Africa
2:42 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

Kidnapping Is A Lucrative Business For Al-Qaida, Documents Show

Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 5:39 pm

A recent report by journalist Rukmini Callimachi details al-Qaida's strategy of kidnapping Europeans and demanding large ransoms — and how those ransoms are a key source of funding for al-Qaida operations.

"Europe is funneling these enormous sums of money to al-Qaida," Callimachi, a foreign correspondent with The New York Times, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They're reluctantly and unwillingly becoming al-Qaida's main patron."

Last year, while she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, Callimachi found thousands of al-Qaida documents in Timbuktu in northern Mali.

Al-Qaida left behind the pages just after a French-led military intervention drove the jihadi fighters out of the area, where they had imposed a harsh version of Islamic law. The documents include directives and letters from al-Qaida commanders.

Now at the Times, Callimachi continues to cover al-Qaida and synthesize the information in the documents.


Interview Highlights

On al-Qaida's highly detailed record-keeping

When I came back with these receipts, and we started translating them, these thousands and thousands of receipts for things like onions and a kilo of tomatoes and a receipt for a 60-cent piece of cake that somebody ate — it made us laugh. And I guess it made us laugh because we assumed that terrorists are these bad guys with guns — and violent, etc. — and we have assumed that's divorced from these bureaucratic procedures that we see at play here.

In fact, people that have covered al-Qaida and studied the group longer than me say they've found the exact same thing in Afghanistan. It's partly the DNA of Osama bin Laden, who started out life as a businessman. He was the son of a very wealthy entrepreneur, and he started out as a young man trying to run his own companies. ... Even when he ran his own companies, he was obsessed with bureaucracy. People that worked for him in Sidon [in Lebanon] remember having to turn in triplicate receipts with carbon copies for things like replacing bicycle tires or car tires.

On finding the bodies of Arab victims of revenge killings by members of Mali's army after al-Qaida was driven out

The bodies were all buried in the dunes just north of Timbuktu. And the thing that's peculiar about the dunes is you have this undulating surface of sand. And all day and all night the wind blows, and it creates these beautiful little ripples. It looks like the bottom of the ocean, so as soon as anybody makes a hole, it creates a disturbance in the sand that you can see from a distance.

And so initially people would tell me, "We saw the soldiers go in this direction or that direction." And we would just walk, and we'd find a disturbance in the sand. And then we'd return with the family members of the deceased.

And I know that this is kind of an unusual way for a reporter to behave, but at a certain point, there were no reporters left in Timbuktu. And whenever a person was taken, the family would call me. ... And I started to feel this strange sense of responsibility, that I was their only hope for finding answers for their missing loved ones.

On the link between ransoms and jihadi kidnappers' treatment of their hostages

They go out and grab these 32 Europeans, and we were able to find, through some good luck and sources, ... essentially a home video that the hostage takers made in 2003 of this operation. And the footage is fascinating because it shows the interaction between the kidnappers and their European victims. And the interaction is quite cordial.

There [are] moments in time where you see the Europeans smiling, joking with them. They're flashing a thumbs-up sign. And it's clear to me from watching this footage [that] they had not taken these people with the aim of killing them. ... In fact, there's a moment when one of the Europeans was about to faint. He has a drop in blood pressure from the heat in the Sahara, and you see one of the jihadists rushing with a compress to put on his forehead and try to cool him down.

On the ransoms paid by some European countries

So the ransoms I was able to confirm total at least $125 million [earned by the al-Qaida organization globally] over the past five years. And I believe that's the tip of the iceberg, because there [are] numerous kidnappings where I was told by the negotiators a ransom was paid, but I was not able to get them to tell me the amount.

And so this comes at the same time the world has become much more astute and much better at putting financial sanctions in place that have made it very hard for al-Qaida to funnel money through charities — or to use the banking system, to use any sort of traditional banking system. So at the same time that they're cracking down there, Europe is funneling these enormous sums of money to al-Qaida, and, as we said, they're reluctantly and unwillingly becoming al-Qaida's main patron.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Remember when we learned that al-Qaida requires its fighters to file expense reports? That was just one piece of information revealed in the thousands of al-Qaida documents discovered by my guest, Rukmini Callimachi, when she was the West Africa Bureau chief for the Associated Press. She's now a foreign correspondent at the New York Times and is continuing to cover al-Qaida and synthesize the information in the documents. She found the documents in the North Mali city of Timbuktu last year, just after the French-led military intervention chased out the al-Qaida jihadi who had occupied North Mali, where they imposed a harsh version of Islamic law. The documents include directives and letters from al-Qaida commanders. This week, the New York Times published an article by Callimachi which draws on some of those documents, as well as her own interviews and details al-Qaida strategy of kidnapping Europeans and demanding large ransoms and how those ransoms are bankrolling al-Qaida.

