSS: So the Kurdish journalist who we're talking about - how was she killed?

CALLIMACHI: So what we learned from the Iraqi troops whose unit she was with and who I was later embedded with is that she was in the village of Albu Saif. This was one of the villages that had to be taken on the advance towards western Mosul. And it was considered strategic because it was at high elevation. So from there, ISIS could aim mortars into - you know, into the valley. So they had taken Albu Saif. And news very quickly got out that near Albu Saif there was a sinkhole - so basically, you know, a big hole in the desert - and that ISIS had used that to dump literally hundreds, if not thousands of bodies, that it was possibly the largest mass grave in that area. I had actually gotten an email from a photo colleague who wanted to go and get to that - and get to that place first and do a story on it.

So the story I heard from the troops I was with is that she asked for permission to go to that place, that the Iraqi troops told her that it was not safe, and she then was able to find a member of the Hashd al-Shaabi militia - this is a militia that fights alongside the Iraqi forces but that are not as professional as Iraqi forces. She was able to find a member of this militia who agreed to take her there. And they got to the sinkhole and she was doing a stand-up with this militia member. And he suddenly noticed some wires around his feet. And as he tried to move away, the wires got caught and he pulled up an IED and it blew up and killed him and her and seriously wounded, I think, her cameraman.

Now, what that indicates is that IED was obviously planted there by ISIS. And it suggests to me that they knew that reporters would find this interesting. You know, they understood that a mass grave is a place where we would go to do a story on their atrocities. And they saw that coming and they ringed the place with roadside bombs.

GROSS: My guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. We'll talk about what the Iraqi troops she was embedded with had to say about President Trump's travel ban and how al-Qaida and ISIS are using Trump in their propaganda after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about ISIS with Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for the New York Times. She just returned from Iraq last week, where she was embedded with Iraqi forces fighting to liberate western Mosul from ISIS. She was also in Iraq in November and part of December.

So before the Iraqi forces began trying to take back Mosul from ISIS, civilians were told to stay in place and to wait to hear from Iraqi forces that they were, like, free to go and not in danger.


GROSS: And leaflets were dropped...


GROSS: ...Over the city. And you quoted a couple. I want to read one of them. (Reading) To those of you who are intrigued by the ISIS ideology, this is your last opportunity to quit your work with ISIS and to leave those foreigners who are in our homeland. Stay at home raising the white flags as the forces approach. Were those kind of dropped from overhead?

CALLIMACHI: Yeah, they dropped millions of leaflets from Iraqi planes over the occupied areas. And when you're walking through these neighborhoods, you'll pick them up. I mean, you see them, you know, lying in the dirt, lying in the mud, in the grass. So they really did do a good job of leafleting the area.

GROSS: Was that effective?

CALLIMACHI: I think it was in the sense that civilians clearly know that they should have a white flag. And so wherever we went, whenever we saw civilians emerging from an occupied area, they would be, you know, holding up a piece of white cloth. So they must have gotten that from somewhere, and I'm guessing it's from the leaflets.

And whether it's effective, that particular leaflet was also addressed to ISIS, you know, telling them to drop their weapons. Whether it's effective in that regard, I don't know.

GROSS: So ISIS had a leaflet that it distributed when it took over Mosul. And you quote this. It said (reading) to the virtuous women in modesty and the wide, loose hijab, stay in your homes and leave only in cases of necessity. I'd like you to talk a little bit about the kind of extra sanctions that are applied to women under ISIS. And it seems to just keep getting worse and worse, as if that could even be possible.


GROSS: But it does seem to be possible.

CALLIMACHI: Sure. So the document you're quoting from is from something called the charger of the city that ISIS distributed to houses in Mosul immediately after they took the city in June of 2014. And so right off the bat, they announced that their project for women is that they should be indoors. There's no role for women in the society except that of mothers and spouses to ISIS fighters.

So the women that I spoke to, they talked about how onerous these ISIS dress rules became. Initially, it was just cover your hair and wear a long, fitting robe so that the female form is not exposed. That's doable because that's kind of the dress code in much of Iraq anyway for women. But very quickly, it went from that to the addition of several other articles of clothing.

