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Inside The Islamic State's Movement To Spread Terror 'All Over The World'

A member loyal to ISIS waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria, in 2014.
A member loyal to ISIS waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria, in 2014.

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi is known for her in-depth reporting on terrorism and the Islamic State. Her recent jailhouse interview with Harry Sarfo, a German citizen who joined ISIS and trained in Syria before disavowing the group, revealed the organization's particular interest in recruits from Europe.

"[Harry] was very much a desirable target for them, given his German passport and his experience living in London — two countries that they're still trying to infiltrate," Callimachi tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

In addition to her on-the-ground reporting, Callimachi follows ISIS' encrypted social media channels and communicates through social media with people connected to the terror group. She says that the group's recruiting efforts are widespread and focus on both the "mentally unwell" and those who have been "radicalized since birth."

Callimachi says the individual motivations of the recruits don't really matter as long as they contribute to the Islamic State's primary objective. "The purpose of this group is to spread terror, to spread it all over the world, to make the kaffir, the infidel — which is us — feel as if they're not safe anywhere," she says. "That's their end goal."

Interview Highlights

On what she learned from a German man who joined ISIS in Syria

Rukmini Callimachi is a foreign correspondent for <em>The New York Times.</em> She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times.
Chang W. Lee / Courtesy of The New York Times
Courtesy of The New York Times
Rukmini Callimachi is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times.

Harry [Sarfo] is approached as soon as he arrives. ... They ask him if he wants to be a suicide bomber right away, in Germany. He says, "No." At that point they then funnel him to ISIS' special forces, which is this very grueling training program — 10 levels. He makes it through part of the first level when they come to him again and say, "Would you like to go?" He again turns them down. He goes to the second level. He's again approached.

So my impression — again, this is single-source, it's his experience — but my impression is that if you have the chops, meaning the passport, the criminal background, etc., to be one of the people that they would like to send back, they aggressively recruit you throughout the process that you're in Syria, and the training is not that important. I think the reason for that is that they've realized that with an automatic weapon, you can cause a lot of harm, even if you're not a trained commando.

On Sarfo's radicalization and manipulation by jihadists in Germany

He gets radicalized in prison. He comes out and he starts going to an extremist mosque, and he goes pretty deeply into this ideology, but he actually pulls himself out before he goes to Syria. The reason he pulls himself out is it's at the point in time when they're making the point to him that he's now part of the Muslim ummah, the Muslim community, and that it was inappropriate for him to have any kind of ties with anybody who was not a good Muslim.

He grew up Christian, and most of his friends in Germany happen to be Christian. And so he explained to me how he remembered thinking that that was stupid, that that just doesn't make sense. Why should these guys who are his drinking buddies and the people that he's hung out with since childhood, why should they be considered the enemy? And he talks about how he pulled away, and he tried to pull out of the group.

But unfortunately, because he had been going to this well-known radical mosque, at that point he was already in the database of German intelligence, and German police began raiding his apartment. So the police would come in, they'd kick down the door, it would be incredibly embarrassing, the neighbors would see this kind of fuss. And at that point, the people from the mosque came back to him and said, "See? They hate you because you're a Muslim. You're not safe here. This is a country where you will never be able to live in peace as a Muslim."

On how she discerns if an attack is connected to ISIS

It's clear that when somebody has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, especially when they use this formal language and these long honorifics for him, it's clear that they've been steeped in the propaganda. There's at least that level of connection.

There's a second level of connection that I'm trying to understand right now, which is that in the last, I would say, six or so months, we're seeing that when people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, they're also able to get those pledges via video, via a print statement or photographs, they're able to find a means to get them uploaded to Amaq News Agency, which is ISIS' premier propaganda channel.

What we don't yet know is -- are these fighters directly in contact with Amaq? Which means, at that point, to me it almost becomes an ISIS-directed attack, because if you're in touch with Amaq, which is their premier propaganda channel, you're really in touch with the ISIS core.

Or is there something else happening? Is there an intermediary? Are they passing this video to an intermediary who was then passing it to Amaq directly, or through a series of intermediaries? That to me is the next question, because that will explain the level of connective tissue between these attacks and the terror group.

On how ISIS has twisted the Quran's words to justify rapeand sexual slavery

They are using the refugee flow to get in. They are using the generosity of Germany specifically and Europe overall to infiltrate and carry out heinous acts.

The Quran has about more than a dozen references to the phrase "those your right hand possesses." And what scholars of Islam have explained to me is that phrase means "a slave." And that phrase comes up in sections that deal with what are the licit forms of sexual intercourse that a man can have. So you can have sex with your wife, you can't have sex with anybody else, except those your right hand possesses.

Now, what scholars explain to me is that even though the Quran lays out slavery as one of the licit forms of sex with a woman, what ISIS has done is, of course, taken it to a different level. They're not just saying that it's licit, they're saying that it's holy.

They're saying that because it was, in their eyes, practiced by the Prophet Muhammad, that it is therefore a sacred duty to rape these poor women. Some of the most heartbreaking interviews I did were with women who described how the fighters would pray before they raped them. They would then rape them, they would go and take a shower and then they'd come back and pray again. Because to them, the act of the rape was — I don't know how else to put it — almost like an act of communion.

On having been a refugee and seeing ISIS use the flow of refugees from Syria as a cover

As a former refugee myself, it's actually been painful to write these stories about how ISIS is using the refugee flow to get into Europe, but as a reporter, of course, I can't turn my eyes away from it. They are using the refugee flow to get in. They are using the generosity of Germany specifically and Europe overall to infiltrate and carry out heinous acts. ...

We know that the Nov. 13 attackers [in Paris], nine out of 10 of them slipped back into Europe from Syria. Of those nine, we know at least four that came on a refugee boat and were checked into the island of Leros in Greece. ... The two guys who blew themselves up at the Stade de France, they were the first suicide bombers to carry out their attacks, they came on a refugee boat... Now in Germany, we're seeing the Wuerzburg attacker was an immigrant, allegedly from Afghanistan, who was given refuge, and the Ansbach attacker was a Syrian refugee.

Even though these people are a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of people that have come through, it does poison the water, and it does make it very difficult for leaders in Europe to deal with the policy of open borders in the face of what's happened.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.