The New York Times has just concluded its 10-part narrative podcast, Caliphate (Apple Podcasts / Overcast), which follows reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she investigates and reports on the Islamic State. Callimachi is the primary reporter here, and along with reporter and producer Andy Mills, they tell a story that begins by trying to answer the question of, "Who are we really fighting?"
While the series begins with that mission statement, it's easy to think while listening that Callimachi and Mills veer off-script at some point. The first part of the series is driven by an ISIS source that the pair travel to Canada to interview; this conversation then gives way to a trip to Iraq, during which they cover the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. They find a briefcase with documents that reveal how self-sufficient ISIS has become, and learn about the insanely real extent to which ISIS is capable of actually governing people. They interview an ISIS official who was captured in the prison where he's held, and interview a girl who is returned to her family after years spent in captivity of ISIS.
Though I felt at times that Callimachi and Mills were heading in a completely different direction from where they started, the stories all serve to answer that mission statement of a question by the series' conclusion. In aggregate, these stories -- the on-the-ground reporting in Mosul, the interviews with multiple current and former ISIS members, the heartbreaking reunion of a young girl with her family -- all combine to paint a vivid, horrific picture of ISIS. I feel this series imparts as clear a portrait of ISIS as you might gleam from reading dozens of articles on the topic, or even more. Something about hearing voices of ISIS members, and hearing the occasionally shocked reaction of Callimachi on the ground -- for a person who has seen so much, and has learned to expect the worst -- contribute to a uniquely deep imparting of information.
Callimachi is a foreign correspondent whose main gig is covering ISIS; Mills is an audio producer who reports alongside Callimachi and helps drive the story. If Callimachi's main subject is ISIS, it seems as though Mills' main subject is Callimachi. He is with her every step of the way, recording what they're doing, and frequently asks her questions about what's happening, or to explain the significance of certain events, or to shed more light on her reporting. This setup makes for a well-paced narrative.
From an editing perspective, the end result is stunning. The first couple of chapters, which are spent in a hotel room interview with a former member of ISIS, toggles you between on-the-ground action in Iraq and Syria and the hotel room back in Canada. Callimachi and Mills help to narrate the story their source is telling, and at times there are lengthy, vivid descriptions of this man's story in getting to Syria and committing terrible acts of violence. With the help of clever editing and audio cues, the podcast then drops you back into the hotel room where this story is being told -- ripping you out of the scene you were imagining in your head and reminding you that this isn't fiction in the slightest.
Callimachi appears, to me, to be some sort of superhuman journalist. She is so filled with knowledge about the topic she covers, so expert in this foreign culture, has so clearly dedicated so much time to this, and such a good detective throughout, that it seems crazy to think she's only one person -- her knowledge seems like it should fill multiple computer hard drives. Mills is fantastic in his own right, asking the right questions, pushing the right buttons, placing us in the hands of the other people they were working with to tell the story, and narrating on his own when the situation calls for it.
It is an incredible look into an insane world that I do not read much about -- a terrifying and confusing world that it seems clear many Americans will never even scratch the surface of understanding. This series does an incredible job of explaining it, in at the very least an introductory fashion, and has encouraged me to follow Callimachi's further reporting more closely. The series is, plainly, a feat of reporting and of audio production.