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

Journalist Rukmini Callimachi on what she's learned about ISIS tactics from her conversations with a German man who joined ISIS and became disillusioned, and from monitoring the organization's own encrypted social media channels.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's very difficult to report on the inner workings of a terrorist group like ISIS. But my guest, Rukmini Callimachi, has been doing an extraordinary job covering ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. This month, she wrote about her lengthy jailhouse interview with a German man who joined ISIS and lived in a training camp in Syria.

She's interviewed women who were forced to become sex slaves for men in ISIS. She reported on how money from ransoms is one of the main sources of revenue for al-Qaida. In addition to her reporting on the ground, she follows ISIS's encrypted social media channels and communicates through social media with people on the fringes of the terror group.

Before joining The New York Times, she was the AP's West Africa bureau chief. And in that job, back in 2013, she found thousands of pages of al-Qaida documents in a complex of buildings that served as the headquarters of the group's North Africa branch. She spent much of this summer reporting from Germany and France, which have been the target of terrorist attacks.

Rukmini Callimachi, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So early on when ISIS was formed, a distinction that was often made between ISIS and al-Qaida was that al-Qaida was targeting the far enemy, the West - America, Europe - whereas ISIS wanted to focus on building a caliphate. And they wanted to wipe out their enemies in that region. But they weren't focusing on the West. Now we know that ISIS is targeting Europe and ISIS is targeting the U.S. Did their mission change or did the experts get it wrong?

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I think the experts got it wrong. From the earliest days of the Islamic State as we know it today, they were sending fighters back to Europe. The earliest case that I could identify was a man called Ibrahim Putina who leaves ISIS-held territory in December of 2013 and is arrested in France with three TATP bombs in February of 2014.

That's roughly six months before ISIS even declares a caliphate. I think what's happened is that we didn't notice these early returnees. And we didn't notice them because the majority of their plots were foiled.

GROSS: You recently had an article based on your lengthy interview with Harry Sarfo, who was recruited into ISIS' special forces training camp in Syria. He is German. But he's also lived in London. We'll hear his British accent in a moment. I guess we're going to hear a clip of your interview. And you spoke to him in prison 'cause he's serving a three-year sentence for terrorism...

CALLIMACHI: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...In Germany. So why did he want to join ISIS?

CALLIMACHI: His story for joining ISIS is very similar to that of thousands of others. He had veered off-course in his life. He was involved in petty crime. He had recently gotten caught stealing money out of a safe from a supermarket in Germany and ended up having to spend a one-year sentence in jail. And in jail, he meets a hardcore Islamist who was serving a terrorism sentence.

He becomes radicalized through this man. And when he comes out, he begins to think that Syria with the Islamic State - this black and white ideology - that this might provide the framework that he needs to basically stay out of trouble and lead what he thought would be a holy life. Of course, he goes to Syria. And within not much time, he realizes the grave error he had made.

GROSS: So he was valuable to ISIS because of his German-London background.


GROSS: And he told you that while he was in Syria, he was privy to ISIS's plans to launch attacks in Europe, and they proposed that he go back to Germany to recruit people to carry out attacks there on behalf of ISIS. Let's hear a little bit about what he told you about that.


HARRY SARFO: Then one man approached me, said I heard you used to live in London, and I heard you were born in Germany. Do you have any contacts or any networks in Germany who are willing to give their life for the emir Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi? And I told him, no, I don't have no one. I'm not willing to go back at all. Then he said, especially in Germany and in England it's lacking of people who are willing to give their life. My friend asked him, so what about France? Because where they were asking about - England and Germany - that they don't have people who were ready to give their life, and then my friend asked him what about France? And they started laughing and really serious laughing with tears in their eyes, saying don't worry about France. (Speaking Arabic) in Arabic means no problem. France's - don't worry about France. France - we have enough people.

CALLIMACHI: Wow. And that was probably in April. So five, six months...

SARFO: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: ...Before the November 13 attacks.

SARFO: Exactly.

CALLIMACHI: Interesting.

GROSS: And the November 13 attacks were the attacks in Paris on the concert hall and other areas - you know, restaurants, the outside of the stadium around there.


