Rukmini Callimachi’s Broken Clock Moment in Timbuktu

I have been torn about whether to write and post this. In the media furor that has broken out recently over the New York Times‘ ISIS reporter Rukmini Callimachi, I have chimed in substantively, once, in a minor way. I am chiming in again now not because of any animus towards her personally, but because I think her trajectory points to fundamental problems in (1) “terrorism reporting” and (2) what I often call “terrorology.” By terrorology, I mean deliberately alarmist and reductive analysis of jihadist movements and “terrorist groups.” I am interested in seeing terrorology as a whole get discredited, rather than caring about one particular reporter’s fate. Yet individual accountability can help with collective accountability – especially if the critics and their audiences keep zooming out to ask what’s at stake beyond a certain individual.

The recent scrutiny of Callimachi’s journalistic and professional record has concentrated on her reporting on ISIS. Most of the controversies are not new at all – rather, many controversies have been revisited following Canadian authorities’ September 25 arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry or “Abu Huzaifa,” a key but extremely problematic and seemingly unreliable (to say the least) source for Callimachi’s “Caliphate” podcast. To get a sense of the criticisms that circulated prior to Chaudhry’s arrest, I would recommend this August 2018 piece by Rafia Zakaria. Here is an excerpt that devastatingly renders the problem when “terrorism reporting” and “terrorology” intersect with each other:

Callimachi the journalist has to get the story, but Callimachi the terror fighter has to identify the terrorist, get into his head, and bring us back gems of insight. Once she does so, she even wonders why Canadian authorities aren’t acting faster, arresting him and charging him. In this approach, it is impossible to tell where journalism ends and where terror fighting begins. Westerners, journalists among them, see themselves as fighting the good war against terror and everyone else occupying the morally inferior positions of victim or supporter. Predation and scavenging of their stories or selves is thus absolved from the immorality—or at least partisanship—that would otherwise be associated with it.

For a sense of the scrutiny Callimachi’s reporting is now facing, I would recommend this story by Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani as well as this piece by Jacob Silverman. Cartwright and Tani’s piece, in particular, lays out a litany of disturbing episodes and accusations against Callimachi, including shocking ways that Callimachi allegedly spoke to the family of James Foley, executed by ISIS in 2014, as she reported on that story.

Scrutiny of Callimachi is focusing on her tenure at the New York Times, which makes sense given the extraordinary prestige and influence of the paper and given the size of the controversies that have surrounded her reporting for the Times. There are problems in her earlier reporting, however, including on Mali, that have not received adequate attention. In fact, even in Silverman’s piece, her rise through the journalism world’s hierarchy is described as unproblematic:

In a 2016 interview with Wired, in which she was dubbed “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” Callimachi described standing in the remains of an office used by Al Qaeda during its rampage through Timbuktu. The floor was littered with documents in Arabic. Suddenly, she realized, some of them might be able to tell a better story of what happened there than any government official’s report. She started scooping up documents and filling trash bags.

Callimachi’s subsequent series of articles earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four. More than that, it catalyzed in her a belief in the power of original documentation to tell stories that otherwise go untold. It also convinced her that jihadist groups were far more sophisticated than she realized.

Some crucial context is missing here – both about Callimachi’s discovery of documents in Timbuktu, and by Callimachi in her own thought process.

Here is how she describes her find in Timbuktu in that Wired article at the link above:

Other than Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many journalists as I did then in Timbuktu. We were all traipsing around the city doing similar stories, so I started asking the local people if they could show me the buildings where the group had been. They took me first to a bank that had acted as the Islamic police center, and they took me to a hotel that had been turned into a Sharia court, and they took me to a tax building that had been the jihadists’ administrative office. In each of these buildings, I noticed dozens and dozens of loose papers on the ground that were written in Arabic—even though Mali is largely a French-speaking country. Because I couldn’t read them, I didn’t think they were very important. The next day, I realized, “Oh my God, that must be the stuff the jihadists left behind.” So I went back with a bunch of trash bags, and I just went building by building, at least 10 in all, and scooped up every single thing that I could find. People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu. I started to translate the documents in my hotel with a translator.