Rukmini Callimachi, welcome to FRESH AIR.

The kidnap story in the New York Times is based, in part, on al-Qaida documents that were left behind in North Mali when they were forced out by the French military. So the most famous part of what you found in these documents were itemizations of expenses. And people were amazed, like wow, al-Qaida leaders have to file expense reports for things as small as like, tea and honey.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Exactly.

GROSS: Were ransoms itemized in expense reports?

CALLIMACHI: There's one letter. They're not itemized in the expense reports, per se. But there's a letter...

GROSS: This is incoming money, not outgoing money but still, yeah. Right -were they itemized in ledgers?

CALLIMACHI: ...Yes. There was a letter that I found from the head of al-Qaida's branch in North Africa, Belmokhtar, who our readers might remember was the terrorist who led the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last year. And in that letter, they're reprimanding him for a essentially being a bad employee. For not turning in expense reports, for never answering their calls, for basically doing whatever he wants to do. And one of the examples they give of his prima donna behavior is that he refused to let them negotiate the ransom for two very high value targets that he was able to kidnap. They were two diplomats from Canada that he grabbed in 2008 and he only received, they say, the meager sum of 700,000 euros. So around $1 million. Which, now that I see the spread of what the ransoms ended up being, is truly a meager sum.

GROSS: Well, I think it's the same letter that you're talking about, the al-Qaida leader writes, most of the battle costs - and I think he's referring to Yemen here - using that as an example, most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid through the the spoils; the spoils of war. Almost half the spoils came from hostages. Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil which I may describe as, a profitable trade and a precious treasure.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly. That's actually a different letter. That's a letter from Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who is the head of AQ's branch - al-Qaida's branch - in Yemen. And recently he was named the number two of al-Qaida. In this letter, he takes on the tone of sort of a mentor and he's writing to the jihadi in Mali and giving them advice. And one of the pieces of advice that he gives them is that, kidnapping, you know, is very profitable.

GROSS: And they're concerned - the leadership's concerned - when you don't get enough money for a hostage?

CALLIMACHI: For sure. And what the Belmokhtar, that earlier letter, what it crucially showed is that there's always been a debate about whether these al-Qaida affiliates, how linked are they to the mothership? You know, are they really part of al-Qaida, or are they sort of their own thing? And I was sort of in the camp - you know, I've been covering West Africa for seven years and specifically al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb - I had always thought that they were their own thing, that communication with al-Qaida's core was limited. And it's that letter, and others that I found, that show very clearly just how much control is coming from al-Qaida's central leadership in Pakistan. In that letter, they say to him, you know, because of your arrogance you decided to negotiate this ransom on your own without the consultation of our brothers in Khorasan. And Khorasan is a word that means Afghanistan, Pakistan. So it shows that as far back as 2008 - you know, this is six years ago - al-Qaida central leadership was not just a aware of hostage takings in the Sahara, but were actively involved in the negotiations for ransoms.

GROSS: You described the amount of ransoms being paid mostly by European countries - not England...

CALLIMACHI: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...As basically bankrolling al-Qaida. You write, Europe has become al-Qaida's inadvertent underwriter. What kind of money are we talking about?

CALLIMACHI: So the ransoms that I was able to confirm total at least $125 million over the past five years. And I believe that's the tip of the iceberg because there's numerous kidnappings where I was told by the negotiators a ransom was paid, but I was not able to get them to tell me the amount. This comes at the same time that the world has become much more astute and much better at putting financial sanctions in place that have made it very hard for al-Qaida to funnel money through charities or to use the banking system, to use any sort of traditional banking system. So at the same time that they're cracking down there, Europe is funneling these enormous sums of money to al-Qaida and, as we said, they're reluctantly and unwillingly becoming al-Qaida's main patron.

GROSS: And you write, some of the countries who pay big ransoms end up putting it in their budget as aid, as foreign aid.