GROSS: And we just heard my guest Rukmini Callimachi who's a New York Times reporter who covers ISIS interviewing Harry Sarfo, a former ISIS recruit who's now serving a prison sentence in Germany.


GROSS: Why do you think he's willing to talk?

CALLIMACHI: What his lawyer and what he and what German intelligence have told me is they really believe that he's remorseful for what he's done, that he's in a way seen the error in the path he took, and they're hoping that he can become a counter-narrative, a voice from the inside that can warn others as to the realities on the ground if you join the Islamic State.

GROSS: So Harry Sarfo told you that he was told by leaders of ISIS that they have lots of people in France. It's hard to get people to get into the United States.


GROSS: What did he tell you about the U.S.?

CALLIMACHI: So there's two obstacles to the U.S. One is that anybody that trains in Syria - and he said that they do have Americans training in Syria and also Americans inside the Emni - which is this body that is responsible for sending them back - but the first obstacle is obviously you have to go there by flight. You know, whether it's directly onto U.S. soil or through Canada or through Mexico, there's a flight involved, and it's a long-haul flight. And in general, the security checks there are more intensive than they are at small provincial airports in Europe.

The second thing he said is that despite that obstacle meaning that it's hard for them to get fighters back, they have a great advantage in the U.S. which is, as he put it, the fact that our gun laws are, quote, "dumb." He was quoting ISIS when he was saying this. And what he means is that it's much easier to get guns in America as we know than it is in Europe. In Europe, they're looking for fighters who have a criminal background. The reason they're doing that is they're hoping that that criminal background will allow them to be part of an underworld that makes it easier to get weapons because it's not easy to get weapons in Europe.

GROSS: So they mention how dumb - literally dumb is the word he used...


GROSS: ...Our gun laws are...


GROSS: ...Because it lets people get weapons.


GROSS: What did you learn about the training process in Syria for ISIS fighters from Harry Sarfo?

CALLIMACHI: It varies greatly. So on the one hand, there's a network of dormitories just across the border from Turkey and Syria where they house new recruits as soon as they arrive. And in those dormitories, they triage them. They do a lengthy intake interview with each one where they're asking them all sorts of questions about their backgrounds. A doctor comes and gives them a physical, draws blood, takes their fingerprints. And in that initial intake interview, they identify the ones that they want to send back right away.

When the Emni - which is this body - comes and gets them, we've seen that the training can be as little as a couple of days, which is the case for Reda Hame who was sent back in July of last year, or a couple of weeks. And it's rare that it goes beyond that. The reason for that is ISIS - when they're recruiting fighters from the West, from Europe etc., they give them instructions that when they're coming to Syria. They need to try to make it look like a holiday, so they teach them to book a return ticket. They teach them to go ahead and pay for an all-expensive, one-week vacation at a resort on the Turkish coast. And the note - the idea is to make it look like they're, you know - they're there just having a fun time.

And if they go to Syria for more than a couple of weeks, it becomes harder to justify the so-called vacation when they're returning through European checkpoints. Harry is approached as soon as he arrives. He 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. And 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's 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 - I mean, 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, et cetera - 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. And 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, you know, a trained commando.

GROSS: I should mention here that an excerpt of the interview you did with him is online on The New York Times website...


GROSS: ...If anybody wants to actually see him 'cause his face is on camera.


GROSS: So one of the things he told you was that he was exposed to atrocities. He witnessed atrocities...


GROSS: ...Including a beheading, which just sickened him.


GROSS: And he was trying to withdraw. It was hard to do. They became suspicious of him. And then one day, he was asked to make a video. There were hostages who were tied up. And he explains to you that he didn't really want to do the things that they were asking him to do.


SARFO: Abousamra arrived with seven Syrians. He said, what? I said, soldiers of Assad. Their hands were tied and the eyes were as well-clothed. They couldn't see nothing. And then he started asking, who wants to execute them? And everybody was raising their hands. I didn't raise my hand.

CALLIMACHI: I mean, it seems to me that many times along the way, you said no.

SARFO: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: You said no when they asked you to go back as a suicide bomber.