We will unpack the problems with her thought process momentarily. First, though, let’s look at a slightly different narration she gave in a different interview, this one with Slate:

And then everything changed for me in January of 2013 when the French went in. I was able to get to Timbuktu three days after they flushed out the jihadis. I got there in the first wave of reporters that arrived. There were so many reporters at my hotel within a couple of days. At first we all went and interviewed residents. What was it like to live under sharia law? We went and looked at the places where they had executed people and the square where they had cut off somebody’s hand. Then residents began taking me to the buildings that had been occupied. Unbelievably, there were thousands of pages of internal documents that the al-Qaida cell had left behind.

Were—

I bet you are going to ask me: How did I know they were al-Qaida documents? In the very first place that I went into, I picked up one of them and went, “This is in Arabic. I can’t read it.” And I dropped it back down. [Laughs.] It took me getting back to my hotel to realize, Oh my God this is Mali. Mali is a French-speaking place. People that went to school here learn French. They don’t learn Arabic. By definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force. I then rushed back to these places with trash bags. I began going building-by-building and just picking up every single thing that I could find and bringing them back to my hotel.

First of all, I want to emphasize that Callimachi does not speak or read Arabic – yet her career has been made on the analysis, and also one might say the fetishization, of Arabic documents (more on this below).

Second, she is describing a real “broken clock” moment here – and unwittingly betraying a breathtaking lack of contextual knowledge about Mali. If someone doesn’t think about Mali or work on Mali, I wouldn’t expect them to know that Mali has a rich history of Arabic-language scholarship, or to know that northern Mali has a significant local population of Arabs. But a journalist working on the conflict in northern Mali in 2012-2013 should really have known both of those things.

Regarding Arabic, Timbuktu became internationally famous all over again in 2012 not just because of executions and amputations, but because of the threat that jihadist occupation posed to the literary heritage of the city, which is a core part of the Islamic literary heritage of northwest Africa as a whole. Not all of the manuscripts in Timbuktu were or are in Arabic, but the vast majority, from everything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard, were either Arabic materials written in Arabic or non-Arabic materials written in Arabic script. At any rate, the struggle to save the manuscripts became famous both as the events of 2012 were unfolding and afterwards. Journalists covered it extensively (example). It has been the subject of at least one book

Regarding Malian Arabs, any journalist covering the conflict in 2012-2013 should have known that there were Malian Arabs. A first-level analysis of the conflict would have described it as one of Tuareg rebels, and then regional and local jihadists, fighting the Malian state. But a journalist should progress to at least a second-level analysis, at which point one would have to become aware of movements such as the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Movement of Azawad, MAA), which took that name – and, I mean, look at the name – by late 2012/early 2013 (example). Interacting with northern Malians should have also dispelled the notion that Mali was “a French-speaking place”; Mali is quite obviously multi-lingual, and Arabic is one of the key languages in the north. It is not just Arabs, moreover, who can speak and write Arabic there.

So Callimachi’s statement that “by definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force,” in other words the jihadists, is just not true. And so her discovery of these materials has less to do with a flash of insight about a language she does not speak, and more to do with finding jihadist documents in a building jihadists were in. Then, of course, there is the issue of how the translators, fixers, interviewees, and local journalists fade into the background. I wonder how they would narrate the story of these documents’ discovery. Even in the Slate interview, Callimachi (again without much self-awareness) narrates that she couldn’t place the (very well-known, if you follow this stuff) pseudonym of the then-leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and thus couldn’t understand the full context of what she was looking at having translated for her. It was Baba Ahmed, one of the best journaists in Mali, who explained it to her. Tellingly, even though Ahmed was getting bylines in the Associated Press under his own name at that time – in other words, even though he was a fellow reporter – Callimachi refers to him as “my fixer.”