Number one, they had to wear black socks so that not even their toes could be showing if they're wearing sandals. Number two, they had to wear gloves so that their hands were not showing. Number three, they added something called a hemar (ph), which is a piece of cloth that covers the lower part of the face. And then the final affront was they added a piece of cloth that had to go over the eyes so that even the eyes were covered.

Now, in winter, you can suffer, you know, through that. But Iraq is unbelievably hot in the summer. It's really hard for me being there just in a long-sleeved shirt. Women said that they basically stopped going out because they were policing these rules in such a harsh way. And it was just so uncomfortable.

They felt like they were going to faint just trying to go to the market. So women created, you know, a series of strategies for dealing with this mostly based on staying indoors and handing everything off to brothers and husbands.

GROSS: And what is the punishment if you violate one of these rules?

CALLIMACHI: So the Hesba, which is the religious police, was omnipresent. People talked about how they would be walking down the street and they thought that they were alone. And they would lift up the flap of cloth over their eyes just to see the street and not, you know, not fall in a pothole, and these people would just sweep in from nowhere really and pick them up.

And the punishments were several tiers. So the first iteration is that you had to pay a fine - 50,000 Iraqi dinars, which is roughly $50 or so. That's a lot of money in a place where ISIS fighters were getting a salary of $100, you know, a month. The second level, if it was more serious, is you got a summons notice to go to the Hesba police station.

This was a real moment of terror for people because you were - a woman was being called to go in alone into an ISIS police station. And if her offense was considered serious enough, then she would be whipped or flogged by women inside this police station.

GROSS: And flogged with what? I mean, it's a...

CALLIMACHI: They said - I mean, I spoke to one who had been flogged and they said - you know, 'cause I was trying to imagine this. I mean, you're completely dressed, right? And so I was trying to imagine, like, how bad can it be if you're being flogged with, you know, I don't know, a whip or something because you're clothed? And they said to me that it's actually with metallic cables.

And so it's actually very painful. The woman that I interviewed, she ended up being hospitalized afterwards. She had to be - she said she was on her stomach at the hospital for two days afterwards because they just tore up her back with this cable.

GROSS: What kind of reactions did you hear from husbands and brothers?

CALLIMACHI: So that particular woman who was hospitalized, I interviewed her with her husband. And the whole interview was really delicate and difficult in part because he was there. And my translator ended up explaining to me that as an Arab man, this is - what happened to his wife is so humiliating. They were at a picnic, a family picnic.

So she was with her husband and with her children. And she's a grandmother. She's not even a young, you know, a young girl. And her crime was that they were sitting on the grass and she lifted up the flap to look at the plate of food that she was serving.

GROSS: This is the flap covering her face?

CALLIMACHI: The flap not even covering her face, just the flap covering her eyes. So her entire face is covered. She's just lifting up the flap to see, right? And the Hesba was right there. They came in, they arrested her, they put her in the back of their truck. And, you know, the husband was sitting there, you know, pleading with them and saying, she's a grandmother.

She's a grandmother. What are you doing? And they drove her away and took her to the police station. And then she was flogged by female police officers for the Hesba. And then they called him to pick her up to take her to the hospital. And he was deeply ashamed because the implication is that she had done something immoral, you know, that she had, you know - imagine, you know, your wife is being berated for wearing too short of a skirt - right? - you know, that she was acting sexual in some way.

But her crime was literally lifting a one-inch flap of cloth over her eyes so that she could see the food that she was eating at a picnic with her family.

GROSS: What was it like for you, as a woman, meeting all these women who weren't allowed to show any part of their body? You describe that a hole in somebody's sock subjected them to punishment 'cause you could see flesh through the hole in the sock. So it seems to me you're just really exceptionally brave traveling to the frontline of the battle in Mosul against ISIS.

You're traveling in another culture covering war and you're dressed - how were you dressed?