SARFO: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: You said no a second time when they asked you a second time. You didn't take the gun.

SARFO: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: They weren't getting suspicious of you?

SARFO: Yeah, they were. When I said, I don't want to take part in the execution, they were all looking at me. And they were asking me, why are you here then?


SARFO: And then they said, OK. Obviously then - but you have to take the black flag in the video.


SARFO: And how can I say this? You're black. You're German. It's going to be a good look for the video if a black man carries the black flag. And obviously, I said yes to the lesser - 'cause it was less worse than killing a person.

GROSS: And you saw the video that Harry Sarfo's in, carrying the black ISIS flag.

CALLIMACHI: I saw the video last year when it came out. That's one of the things that's so incredible about meeting him now. The video was put out through ISIS's, you know, regular propaganda channels. And it's a video of only German fighters. So they're speaking in German. And at the bottom, they have Arabic subtitles.

And it's aimed at recruiting people from Germany. And I remember looking at it. Everybody in - all of the other Germans that are in the cast, as one could say, are white. And he stands out because he's a black man. And he's the one who's holding the flag. That's one of the most incredible things to me - is that, you know, so often, Terry, when you're working on this beat, you'll talk to extremists. You'll talk to people who are on the edges of the group or who claim to be in the group.

And oftentimes, you might have a general gut sense that they're telling you the truth. But it becomes almost impossible to say with certainty. And here's a case where Harry is willing to be photographed, videotaped. He's showing his face. He's letting his real name be used. And his belonging to this group is not in question because we see him in one of their premier propaganda productions that they released last year.

GROSS: I think it's so interesting that he says that the ISIS leaders making the video say, you should carry the black flag 'cause you're black...


GROSS: ...And it would be a good look.

CALLIMACHI: A good look - right, right.

GROSS: They have such a sense of media and how to manipulate the images.

CALLIMACHI: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think what he's getting at is there have been accusations that ISIS, because of their leadership being Arab - that they're racist. And it just so happens that Harry is black. And one other member of ISIS that I was speaking to last year was African-American. He was a U.S. citizen. And they've both gone to lengths to sort of prove to me that ISIS was not racist - you know, that they were fully integrated into the ranks of this group.

GROSS: Well, I think we need to take a short break here. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She is a reporter for The New York Times who covers ISIS. So we're going to take a short break and then talk more about ISIS. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS for The New York Times. And she's been doing some extraordinary reporting, including a recent interview in a German prison with a German who spent time in a Syrian training camp, an ISIS training camp, and then decided he really didn't want to be a part of it. He's spending three years in a German prison but is telling his story.

So Harry Sarfo was radicalized in prison, where he was doing time...


GROSS: ...For a petty crime.


GROSS: Was he from a Muslim background? Was he already Muslim?

CALLIMACHI: No, he was a Christian kid. His parents are from Ghana. He grew up partly in Germany, partly in London. He says he converted to Islam in London, but he was going to a moderate mosque.

And his real radicalization began in jail, which is a very common story. We're hearing many of the November 13 attackers and the Charlie Hebdo attackers went through this particular trajectory where they become Muslims in a casual sense. And then the hard-line ideology is something that they become inoculated with in prison.

GROSS: So what was Sarfo expecting when he joined ISIS? I mean, I think everybody knows that they...


GROSS: They behead people. They execute...


GROSS: ...People. They force people - they commit genocide of minority...


GROSS: ...Groups.


GROSS: But why was he surprised that he was sickened when he witnessed a beheading?

CALLIMACHI: Yeah. Well, the narrative that ISIS puts out is that they are a homeland for Muslims, that this is the only place in the world where a Muslim can feel safe. And by Muslims, they mean something very specific. They mean Sunni Muslims that are adhering to their brand of Salafi extreme Islam.

He talks about during the execution scene that happens in that video that he was part of one of the moments of great disillusionment for him came when they brought out the captives, they're kneeling down to be killed. And the other Germans who were in the film are saying to the camera that these are Assad's soldiers. These are soldiers from the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, that they opened fire on the Islamic State, et cetera. And they had - they - at least one of them is wearing camouflage pants, you know, to make him look like a soldier. And as this man is kneeling, Harry says that he starts screaming and protesting and says I'm not a soldier. I've never been in any military. I'm just a Sunni Muslim. In fact, I'm the imam of such and such a mosque. And it was when he said those words that the guy pulled the trigger.