The issue of Arabic and Arabic documents, and the downplaying of translators’ and colleagues’ work, takes us back to Zakaria’s comments above about how Callimachi has made herself the star of much of her own reporting – often with the Arabic language featuring as a kind of talisman or fetish, important to the narrator-hero because Callimachi cannot, or can barely, understand it. Arabic is always out of reach and associated with menace. The journalist Alia Malek puts it well:

Here is another weird way Callimachi talks about Arabic. It is from her major writeup of “the ISIS files,” the hugely controversial cache of ISIS documents that she and others took out of Iraq. She writes, of Mosul, “I learned to read the landscape for clues, starting with باقية — ‘baqiya’ — the first word of the Islamic State slogan.” The journalist’s dominion over her core source, the documents, is proxied by her ability to recognize a single Arabic word. And it’s worth pointing out too that in my view, her and the Times‘ ultimate analysis of jihadist documents was often unexciting. Click through that link, and you will see that the online story is replete with images of documents and of Iraq, particularly Mosul – and yet the conclusions are thin. The core argument seems to be that “the documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” But by 2018, when the report came out, this was a relatively commonplace and uncontroversial take. The aura of the documents sometimes counted for more than what Callimachi, and the Times as a whole, could really do with them. The story about the handling of the documents is probably more consequential than any stories the Times produced with the documents. (On the ethical issues connected with these documents, by the way, see this sober and careful thread from Mara Revkin, whom I consider the leading American expert on ISIS at this point.)

The thinness of Callimachi’s analysis relates to her connections to the terrorologist world. The fetishization and decontextualization of jihadist documents is central to terrorology, and it is unsurprising that Callimachi has a pattern of outsourcing much of her analysis to terrorologists such as those at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its spinoffs. To a profound extent, she became a member of a terrorologist club whose outlines are pretty clear, once you start looking at who collaborates with whom.

To wrap this up, for me there are two takeaways from Callimachi’s career as a whole and from the Timbuktu episode in particular:

  1. When jihadist documents become objects of a bizarre kind of reverence and fascination not so much because of what they say but simply because they offer the promise of access into an illicit and forbidding world, there’s a problem. And that problem is magnified when the analysts and gatekeepers who manage those documents are either ignorant of, or actively dismiss, a sense of context. The repeated quest for that moment of scooping jihadist and specifically Arabic-language documents into a trash bag – whether by journalists in Timbuktu and Mosul, or by Navy Seals in Abbottabad – can start to make that moment crowd out the necessity of scrutinizing sources, talking with people who lived through events, etc. The documents can only ever tell part of the story, and the story the documents tell may not be the most compelling or accurate one. That it was a lack of critical self-reflection about a human source that eventually landed Callimachi in trouble is ironic, but her approach toward “Abu Huzaifa” was just an extension of treating the documents as transparent and unproblematic windows into the jihadist world. 
  2. There is something to be said, too, about Africa as a stepping stone in her career – a sense that for her and the New York Times, it was essentially a single experience in Timbuktu that qualified her to analyze jihadism from Orlando to Mosul. Here, too, we see about the one-millionth example of the idea that it is “understanding terrorism” or “understanding jihadism” that qualifies a terrorologist, or a journalist, to speak to widely different contexts. The most dramatic example of this is the various terrorologists who used to focus on jihadism and now bill themselves as specialists on “white nationalism” and “far-right extremism,” or even on Russiagate. Opportunism is central to terrorology. In any case, Timbuktu is still there, and it is still people like Baba Ahmed to whom I look for insights on Mali, that extraordinarily complex country that I, for one, will never fully understand – but whose history is much bigger than what you can fit in a trash bag. 

3 thoughts on “Rukmini Callimachi’s Broken Clock Moment in Timbuktu

  1. Pingback: ‘Caliphate’ podcast and its fallout reveal the extent of Islamophobia – Corepaedia news

  2. I do sense the smell of envy when it comes to Rukmini.
    What she did you or I could’ve done while we were there; but we didn’t.
    As for Arabic or French being the official language of TB2 – the city is still run from Bamako and the official language of Mali is French while there are 13 other national languages.
    If Rukmini at the time found a huge number of official papers written in Arabic, she was correct in presuming they came from the temporary jihadist rule.

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