I listen to quite a lot of podcasts, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite as hooked by any as I am by ‘Caliphate’.
Launched by The New York Times earlier in the year, the podcast is a first for the publication- it is a serialized audio documentary which follows their foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, as she attempts to get an insider’s view of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Tackling the Islamic State in this format could not have been an easy task, even for Callimachi, undoubtedly one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic extremism.
Where other podcasts and publications have addressed the group’s origins and their growth; Callimachi is more concerned with the ideology of the group- their manipulation and distortion of Islamic teachings to suit their nefarious ends, and the way in which they have managed to recruit their followers from all corners of the world through the internet.
Much of the story is told through a former ISIS fighter who joined the group from Canada. What is so harrowing about his account is that he does not seem to fit the bloodthirsty caricature of an ISIS fighter we often see in the media.
This is a young man (younger than me) who, by his own admission, lived an ordinary life in Canada.
Born to Pakistani parents, he and his family were relatively well-off, and neither he, nor any of his family members, have ever experienced any discrimination as a result of their faith in Canada.
The ease with which this individual slid from curiosity into total radicalization is startling and intense, and must be heard firsthand to be believed.
Unsurprisingly, the catalyst for this slide is the Internet, and this is something which is carefully explored by Callimachi and her co-host, Andy mills of Radiolab.
It is through the internet that their source is exposed to the teachings of prominent radical Muslim clerics. It is through the internet that he encounters like-minded individuals in shady chatrooms. It is through the internet that he is contacted by an Isis recruiter. And it is through the internet that he organises his life-altering trip from Canada to Pakistan to Turkey and finally, into war-torn Syria.
At one stage, the source compares his induction to the group to how younger people often persuade their friends to attend parties, to which they were originally not inclined to attend.
This is no facetious comparison- everything is already set up for these young men and women to fall into the waiting chokehold of these fanatics. All these recruits need to do is say yes, and to book a plane ticket.
I read recently that this story was originally conceived as an extended article, but having listened to this podcast in its entirety, I can say for sure that it could not have been covered better in any other format.
Callimachi is an expert interviewer, who treats her interviewees fairly, but who also pulls no punches. Her podcast gives us a disturbingly vivid and real picture of life within the caliphate.
ISIS may have receded from our everyday headlines, and while they are no longer the mobilized fighting force they once were, they have not been defeated just yet. They look unlikely to be totally eradicated any time soon, especially if they continue to successfully spread their poisonous ideology online in the way they have been doing.
This podcast is a staggeringly brilliant piece of journalism, and one which I cannot recommend highly enough.
‘Caliphate’ is a New York Times serialized audio-documentary. Find it at the link below, or download from wherever you get your podcasts.