And I asked Harry, do you think that man was telling the truth? And he said, yeah, I think he was. And so suddenly he realized that this wasn't a place that was a homeland for anybody. Even Sunni Muslims are being killed here.

And to back up a little, Terry, one of the interesting, you know, wrinkles in Harry's narrative is that 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.

So he's Christian - 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, you know, like, this - 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'd 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. The police would come; they'd kick down the door. It would be incredibly embarrassing. You know, 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. And at that point, in his frustration at how the police were treating him, he basically went headlong back into the group thinking, this is a place where as a Sunni Muslim I'm going to be safe, I'm going to be valued. I'm going to be part of this caliphate-building project. And he realizes during the recording of that execution, which happens on camera - I mean, that video is out there, Terry - he realizes that even that promise was empty.

GROSS: Why was Harry Sarfo just given a three-year sentence? Why isn't the sentence longer?

CALLIMACHI: (Laughter) Yes, that's a really good question. And I think that that goes to the heart of how different our legal systems are. You'd imagine that in America, somebody like him would spend considerably more in jail. In Europe, they just - the laws are just very different. The sentencing guidelines are drastically shorter.

And some European countries, it's only recently that they've added laws dealing with the law that we call material support to terrorism, which is what Harry is being charged with. He provided material support to a terrorist organization. He never killed anybody, according to his own testimony. But, yeah, it is a bit startling to think that somebody trained by ISIS's special forces is going to be free and - in two years because he's already done one year in jail.

GROSS: My guest is Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. After we take a short break, she'll talk about interviewing women who have been forced to serve as sex slaves for ISIS. 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, who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. She's made several recent trips to Europe to report on ISIS. This month, she wrote an article based on her jailhouse interview with a German man who joined ISIS and was trained in Syria before becoming disillusioned.

So there have been - what? - three recent attacks in Germany. And, like, can you - do you know if those are attributed to ISIS and how seriously we can take the attribution?

CALLIMACHI: So there have been two. There have been two recent ISIS attacks. One was on a train in the small town of Wurzburg, Germany where an immigrant, a young man, he was 17 years old, began stabbing passengers on the train. He left behind a video pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, which was uploaded on the Amaq News Agency.

That's ISIS' premier propaganda channel. And he left that before he carried out his act showing that at a minimum, there was a digital connection to ISIS before he carried out the violence. The second was in Ansbach, Germany, another small town, a man with a backpack went to an area outside of an open-air concert. We think that something went wrong because he ended up - the backpack bomb exploded.

It killed only him. And it's possible that it exploded before he intended it to because there were no casualties. Same thing, he too left a video that was - that police found on his phone and that in the hours after the attack, was uploaded on the Amaq New Agency, again, pledging allegiance using this formal religious language that we have seen in numerous videos now showing a kind of template for how to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

GROSS: So ISIS actually has a template showing how to pledge allegiance. So if you want to just do something at home and you've had no contact with any ISIS members, you know what the process is of pledging your allegiance to ISIS.

CALLIMACHI: It seems that there is. And the rule is as follows, you need to pledge allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It's not enough to just pledge allegiance to the group, though some have. The reason for this, I've been told, is it goes back to the hadiths and to stories of the Prophet Muhammad that he required a personal allegiance from his followers.

When they pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, they don't just call him Baghdadi. They use his formal long name, which is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi al-Husseini. The name al-Qurashi is important. That's the tribe from which the Prophet Muhammad came. And so we believe that in using this longer name, it's a way to essentially bow down to the alleged lineage of this man who claims that he derives his ascendancy from the Prophet Muhammad.

GROSS: So ISIS is really encouraging individuals to take violent action and attribute it to ISIS and pledge their allegiance. In 2014, the ISIS spokesperson Muhammad al-Adnani wrote if you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchmen or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car or throw him down from a high place or choke him or poison him.