CALLIMACHI: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Because they have to account for the money that's gone out and they can't say what it really is.

CALLIMACHI: Yes. Yes. And I think once I realized that, and once I finally had primary sources were telling me that, I finally understood. Because I was always confused about how European governments can so boldly say that no ransom was paid, when we see this happening - we saw this happening - over and over again. And it just - it just did not make sense that these people keep on getting taken and held for months and years without some payout for the terror group. And I think what's happening is that European officials are able to say, no ransom was paid because actually, we just sent $2 million or X million dollars to Mali as humanitarian aid and what they did with it, you know, that's not up to us.

I was able to speak to six officials who were involved with what I think was the very first transfer of this kind to a group that became an al-Qaida wing. And this was Germany. They had 32 Europeans, mostly Germans, who were kidnapped in Algeria in 2003. And they were at a loss. They tried every other means to free their citizens and they were not able to when they were released. And so finally, what they did is they dispatched an official who traveled to Mali from Europe with three suitcases of cash, and he handed them over to the president of Mali who put them in trucks and sent them north into the desert. That became the model. That cash was written off as humanitarian aid. And that payment by proxy became the template for what came later.

GROSS: You consider 2003, that kidnapping that you were just talking about, the hostage taking you were just talking about, as being a turning point because before that al-Qaida was more famous for beheading its hostages.

CALLIMACHI: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And then - then it realized, this is a lucrative business.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly, Exactly. And this little-known group of jihadi in southern Algeria, who would a couple of years later become an official branch of al-Qaida, they go out and grab these 32 Europeans. And, we were able to find through, you know, through some good luck and help from sources, we were able to find essentially a home video that the hostage-takers made in 2003 of this operation. And the footage is fascinating because it shows the interaction between the kidnappers and their European victims. And the interaction is quite cordial. You know, there's moments in time where you see the Europeans sort of smiling and joking with them, they're flashing a thumbs-up sign. And it's clear to me from watching this footage that they had not taken these people with the aim of killing them. Because I think - I believe that interaction would have been much colder if that was the intent. In fact, there's a moment where one of the Europeans is about to faint from - he has a drop in blood pressure from the heat in the Sahara - and you see one of the jihadi rushing with a compress to put on his forehead and to try to cool him down.

And so after this kidnapping, there was, if you will, a split within al-Qaida. There was the group in Iraq that went on for years and years, you know, through I think 2006 to 2007, even a little bit of 2008 - they kept on kidnapping Westerners for the specific purpose of killing them in the most gruesome possible way. They saw that as a way to intimidate the West and to make their point. At the same time, you have this cell in Africa which starts to make enormous sums of money by taking almost exclusively Europeans, holding them for months and sometimes years at a time, and taking relatively good care of them. And then selling them off for enormous sums of money. And I think now the tide has turned within al-Qaida overall because you're seeing this now in Yemen, you're seeing it in Syria, you're seeing it in Pakistan. I think that the terror organization as a whole has realized that they can, if you will, better further their jihad by keeping people like us alive and trading us for the highest dollar figure.

GROSS: You write that the three main affiliates of al-Qaida; al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa, al-Qaida and the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al-Shabab in Somalia, are coordinating their efforts, abiding by a common kidnapping protocol. Has this protocol been written down?

CALLIMACHI: It hasn't been written down but I've now interviewed enough hostages who describe a very similar set of steps.

So the first thing that happens is, they've now created a network of scouts in all of the places where they operate who are on the lookout for tourists, NGO workers, Europeans, anyone who looks like a foreigner. And these scouts know that if they grab these people they can get a very large commission for selling them off to al-Qaida. That's the first thing. The second thing is the way they go about the negotiations are very similar from theater to theater.

GROSS: Can I stop you for a second? So you're saying that they've outsourced the kidnapping itself?

CALLIMACHI: Yes. Most of the kidnappings now are happening by criminal groups. In Mali, for instance, its the Tuaregs who are usually doing it. In Yemen, its tribal groups. In Shabab territory, its criminal groups again. And this is because they themselves, in general, have been driven away from the areas where foreigners would go. And so they don't have access to them and they can still get, you know, still get the hostages.

GROSS: So you've mentioned the negotiators. Who are the al-Qaida negotiators?