CALLIMACHI: So if I could just back up, Terry, you know, people frequently call me brave. And to be honest, I always feel a little uncomfortable when that term is used. And I feel uncomfortable for the following reason: I'm not a reporter that is seeking out risk. And among the reporters that were embedded - and there were many of them during this offensive on Mosul - I was very much in the back, you know. I was not the person that was right there on the front line getting mortared. And so I'm always nervous when that term is used that, you know, the people that were with me will go - oh, my God. Well, she wasn't brave at all. You know, she was pretty cautious.

But as far as being a woman, you know, in this theater, I dress modestly. I - you know, I've gone to Target and to REI and just invested in long-sleeve shirts, which - you know, which is not what you'd normally wear in America. So I had one flannel long-sleeve shirt, and I had a bit of a wardrobe misfunction (ph), which is that one of the buttons in the middle of my chest kept coming undone. And so I actually ended up sending it to, you know, the dry-cleaning service at my hotel and telling them - can you just sew the entire, you know, top part of my shirt just shut? I don't want to open it anymore, you know, because I was afraid that I'd be interviewing somebody and my button would come undone and - you know, and that was embarrassing.

So, you know, I do my best to dress conservatively. But I'm not going to cover my face. Right? And mostly, I don't cover my hair. So that does, you know - that does identify you as a Westerner in these situations. Thankfully, I've had nothing but good interactions with Iraqis. I find them incredibly welcoming and have not felt in any way treated badly as a woman.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. We have to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She returned to the U.S. last week after being embedded with Iraqi forces trying to liberate the western part of Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS.

So you were on the front lines with Iraqi troops when President Trump's first travel ban was making its way through the courts. And that...


GROSS: ...First travel ban included a ban on Iraqis entering the U.S....


GROSS: ...With no exception for Iraqis who had helped the U.S. in the war against al-Qaida or ISIS. Iraq is not included in the second executive order travel ban. What was the reaction you were hearing from Iraqi troops to the first travel ban? Were they talking about that?

CALLIMACHI: You know, in my first couple of weeks in Iraq, everywhere that I went where I was interacting with Iraqi troops, that was almost always the first question. They wanted to know what my opinion was of Trump and what my opinion was of the travel ban. And as you know, as a journalist, I mean, you try very much to keep your own politics out of the picture.

But this was - this was really different. I mean, they would say to me, we are here dying on the front lines. We are here dying to remove ISIS. Do you see any American forces here? And you'd look around, and of course, you wouldn't. Why is it that we are being targeted by this? And it was really hard for me to answer because - of course - they see me as American, and it's hard for them to differentiate me from my country's foreign policy.

So I started - what I did is I downloaded the images of the enormous protests that happened at JFK. I downloaded them on my phone in my photos, and I had them there so that I could show people - look, this is the reaction at my home airport; this is how people reacted to this - so that I could show them that it's not, you know, a one-sided thing.

GROSS: So did you hear reaction to what now-President Trump and previously candidate Trump was saying about Muslims? And - you know, 'cause he - he basically has said that he wants to stop Muslims from entering the country. That's...


GROSS: ...No longer the language he's using in terms of executive orders on the travel ban.


GROSS: But you do get a sense of his animosity toward Islam. So how are those anti-Islam comments affecting the view of America and Americans among the people who you were traveling with and meeting in Iraq?

CALLIMACHI: So the people I was meeting were not - the Iraqi troops I was with, they wanted to understand the mechanics of the travel ban. What would happen to them if they apply for a visa? They hadn't really conceptualized this as an anti-Muslim thing.

Now, what is happening is that both al-Qaida and supporters of the Islamic State are actively using this rhetoric in their propaganda. Al-Qaida has done it officially. They have put Trump in their official magazines and in videos and used this as evidence of what they've been preaching for a long time, which is that America actually really hates Muslims. ISIS has not done it in an official capacity, but their supporters have been very active in putting out basically the same message.

GROSS: Can you tell more about the propaganda that you're seeing that uses Trump?

