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“Who are they?” This seemingly simple question drives “Caliphate,” The Times’s first documentary audio series, as Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent, searches for a deeper understanding of the Islamic State.
“Caliphate” debuted in April, with Ms. Callimachi, who has covered Al Qaeda and ISIS for The Times since 2014, serving as its guide, deftly aided by the producer Andy Mills. Their 10-part series centers on the story of “Abu Huzayfah,” a former ISIS member living in Canada who, like many jihadists, uses a nom de guerre.
The podcast complements “The ISIS Files,” Ms. Callimachi’s investigation into thousands of internal Islamic State documents that her team recovered from Iraq. New chapters of “Caliphate” are released every Thursday afternoon, and subscribers can listen a week early.
I recently interviewed Ms. Callimachi about the challenges posed by reporting on ISIS for audio, the first episodes of the podcast and the ethical dilemmas of her beat. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How has working with audio made you approach reporting differently?
The big difference for me is that it’s very unusual and somewhat uncomfortable to write in the first person. This is something you do in exceptional circumstances when the reporter’s story is important as a vehicle for telling the larger story. When you’re doing audio, the fact that you’re the vehicle telling the story is built in. That makes it much easier to inform listeners about the reporting process.
For example, last year, Andy and I were in Iraq for “The Daily” to report the story of young women who had just been released after three years of ISIS captivity and, in some instances, had been raped almost every day. In the middle of the day, we walked into the tent of two of the women and saw them collapsed, lying on mattresses. There were people wailing and crying over them. As soon as I saw that, I turned to Andy and said: “We’ve got to leave. We have no business being here. These people are really sick.” A lot of listeners commented on how powerful it was to hear that because they probably hadn’t thought about the ethical considerations that go into interviewing rape victims.
In a text story, I might have described that there were two women who were collapsed, but the fact that I had to leave because it would have been obscene for me to try to interview them would not have gotten in.
My beat is among the more unusual ones we have at The Times. It’s intense, and you’re dealing with these ethical quandaries all the time. My editors and I have many long discussions about how we do this and how we approach that. With audio you have the ability to be transparent about those considerations and walk listeners through how we struggle with and try to make our way through them.
What do you see as the main advantages of audio over the written word?
One of the subjects of the podcast is a young Canadian recruit to ISIS. If I were to pitch a text story based entirely on somebody identified by essentially his made-up name, that would be a hard sell. But with audio, you understand implicitly that this is his story.
I don’t want to give away what happens later in the podcast, but there are some really emotional moments. You can hear the trauma in his voice and the emotion of him recalling what happened. There’s a point where he’s describing something particularly awful and we have the microphone very close to his face. You hear him rubbing his hand on his beard back and forth, and you understand that this is somebody who feels really distressed, really nervous. I could write that — “he rubbed his beard” — but it doesn’t come across the same way.
I don’t want to diminish text in any way. That will always be my medium. But audio is a different form, so it has power in a different register.
Many of the most popular serialized podcasts revolve around a single host who becomes part of the narrative. What went into the decision to feature both you and Andy?
From the beginning we wanted to experiment with new ways of telling stories with this podcast. We got rid of the “host” role to provoke more spontaneity in our dialogue and hopefully more intimacy with our listeners.
I loved working with Andy from the start. He comes from an evangelical background and grew up in a religious family, but later left the faith. He remains very curious about religion, and so much with ISIS involves faith and belief. We hit it off right away. It was really nice to have him as this sort of co-detective and be able to bounce things off him.
Shortly after “Caliphate” debuted, it reached the top of the Apple Podcast chart. What elements do you think have made it resonate so strongly with listeners?
One of the things is that Andy, in a way, gave me permission to really be myself and to be honest about what it’s like to be on this beat. I’ve always been worried about showing my vulnerabilities and telling people when I feel scared because, in the end, I’m a woman covering terrorism, and I just assume that there are people who think I can’t hack it. For example, when I was first telling Andy about the 911 call, I asked him to turn off the recorder. Later, he convinced me to put it on the record in Chapter 1. I really wrestled with it: Do I want people to know this insane thing I did — that I called 911 in the middle of the night because I thought ISIS might be ringing my doorbell?
But I think Andy was right. Allowing myself to be human and to explain what it’s really like as a woman on this beat works, and is interesting for listeners.
You frequently correspond with readers on Twitter and have invited listeners of “Caliphate” to direct message you. Based on their responses to the series, do you think you’ve reached a new audience?
I really do, and that’s the exciting thing about audio. In journalism, at a certain point, you get into a lane and you get comments from people who are generally of that universe. I often get comments, for example, from journalism students, women, people who are interested in national security. Suddenly, I’m getting messages from people in Germany and in Finland who listened to the podcast, people whom I don’t normally hear from. That’s really cool.