CALLIMACHI: The al-Qaida negotiators - there's not really negotiators on their side, its - they're commanders, and then there are deputies. However there's now a cottage industry of negotiators both in Europe and in Africa and in the Middle East, who are the people on the government side who offered themselves up and are willing to drive into the desert to meet, you know, these people. And what I've learned from recent mediators is that the negotiators allegedly take about 10 percent of the cut - of the final ransom - which is actually a terrible system because it's now created an incentive both for the negotiator and for al-Qaida to increase the payments.

GROSS: Right, because the higher the hostage fee, the more the negotiator gets.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: That seems like the opposite of - you should get a commission for negotiating a lower price. I mean, right?

CALLIMACHI: Right. Right. Yeah.

GROSS: OK.

CALLIMACHI: And so we've seen these insane ransoms. When - in 2003 they had 32 people and they got five million euros for all of them. That's about $200,000 a head. In the most recent, you know, high-profile case, the release of four French nationals who had been held for three years last year, they got 13 million euros. That's 7.5 million euros a head, or about $10 million per person; an insane amount of money.

GROSS: You've heard the arguments on both sides, the argument to pay the ransom and save the lives...

CALLIMACHI: Yes.

GROSS: ...Of your people, and the argument for drawing a line and refusing to cave in to al-Qaida...

CALLIMACHI: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Refusing to fund them through hostage-taking.

What do you find both - you know, most compelling about both sides?

CALLIMACHI: Well, what U.S. officials will tell you is that they're convinced that al-Qaida has learned that Americans and Brits don't pay. And I have to say, that from the numbers that I've been able to collect, at least in terms of the statistics their prediction is correct. Only about six percent, 5.6 percent really, of all of the hostage takings I've been able to document in the past five years were Americans. And that's rather odd, given the outsized rule of America in both the Iraq and the Afghanistan conflict, which has fueled the flames of some of these Islamic extremist groups. And anyway, so U.S. officials claim that this has made us safer. That we are therefore not as targeted. The problem is, what happens to an American or a British national if they're taken? And this becomes a little bit personal for me because I of course work - my beat is al-Qaida. I have worked for years now in West Africa in the Sahel, which is where the bulk of these kidnappings have occurred. And its - I live in fear of this, you know? As do my colleagues who work in the same area because if we as Americans are taken by one of these scouts - who don't really make a differentiation between, you know, what passport I have; they just see a foreigner - what's going to happen to me? What is my government going to do? Am I going to be the sacrificial lamb, as Edwin Dyer, the poor British man who was taken in 2008 was? He was taken at the same time as three other Europeans who came from countries that do pay, and his execution immediately made the others pay.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi and she's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Before that, she was with the Associated Press and while she was with the Associated Press in North Mali, right after the al-Qaida extremists were chased out she uncovered this trove of al-Qaida documents. And she's been writing some extraordinary articles based on what she's found there.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you.

GROSS: Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

CALLIMACHI: Sounds great.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times who has a very interesting piece this week about al-Qaida kidnappings, hostage takings and how they're getting a lot of money from some European countries for those hostages and using it to fund al-Qaida operations. She discovered hundreds of al-Qaida documents that al-Qaida left behind when they were chased out of North Mali after a French led military intervention forced them out. So let's talk about how you got access to - how you found these hundreds of al-Qaida documents in North Mali.

CALLIMACHI: Sure. So I reached Timbuktu just after the jihadists had fled. And I started my reporting by going to see the places that the jihadists had created structures in. So I went to a hotel that had served as the former Islamic tribunal and I went to a bank that had turned into the Islamic police, where the little vestibule around the ATM was actually being used as a place to hold women who hadn't properly dressed themselves. And I remember walking into this bank and there was trash everywhere and documents on the floor. And I did the most stupid thing, which is I walked past these documents that were written in Arabic and I went oh, I don't understand that, so that's not important. And I went back to my hotel that night and I did, you know, a story.