CALLIMACHI: Sure. So when I was in Mosul, my translator was in touch with a friend of his who was in the western part of the city, which was still occupied. And infrequently, that man was taking his hidden cellphone and climbing to the roof of his house and making phone calls out to my translator because that was his main connection to the outside world. And during one of the conversations he had, this person in western Mosul said that he had overheard ISIS fighters in his neighborhood calling the Trump travel ban as the blessed ban.

Of course, they were using that term facetiously, but the blessed ban in the sense that this ban was going to help their recruitment efforts and help in their effort to make Muslims in the West feel alienated, attacked and underscore that really the only force that could help them is the Islamic State.

GROSS: ISIS has been trying - and al-Qaida have been trying to convince people that the West hates them...


GROSS: ...And that they have to fight back. And so you think...


GROSS: You think Donald Trump is kind of feeding that narrative?

CALLIMACHI: I mean, I think that's pretty clear. You know, we've never had a politician who has said so clearly anti-Muslim things, you know, from such an important podium. And the interesting thing is if you parse the al-Qaida and the ISIS discussion on this, what they'll say is that in fact, in their eyes, Trump is no different than Hillary Clinton and no different than Obama in their view. The difference to them is that Hillary and Obama were just hiding their animosity towards Muslims and sugarcoating it because they were too smart to make it publicly known and that Trump is just making public what they know has been the truth all along.

GROSS: President Trump has said that, you know, he - basically that he knows how to defeat ISIS and, you know, he'd bomb them. And - he said that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. Did you get the impression that ISIS is intimidated by that talk?

CALLIMACHI: No. I mean, I don't see any evidence of ISIS backing down. I mean, the news that keeps on coming out of Washington - and this is not just the Trump administration but also the Obama administration - is that with every territorial defeat that ISIS is on its back legs, that they're losing fighters, that they're in disarray. And I'll tell you from my perspective of being on the ground, they look more fierce than ever, you know. They're fighting tooth and nail for this territory. And they're doing it through numerous innovations, from the tunnels, to the use of drones to attack enemy positions, etc.

GROSS: Well, I think we need to take another short break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She returned to the U.S. last Thursday after being embedded with Iraqi forces trying to liberate the western part of Mosul from ISIS. She was also in Iraq last November and in part of December.

So as you've become better known, has your approach to being able to cultivate sources within ISIS changed? - because you're...

CALLIMACHI: It has. Yeah, it definitely...

GROSS: You're pretty famous now. You have a big following on Twitter. So what's different now?

CALLIMACHI: Well, the biggest thing that's different now is I used to be able to use my Twitter account to just tweet at various people that I wanted to speak to. Now if I do that, then the entire press corps knows exactly what I'm trying to do. So you know, I only do that now in limited cases. And I certainly don't do that anymore with ISIS accounts because it's just too complicated to be calling out an ISIS account in that fashion.

So as territory has been liberated, one - whereas before my only avenue for speaking to ISIS members was on social media and then through the encrypted apps that they guide you to - as territory has been liberated, there's a growing body of people who are now incarcerated and who are members of the terror group according to, you know, the authorities that arrested them. And that has proved to be fruitful for me.

It's - you know - of course, when you're interviewing prisoners, there's all sorts of issues. You don't, you know - you have to triage whether they're trying to tell you one set of facts in order to, you know, to downplay their role in the terror group in the hopes of getting better treatment or a better sentence. But that's become what's replaced, you know, the day-to-day contact that I used to have with the actual members of the terror group.

GROSS: Journalists are targets of ISIS. And you've said in the past, they make great targets for ISIS because it gets ISIS a lot of attention in the press.


GROSS: If a journalist is beheaded or killed in any way, the press is going to really cover that. And as far as ISIS is concerned, that's very positive propaganda for them.


GROSS: So now that, you know, with Twitter and with the internet in general, like, anyone who wants to see your picture can easily do that.


GROSS: And does that make you more vulnerable?

