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Piecing Together The Complex Structure Of ISIS


A New York Times reporter has gained access to a German prisoner and with it access into the global network of ISIS. This brutal world has a strict organizational hierarchy and a sophisticated communications network. With us to talk about this is Rukmini Callimachi. She's a foreign correspondent with The New York Times, and she joins me now. Welcome.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So you managed to speak with a German ISIS operative named Harry Sarfo. Tell us a little bit about him.

CALLIMACHI: Harry is, to me, an extremely interesting person. He was recruited into ISIS last year from Germany. So he drove from Germany to Turkey and then was smuggled across the border. And because of his nationality - he's a German national, but he also grew up in England and speaks both fluent English and fluent German.

He was very quickly recruited by a secretive branch of ISIS known as the Emni, which is the branch that is responsible for dispatching fighters abroad to carry out attacks. He said that the recruiters told him that they had more than enough fighters for France. By contrast, he said that they were weak in Germany and in England, which is why his profile was so interesting to them.

CHANG: Sarfo also explains that the person behind the international ISIS network is a man named Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.


CHANG: Who is he? And tell us about him.

CALLIMACHI: Adnani is a figure that really should be much more famous. He should be as well-known as Osama bin Laden. He is the spokesman of the group. He's the head of their propaganda. But more importantly, he is the head of the Emni, which is the body that is responsible for exporting terror abroad.

CHANG: He's both a strategist and a commander.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly, exactly. And from Harry we also see the propaganda of the Islamic State goes hand in hand with their efforts to hit the West. So, for example, before the Paris attacks, we had months and months and months of videos that they were releasing on the order of, you know, practically every two or three weeks showing French foreign fighters threatening France. And we end up not even reporting on these things because, A, they're so frequent and, B, we don't want to elevate and amplify their message.

CHANG: Has al-Adnani been linked directly to the Paris attack?

CALLIMACHI: He has been linked directly to it as the head of external operations as the person who was leading the body that is carrying out the attacks, yes.

CHANG: So eventually Sarfo became disillusioned with ISIS. What happened?

CALLIMACHI: There were - there were numerous points along the way, I think, where the reality of the Islamic State started to clash with the idea of this utopia that he had in his head. So it's now, I think, the month of July, 2015. He has been enlisted into ISIS' special forces. Other German fighters come and approach him and ask him to take part in a propaganda video. The main moment in the video is going to involve the execution of men that are allegedly spies.

CHANG: They were going to be executed just to be filmed.

CALLIMACHI: Just to be filmed, just to be filmed, and they bring out these prisoners. They are introduced as Assad soldiers fighting against the Islamic State. And they've even made them wear camouflage pants to make them look like soldiers. And one of the men who was kneeling starts protesting, and he says, I have nothing to do with the military. I'm just a Sunni Muslim. I'm actually an imam, and he went to name the mosque that he was in. And at that very moment, they shot him. When he realized that they were actually killing a Sunni Muslim and not just any Sunni Muslim but an imam...

CHANG: Right.

CALLIMACHI: ...Of a mosque, it was one of the moments when their message rang hollow.

CHANG: What surprised you the most about what you found out when you were studying this secret global network?

CALLIMACHI: What surprised me is I had thought that the purpose of this secret body was mostly to export violence to Europe and specifically to France. And it was from talking to Harry that I realized that, no, it's actually a global effort. And he said there's a department of European affairs. There's a department of Asian affairs. There's a department of North African affairs. And there's a department of Arab affairs. And he gave me examples of attacks that we had covered as attacks but not necessarily connected to ISIS - the Bardo museum attack, as well as the attack on a beach in Tunisia. The fighters who carried out those attacks had trained in Syria. He had met people who had met them and that they had been sent back by the Emni.

CHANG: Right. They trained them in Syria or wherever and then they send them back to the home country. That's one model.

CALLIMACHI: That's - so that's one model. Those are the directed attacks. But in addition to that, they have a system of clean men (laughter). He describes them as new converts to Islam who are therefore not in the databases in North America or in Europe. They will help that person find explosives. They will give him instructions on how to pledge the oath of allegiance to ISIS. And that was - that was something I hadn't heard of before because what happens after all of these attacks is officials quickly say, we can't find a direct link to ISIS.

CHANG: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: And I've now noticed that with a lot of the attacks that have happened, months later we will find that link. It's not necessarily direct. It'll usually involve a go-between. But there will be a link. So among the attacks that were described as lone wolves that are clearly not is the Garland, Texas, attack by Elton Simpson and another young man from Arizona who drove and attacked a community center in Texas. And I can give you many other examples.

But Harry's testimony is, I think, important because it suggests that law enforcement, that they're perhaps looking for the wrong variable. It shouldn't be that they're looking for people that are ISIS operatives or directly inside the Islamic State. They should be looking for people that are one degree removed.

CHANG: Rukmini Callimachi is a New York Times foreign correspondent. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CALLIMACHI: It's my pleasure, Ailsa. Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.