Do not lack. Do not be contemptible. Let your slogan be may I not be saved if the cross worshipper and taghut patron, which means ruler ruling by man-made laws, survives. If you are unable to do so, then burn his home, car or business. So what is your understanding about why ISIS took on this strategy when it did and how effective it's been?

CALLIMACHI: The lone wolf strategy is something that ISIS is borrowing from al-Qaida. What is unique about ISIS is they've taken this idea and because of their savoir faire in propaganda, because of their cutting edge social media strategy and their ability to create these propaganda films that truly energize their base, they've been able to inspire a much larger public to carry out these attacks.

The question for me that remains is it's clear that once somebody has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and especially when they use kind of this formal language and these long honorifics for him, it's clear that they've been steeped in the propaganda. So 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's 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 ISIS' core.

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

GROSS: Do you ever wonder if some of the people who commit violent acts are, you know, like, mentally ill and on the verge of violence? And they want to find a larger cause to latch onto...


GROSS: ...And they want to get more attention for what they're doing. They want to be in the media. They don't want to just be dismissed as, like, a killer or, you know, a mass murderer. They want to be attached to a cause and to be glorified by somebody somewhere.


GROSS: Therefore, ISIS is an easy way to go in the sense you know if you pledge allegiance to ISIS, you're ISIS. Do you think that there are cases like that, I mean, 'cause it seems to me like that would be qualitatively a little bit different than somebody who truly was radicalized and truly was in touch with ISIS.

CALLIMACHI: I think that the majority of - from what I can tell, the majority of the cases include young men that at some level, have, when you start digging into their case, have some degree of mental illness. I mean, it goes without saying that if you're going to go into a nightclub in Florida and open fire with automatic weapons on innocent people that you're not well mentally.

But from ISIS' perspective, that's OK. And that's the same as - the fact that somebody is mentally unwell, the fact that somebody has some other grievance and yet has taken on their mantle versus the guy who has been radicalized, you know, since birth and carries it out, they're all equal because the purpose of this group is to spread terror, to spread it all over the world, to make the kafir, the infidel, which is us, feel as if they're not safe anywhere, that somebody could pop out of a train and stab you, that you could be at a Fourth of July parade and suddenly somebody's going to use their SUV to mow you down, that's their end goal.

And so in the end, the individual motivations of the people doesn't really matter because they are succeeding in propagating that notion of terror.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi. She covers ISIS for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about her story on ISIS' sex slaves. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And I'm back with my guest Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. So you've done a couple of remarkable stories about these sex slaves, the women that ISIS has taken and turn them into their sex slaves. And this year, you wrote about how these women are forced to use contraceptives.

And you tried to find out the reason why. Like, why would ISIS care? Tell us the reason that you discovered.

CALLIMACHI: Well, I had made multiple trips to Iraq last year to work on the first story that I did on ISIS' system of sexual slavery. And I wanted to understand the theological underpinnings of this because all of the women were telling me that the fighters would say to them, the hadiths in the Quran give us the right to do this to you. And I wanted to know if that was true.

So I ended up reaching out to a Muslim scholar, Professor Kecia Ali, who's at Boston University and who has written books on this and a chapter in the Oxford Encyclopedia regarding slavery in Islam. And the first question she asked me was are they checking if the women are pregnant because if they're not checking, meaning what - so the women are bought by one of these fighters.

When he tires of her after abusing her for some time, she is sold to another fighter and so on. And some of the victims, these poor people, have been sold 15 or more times. And you can imagine that at every step along the way, they're being raped. So she asked me, are they checking for pregnancy between the sales? And I didn't have an answer. I didn't know.

So Professor Ali then pointed me to the hadiths. And this is the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad that talked about the importance of ascertaining paternity. That seemed to be just about the only right that a slave in this reading of scripture has, the right to know who the father of her child is.

And so in antiquity, according to these laws that are put out in these texts on Islamic jurisprudence, a fighter who - an owner who buys a new slave is supposed to wait basically one moon, so one month to determine whether she's pregnant or not, to see whether she has her period, right? And so I ended up going back to Iraq to see if I could answer this question because it was fascinating to me.