CALLIMACHI: I think it does make me more vulnerable. It is something that I talk about with my editors and with the people that are looking at my security. But my own face is not something I can help. You know, I'm a contributor to MSNBC, and I'm in the news because I'm covering this. But there's a number of steps that I take to, you know, to protect myself.

For example, when I'm saying in these places, almost nobody outside my desk knows what hotel I'm staying in. I'm typically not staying at the same hotel as my colleagues, and I do that on purpose. And when I'm tweeting from the battlefield, although the tweets, you know, appear to be, you know, from that very location, I'm sending them out at the moment when I know I've left that place and I've left it for some time so that I'm not, you know, identifying my location at the moment when I'm tweeting.

GROSS: Speaking of tweets, here's a tweet that you sent March 3. And you had tweeted about walking around a home with somebody named Ahmed who had...


GROSS: ...Been in eastern Mosul while it was under ISIS control.


GROSS: And I think his neighborhood must have just been liberated.


GROSS: And he showed you his beautiful chickens, which had survived ISIS.


GROSS: And you had tweeted a picture of them. And you tweeted that you wish you could interview the chickens because they'd seen what ISIS had done.


GROSS: And then you tweeted - somebody had sent you a really nasty comment.


GROSS: And you retweeted that comment. And I'm going to quote that.


GROSS: It has some offensive language.


GROSS: It says, "Rukmini bitch, there are chickens which speak called Iraqi army. Interview them. They'll tell you how they ran like headless chickens from frontlines. Wallahi" - which means I swear to Allah - "I want this bitch to be dead so bad." So you retweeted that with your own message which said, this ISIS fanboy didn't much like my tweet about a chicken in Mosul.

CALLIMACHI: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: So why did you decide to retweet this really hateful, threatening message? And did you have him traced? Did you send this to the FBI? Did you take it, you know, as a serious threat?

CALLIMACHI: I did. So there's a couple things that are going on there. So that person was putting out those messages on Telegram in an encrypted and secret chat room in Telegram which is not open to the public. It was flagged to me by sources of mine who happened to be in that chat room. And I then entered the chat room and was able to take screen grabs of what he was saying. So he was putting the stuff out thinking that I'm not seeing it.

So number one, I did report him to Telegram. And his channel has now been shut down. I reported him to Twitter as well after he started - after I realized that he was retweeting things on Twitter. And yes, I did report him to the FBI. But I wanted him to know that I see what he's doing, that he's not, you know, in some private space where he's able to threaten me in a confidential fashion.

GROSS: And do you think that's effective in helping shut him down?

CALLIMACHI: It was effective in getting Telegram to shut him down. When I was just, you know, messaging Telegram sort of in a private one-to-one fashion, they didn't respond.

GROSS: You're on a brief vacation right now?


GROSS: What do you do to try to relax after coming back from covering ISIS?

CALLIMACHI: You know, people ask me this all the time, Terry. And I actually really enjoy what I do. I think people think that I must - that what I do must, like, really work me up and stress me out and everything else. I actually really enjoy what I do.

Yes, I'm particularly tired right now. And I think that's just the, you know, the after effect of spending so many days in the sun and trying to file and all of that. So I'm hanging out with family. My husband is coming out soon to go on a hike with me. I chain watch "Modern Family." That's one of my favorite shows.


CALLIMACHI: And I've picked up a bunch of books at the airport, you know, bookstore. And I hope to read them.

GROSS: Rukmini Callimachi, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you so much for your extraordinary reporting.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: I wish you, as always, safe travels. And I look forward to talking with you again.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much, Terry. I'm so excited to be on the show.

GROSS: Rukmini Callimachi covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She returned from her latest reporting trip to Iraq last week. Our interview was recorded yesterday.


GROSS: My guest will be Jordan Peele. We'll talk about writing and directing "Get Out," his new horror film - he calls it a social thriller - with racial anxiety at its center. It's about a young African-American man whose white girlfriend takes him to meet her parents in a wealthy white suburb. And he suspects something's going on behind their overly friendly demeanor. Peele is also half of the comedy duo "Key & Peele." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.