And that night I met an incredible reporter, Jenan Moussa, who's from Lebanon. And she had been to the exact same place as me - she's an Arabic speaker - and she had found a letter from Abou Zeid, who was sort the bogeyman of the Sahara at this point in time. He was one of the most prolific kidnappers for al-Qaida and a feared commander. And I just - I just had to slap myself. I said oh my God, how is it - I basically walked past those same documents and I ignored them because I couldn't read them. But it's the fact that I couldn't read them that actually signified their importance because Mali is French speaking. They write, you know, with a Roman alphabet. And the Arabic documents were - anything in Arabic was what these foreign invaders had brought. And so after - after Jenan schooled me, I then set out the next day and decided to go to several other buildings where residents had told me that the fighters had set up bases in. They had taken over a series of government buildings that were around the Ministry of Finance in Timbuktu. And I walked into the tax building, and again I found some Arabic documents.

This time, I scooped them up and I brought them back to my hotel. And it was actually Jenan's last day in Timbuktu and she spoke Arabic. And we stayed up, you know, translating them until I think 3 in the morning. The first few were not interesting and then suddenly we got to a piece of paper where the headline was "to my brothers in Mali" from Abu Moussab al-Wadud. And I didn't know this name. And I kept on - I kept on sort of, you know, turning it over in my head - who's Abou Moussab al-Wadud? It sounded familiar, but I didn't remember why. And Baba Ahmed, who's my Malian colleague was sitting next to me and he was almost asleep at this point in time. And he suddenly perked up and he said Abou Moussab al-Wadud? And I said yes. And he said that's Droukdel. Droukdel is the head of the North African branch of al-Qaida. And Abou Moussab al-Wadud was his nom de guerre, you know, his fighter name.

And so I suddenly realized that this man is a very shadowy figure that runs this enormous network of jihadists in North Africa. I suddenly realized that we were in the possession of a letter from this person. We stayed up translating the letter. He makes multiple references to our dear Sheik Osama bin Laden of some of the and advice that Osama bin Laden had passed on to him. And at that point in time, I realized oh my God, there's something incredible here. And I did, you know, I did my first set of stories. But I also then went to the local pharmacy and bought myself some surgical gloves and some trash bags and we went back building by building and scooped up every single piece of paper with anything Arabic on it that we could find.

GROSS: Rukmini Callimachi will be back in the second half of the show. She's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Her article about al-Qaida's kidnapping industry was published in the Times this week. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about al-Qaida with New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi. This week she wrote an article in the Times explaining al-Qaida's kidnapping industry, and how the ransoms paid by European countries are bankrolling al-Qaida. The article was based in part on documents she discovered last year in Timbuktu. She retrieved thousands of documents left behind al-Qaida, after the jihadis were driven out of North Mali. At the time, she was the West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. So one of the documents that you were able to get out of Timbuktu and get translated spells out al-Qaida's blueprint for conquering northern Mali. And it's giving advice about what to do and what not to do. And I'm going to read part of that.

CALLIMACHI: Sure.

GROSS: And this part is about how quickly and strictly to apply Sharia, you know, the strictness (unintelligible). (Reading) One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Sharia, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of our religion. Our previous experiences proved that Sharia this way, without taking the environment to consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion and engender hatred toward the Mujahideen and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.

Then he criticizes this group for stoning adulterers to death and for preventing women from going outside and preventing women from playing. And then the writer goes on to say (reading) there is not reason for you to show that we have an expansionary jihadi, al-Qaida or any sort of project.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly.

GROSS: So it's making an argument to moderate their approach. I found that really interesting. I'd like you to explain what you think is going on there.

CALLIMACHI: You know Terry, that was - when I had that letter finally translated, that was the light bulb moment for me. And that's - that's the moment really where I think I decided that I wanted to spend a lot of my energy covering al-Qaida. We in the West have an impression of al-Qaida as this extreme group - which it is - that is all about violence and that does these awful things like stoning women to death, applying Sharia in these horrible ways. What I've realized is that they are learning from their mistakes. You know, he - in that very segment that you just quoted, he talks about from our previous experience. Well, their previous experience was trying to apply Sharia and trying to govern parts of Iraq, where they applied Sharia so brutally and they were so violent towards the population, that it led to the Sunni awakening, which helped American forces, you know, push out - push out these people. So al-Qaida is a much more nuanced organization than I thought before I read these papers.

GROSS: So you've managed to, like, get out of Mali these, you know, remarkable al-Qaida documents. The one that got the most traction in terms of, you know, popular discussion was the one about how al-Qaida requires all of its members to keep - to keep track of their expenses, to file their receipts and submit them.

CALLIMACHI: Exactly.