And in my early interviews, a lot of the women had told me that they were forced to take pills. And I had, you know, I had sort of jotted that down in my notebook. But I hadn't really digested it. And so I went back to Iraq to the Kurdish areas around the city of Dahuk. And I went to the camps with my fixer. And we went back to the women that I had already interviewed the first time.

And then I went to seek out others. And what was, I mean, what was shocking was the extent to which they were aggressively pushing contraception. Some women were forced to take tablets, others were given the Depo-Provera injection. This is an injection that makes it so that you don't get pregnant for up to three months.

And others were taken for ultrasounds in between the sales. At the same time, there were numerous violations. So there were numerous - there were women who tell me that they were with fighters one through three and fighters one through three gave them birth control and then tested for pregnancy.

And then they'd go to fighter number four and five and those guys didn't check. So it was not uniform. There were people who were violating it. But the fact that they were mostly applying it, there's something quite sickening to me about it. There's something so calculated about essentially treating these women like an object that would become damaged if it became pregnant.

Everything else you do to it is OK, but that's the one thing that needs to be avoided.

GROSS: Did the women know that they were being given birth control? Did they know what the pills were?

CALLIMACHI: Initially, some of them said that - some of these girls were so young. They're 16, 17 and younger. And one of them that I interviewed, who I think is in the lead of my story, she talks about how he came and he gave her this packet of pills. And it had three lines of white pills and then one line of red pills. And she didn't know what it was, you know?

And he would come and berate her every day and watch her put the pill under her tongue. And then it was, I think, another woman in the house who explained to her what it was for. The interesting thing is that this, of course, was the one aspect of their perverted theology that very much was in line with what the victims wanted. None of them wanted to get pregnant.

So when they learned that the pills, the injections, the trips to the doctor, that that was to avoid pregnancy, they were onboard because they, of course, did not want to be carrying their rapist's child.

GROSS: So the ISIS men who raped these women and used them as sex slaves, they believed that the Quran gave them justification to do it as long as the women didn't get pregnant?

CALLIMACHI: Yes, yes. 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, right? 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 it is, therefore, a sacred duty to rape these poor women. And 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 - but almost like an act of communion.

GROSS: Leaves me speechless. And the women who you interviewed who were used as sex slaves...


GROSS: ...They were mostly Yazidi women, members of a religious minority who...


GROSS: ...ISIS basically practiced genocide on. I mean, they...


GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: So these were women who were taken while other Yazidis were being just, like, wiped out.

CALLIMACHI: Right. The only women I've spoken to are Yazidi women. And it seems that ISIS singled out this particular ethnic group for this very crime. There have been a few anecdotal cases of Christian women being taken as sex slaves and a few anecdotal cases of Shia women being taken. And, of course, we know the terrible story of the American aid worker, Kayla Mueller, who was also taken in this manner. But those accounts are very much at the anecdotal level. There's very few of them, whereas with the Yazidis, it was a systematic, planned-out orchestrated thing that they did. They showed up on Sinjar Mountain on August 3 and 4 of 2014 with empty trucks, specifically to fill them with women and to take them back to use them in this underground sex trade.

GROSS: And they're still doing this? I mean, they're still practicing...

CALLIMACHI: They're still...

GROSS: They're still, like, raping women and...

CALLIMACHI: Absolutely, absolutely. There's about...

GROSS: ...And holding them hostage...

CALLIMACHI: Yeah. There were...

GROSS: ...And in slavery.

CALLIMACHI: Right. There were 5,000 - more than 5,000 Yazidi people that were taken by ISIS starting in August of 2014. And Yazidi community leaders and the U.N. say that there's around 3,000 that are still in captivity. That includes women, children and a handful of men who were allowed to live.

But yes - and they - a lot of them have had, at some level, contact with their families because when you go to the camps in northern Iraq, a lot of the families are spending every ounce of their strength right now trying to come up with the ransoms to essentially pay the smugglers to get their girls out.

So they know that they're alive. The girls will take the fighter's cell phone and run off to the bathroom and make a quick phone call or hide his phone and wait for him to leave the house and then call. And so there's contact. We know that they're - we know that many of them are still alive. And it's just absolutely gutting to think what's happening to them.

