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Rukmini Callimachi: the podcasting terror expert getting into the minds of Isis

With her hit series, Caliphate, the New York Times’s ISIS correspondent has revealed much about life inside the terror organisation – and has even become part of the story herself

Of all the compelling things about Caliphate, the hit New York Times podcast – the suspense, the pacing, the blockbuster access to a former member of Islamic State – the most compelling is the relationship between reporter Rukmini Callimachi and the young man calling himself Abu Huzaifa. He is the Canadian former jihadi whose accounts of his time in Syria, including details of how Isis members practice their stabbing and beheading skills on gelatin-filled dolls, form the spine of the story and towards whom, at the end of the podcast, it is possible to feel something like empathy. As it turns out, this is a misguided impulse; at the last minute, everything changes and we are left, as Callimachi says, with the understanding that “deradicalisation is not some sort of neat process. And it’s not necessarily a linear progression.”

Callimachi, 45, has been a reporter for almost 20 years and is slightly surprised to be enjoying this moment of celebrity: the 10-episode podcast was released in April and promptly went to the top of the iTunes chart. Since then, its creator has been in much demand on talkshows. On the afternoon we meet, in a conference room at the New York Times, she is in the middle of reporting a story, about four western cyclists killed in Tajikistan by men identifying themselves as members of Isis, and planning her next trip to Syria. She is also still bound up in the story of Huzaifa, who was apprehended by the Canadian authorities the day after Callimachi first interviewed him, and towards whom she has ambivalent feelings. “That’s the peculiarity of the beat I’m on,” she says. “I cover a bunch of killers, who vary in the level of disgust or empathy that they evoke in me. Initially [Huzaifa] evoked empathy in us, because he seemed to be coming clean.”

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