What Rukmini Callimachi Was Wearing To Interview The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorists

What Rukmini Callimachi Was Wearing To Interview The World's Most Dangerous Terrorists

I flew to Tajikistan last year to sit with a foreign ISIS fighter named Hussein Abdusamadov. He was sentenced to life in prison for ordering the brutal murder of two American cyclists.
The interview was a major success. It was the first time in over a decade that someone from the New York Times was able to visit Tajikistan – and Hussein was not just any foreign fighter. He had joined ISIS’s foreign operations arm, the same wing that carried out the devastating attack on Paris and the attack on Brussels. He was returned to his home country of Tajikistan with explicit instructions to find the Westerners and kill them. What he did.
When we met in a damp and dark prison in Dushanbe, I knew the way I presented myself was vital for Hussein to open up to me. He has an animosity towards people of my culture, and it was important that he saw me as someone to be taken seriously, and also as someone who would not disrespect his view of the world.
For the interview, I chose jeans, black boots and a loyal navy blue tunic from Ann Taylor, who has accompanied me all over the world, from Iraq to Syria.
Everyone thinks about his appearances at work. For women in journalism, we often find ourselves tiptoeing a fine sartorial line between feminine and serious look, but not heavy. For women reporters covering Islamic extremism, it’s on a whole new level. I have to think both seriously and feminine. I like being feminine, but if this dial goes too far, I step into an area where people don’t take me seriously. They just see me as a girl.
I prefer clothes with long sleeves that button up all the way to my collarbone. When I’m in a dusty, dirty, and dangerous place, I avoid light colors because I don’t want to have something that immediately looks worn.
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In war-torn areas like Syria, I also avoid primary colors visible from afar. When I was there in February to cover the battle to recapture the last village under ISIS control, I avoided the reds and the bright blues and greens. This is something our Times safety advisers impressed us: wearing colors that, on some level, exist in nature, because you want to blend in.
I want to appear serious, disciplined and respectful of the culture in which I am. But I also need to be in something that isn’t stuffy or uncomfortable, as I am often in hot climates.
Truth be told, it’s not easy to find something that ticks all of these boxes. I was lucky two years ago when I discovered the Ann Taylor tunic in a New Jersey mall. It’s a dark color, which is perfect, with long sleeves and a stand-up collar.
I liked it so much, I went back to the same store a month later and bought a second one. Now I take them both with me on reporting trips. After a day in the field, I hand wash the tunic, hang it to dry in the shower on a hanger, and spin it around in the clean tunic the next day.
In Tajikistan, Hussein told me he supported what he had done. He had absolutely no remorse for the murder of innocent Americans and, if given the chance, said he would do it again. Baffling as he said, the revealing interview was a big success as he admitted what he did.
I conduct dozens of interviews with ISIS operatives, and they are generally afraid of the consequences they are about to suffer or fear of distorting their trials. They deny what they have done, belittle or lie about their actions. But Hussein came out and not only said he would do it again, but also kill me if he could. It was really a question of fact. For me, it showed a deep radicalization. He was so much inside their thought system that he was convinced that what he was doing was not right, but a favor to the world.
When I speak with extremists, I don’t want them to be distracted by the fact that I am a woman. In fact, the point is not to think about what I’m watching at all. If they did, they would not talk to me at all. This way my tunic allows me to do my job.


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