GROSS: So the women who you interviewed, did they escape? Or were they released in return for ransom?

CALLIMACHI: Almost all of the ones that I spoke to, what they would do is they would run away from the house of the man who was holding them. They would seek shelter in another civilian's house - Muslim, Kurdish, etc. In many cases, they would be handed back over to the abuser, and then terrible things would happen. But in the lucky instances, those people would then allow them to call their families.

Their families are in touch with the smuggling network, and they're paying smugglers $5,000 - $6,000 - $10,000 per girl to get them out. There's been a big debate as to whether that money is a ransom or not. There are many cases, I think, where the money is purely going to the smugglers. There are also cases of girls that I interviewed where the fighters themselves tired of her and agreed to allow her to call her family and to negotiate a ransom for her direct release.

GROSS: All right. It sounds like virtually all the sex slaves that ISIS has taken have been...


GROSS: ...Yazidi women.

GROSS: Why...


GROSS: ...Are they Yazidi?

CALLIMACHI: ISIS put out a pamphlet soon after they invaded Sinjar, which is the homeland of the Yazidi people explaining why, theologically, the Yazidi people were targeted for enslavement and why their enslavement is in their eyes legal. And it rests on the idea that the Yazidis are polytheists. The Yazidis actually believe in a single god. But underneath the single god, there are a number of sacred angels. It's not that different from Christianity, where you have Christ, God and, you know, the Holy Spirit.

But anyway, because of this belief in these angels, they have determined that they're polytheists. And polytheists are the worst category, according to ISIS, that needs to - they need to be - the earth needs to be cleansed of them, in their eyes, in order to create the way for the monotheistic faith that they're trying to instill. And so they have essentially created a legal framework to do these horrific things to these young women.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi who covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break here. 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. So your family is from Romania.


GROSS: And when you were 5, your family fled Romania, which was under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.


GROSS: And officially, you weren't allowed to leave unless you pledged to come back...


GROSS: ...Because people weren't allowed to leave and not return.


GROSS: So what you did in leaving was illegal. Had you been turned away by any of the countries that you went to afterwards? And had you been returned against your will to Romania, your mother or perhaps your mother and your grandmother would've been imprisoned. Fortunately, you found safe haven first in Switzerland and then, a few years later, in the United States.

CALLIMACHI: Actually, the very first country we came to was Germany - Munich, strangely enough. And we stayed there not for very long. And then from there, Switzerland took us in. But as an - 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.

GROSS: How do you know that?

CALLIMACHI: Well, we know that the November 13 attackers - 9 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 Theras (ph) in Greece. It's true that we don't know...

GROSS: And you're talking about the attacks on Paris in November?

CALLIMACHI: Yes, yes. Exactly. Exactly. 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. We don't know how the others came through. But given that at least four of them came in this manner, I think it's logical to assume that the others may have, as well.

And 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. So it doesn't - you know, 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.

GROSS: Yeah. And you said it's hard for you to even write these stories because...

CALLIMACHI: Yeah, I mean, I have.

GROSS: ...As a refugee yourself, you know...


GROSS: ...What drives somebody to face such danger - to leave. But at the same time...


GROSS: ...You recognize that ISIS is using this as a way to get people in.

CALLIMACHI: Yeah. And I find it so incomprehensible that when you're fleeing a place such as Syria - and, of course, Syria is so much worse than communist Romania ever was. You know, my family was at no point facing the peril that these families are facing. But I find it incomprehensible that you would abuse the generosity of the country that takes you in.

I am forever grateful to both Germany and Switzerland for giving my family a chance and even more grateful to the United States for taking us in a couple of years later. If I hadn't, I would never be what I am today.

GROSS: Rukmini Callimachi, thank you so much for talking with us.

CALLIMACHI: It's my pleasure, Terry. I love to be on your show.

GROSS: Rukmini Callimachi covers ISIS and al-Qaida for The New York Times. If you'd like to catch up on recent interviews you missed, like our interviews with Meryl Streep, Colson Whitehead and James Corden, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews. 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 Sheean, Heidi Saman and Therese Madden. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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