[Read this recent Twitter thread to see Ms. Callimachi’s responses to readers’ questions about her work covering ISIS.]
In “Caliphate” you mention how previous interviews with ISIS members left you frustrated and made you question whether they were being truthful. Have you had similar feelings with Abu Huzayfah?
I would have to spoil a lot of things if I answered that question. In general on this beat, though, that’s the puzzle you’re always dealing with. First of all, you’re spending so much effort just trying to get even one ISIS member to talk to you. It’s so hard to find them. You can somewhat get access to them in prisons in Iraq, but you don’t get much time with them. It’s also very hard to do these interviews in 20 minutes, 30 minutes because you’re just scratching the surface.
And then you have a source’s story. Imagine how hard it has been to confirm the reporting on Harvey Weinstein, and that’s happening in Hollywood, a place with a paper trail and American citizens and people who speak the same language we do. It’s so hard with ISIS because you’re dealing with a place I cannot go: the caliphate, when it was around. So half the work is just getting the interview and the other half is figuring out if there’s any way to corroborate it.
Have you been contacted by any law enforcement officials who are concerned that you’re communicating with a former ISIS member in Canada?
A retired Canadian intelligence analyst started tweeting at me, basically asking if I had a moral responsibility to flag this person to authorities. Obviously, as journalists, we can’t act as an extension of law enforcement. That would be the end of me on this beat if I started turning in my sources. At the same time, we are dealing with members of a terrorist group — a group that has called for attacks in North America. You’ll see later in the podcast that we found a way to keep our journalistic integrity but also answer some of these questions.
What are some of the other ethical dilemmas you’ve discussed?
My goal in telling the story of Abu Huzayfah is to try to explain, in a way, the unexplainable: How does a normal-seeming person, who grew up in a middle-class family, with no abuse that I know of, loving parents and a comfortable lifestyle — how does that person, because there are so many of them, end up joining this murderous group? There’s a rut in the reporting on ISIS, where it’s so easy to write about the salacious, awful things they do. Very quickly, we go into this boogeyman narrative about these savage, brutal criminals. We forget that human beings are doing this, and 40,000 people have joined from overseas. Yes, you can find the psychopaths among them. But, in my experience, there are a lot more Huzayfahs than the others.
I saw part of my job as trying to explain this story and trying to do so as humanely as I could. The line that we tread there is that we come very close to this big chasm on the other side, of justifying ISIS’ acts, which we don’t want to do, of course. There was a big balancing act on that front.
On the podcast you talk about how ISIS members follow you and your work on social media. Do you know if they’re listening to “Caliphate”?
So far I have not seen them talking about “Caliphate.” They did message each other about the “ISIS Files” story. There was a very long post in Arabic where they said that even The New York Times basically acknowledges their statehood, which was a little funny and a little worrying.
Have you finished all the episodes?
We’re still working on the back end, and I think we’re going to be working up to the wire.
Do you know how “Caliphate” will end?
I actually don’t, to be perfectly honest. I have an idea, but there are a couple of things that might happen in the middle of the podcast that I still haven’t gotten a handle on.
Will the documents that you collected for “The ISIS Files” play a role in the series?
They do. They’re featured heavily in episodes seven and eight.
As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Islamic State and terrorism, have you learned anything unexpected in making “Caliphate”?
I have interviewed many victims who have seen beheadings and have been on the receiving end of the brutality of the Islamic State. To hear it told from the other side — in a really detailed, naked way — was revelatory. In the videos that ISIS has put out and in the reporting that we’ve done, you see the group as bloodthirsty and hateful, and that is one reality. But there are also other realities, including people who do these acts and who have enormous remorse.
What would people be surprised to find out about your reporting process?
When Andy was coming with me to Iraq, I was really worried because he thought he was joining this high-flying correspondent doing something really interesting. And I was thinking to myself: “He has no idea how many hours we’re going to be sitting at a checkpoint. He has no idea how many times we’re going to start the day thinking that we’ll get X, only to get to the destination and be told that the source has left.”
There’s a lot of waiting around and trying to have tea with this official to get access to this one thing, trying to schmooze with that one person to see if, even though there’s a media blackout in Mosul, you could be the only journalist who’s let in.
What comes next after “Caliphate”?
I adore my little team. We’re already kind of nostalgic thinking about when this is over because we won’t see each other every day anymore. But we need to finish the podcast first, and afterward I think we all need to go on a really long vacation and then come back and think about it.
To hear more from Rukmini Callimachi and learn about new episodes, sign up here. If you’ve already tuned in to “Caliphate,” tell us what you think in the comments section.
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