GROSS: And everybody was amazed because nobody enjoys doing that in their own company...

CALLIMACHI: That's right.

GROSS: ...And in their own workplace and - but everybody has to do it.

CALLIMACHI: Right.

GROSS: And the thought that al-Qaida has its own, like, workplace bureaucracy kind of thing...

CALLIMACHI: Right.

GROSS: ...Going. And you have to, you know...

CALLIMACHI: Right.

GROSS: That really kind of sparked the imagination of a lot of Americans.

CALLIMACHI: Right.

GROSS: Why do you think it is that that was the takeaway? Of all the documents you've been writing about, that's the one that really registered on people.

CALLIMACHI: You know, that's funny. I mean, I remember talking about this with my editor at the time at the AP, and we also had the same reaction. You know, when I came back with these receipts and we started translating them, you know, these dozens and dozens of receipts for things like onions and a kilo of tomatoes and a receipt for a 60 cent piece of cake, you know, that somebody ate - it made us laugh. And I guess it made us laugh because we assumed that terrorists, you know, are these bad guys, you know, with guns and violence, et cetera. And - and we have assumed that that's divorced from these bureaucratic procedures that we see at play here. In fact, people that have covered al-Qaida and studied the group longer than me, they say that they found the exact same thing, you know, in Afghanistan. It's partly the DNA of Osama bin Laden, who started out life as a businessman. He was the son of a very wealthy entrepreneur and he started out as a young man trying to run his own companies, where even when he ran his own companies, he was obsessed with bureaucracy. People that worked for him in Sudan remember having to turn in triplicate, you know, receipts with carbon copies for things like replacing bicycle tires or car tires.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent, Rukmini Callimachi. Last year, when she was the AP's West Africa bureau chief, she discovered thousands of documents al-Qaida left behind after the jihadis were driven out of North Mali. She had those documents translated and is continuing to analyze and report on them.

Your work in Mali included not only finding these remarkable Al Qaeda documents, which you've had translated - you actually uncovered - I mean, you literally uncovered bodies that were secretly buried in the desert. And you think that the Mali military is responsible for these deaths. Before we talk about your experiences finding these bodies...

CALLIMACHI: Right.

GROSS: ...Just tell us what you think the reasons for these murders and cover-ups were.

CALLIMACHI: Right. Well, it's similar to the documents that I found, you know, where the very fact that these documents were in Arabic instantly indicated that they were written by this Al Qaeda group because Arabic is not the language that's spoken in Timbuktu. So in Timbuktu, you have multiple ethnic groups. And one of the ethnic groups that's there - they're called the Arabs of Timbuktu. They're of Arab origin. They speak Arabic. They have lighter colored skin. And during the occupation by the jihadists, many of them were accused of having collaborated with them.

So what happened is when the Malian military returned in the first weeks of January in 2013 - the Malian military is made up of predominantly of sub-Saharan Africans - black Africans. And one of the things we learned right away is that they were going house to house in the Arab neighborhoods of Timbuktu, arresting whatever Arab hadn't fled at the point in time.

There was an elderly man called Vieux Ali - Old Man Ali. He was an old Arab resident of Timbuktu. He'd been there for decades. And his entire family fled - everybody - all of his neighbors. His little neighborhood was like a little ghost town, where - you would go there, and only his house was lit up at night. And reporters started going to him because he was kind of like the last man standing. You know? He kept on saying to all of us when we would come and interview him, I'm not afraid. I consider myself Malian. There's no - I did not collaborate with the Islamists. I had nothing to do with the Islamists. I do not believe in their ideology. Why should I flee home?

And he was literally taken a few hours after his last interview. It was the reporter who had just spoken to him who called me at my hotel, panicked, to say, Rukmini, Vieux Ali's family has called me to say that a truck full of soldiers came and took him away at gunpoint. And it was in the course of trying to find him that I essentially happened upon all of these other bodies.

GROSS: How do you happen upon bodies?

CALLIMACHI: You know, this is the incredible thing, Terry. You'd think that if somebody commits a crime like killing somebody that they would go to great - you know, to great lengths to properly bury them. The bodies were all buried in the dunes just north of Timbuktu. And the thing that's peculiar about the dunes is, you know, you have this undulating surface of sand. And all day and all night, the wind blows, and it creates these beautiful little ripples. It looks like the bottom of the ocean, right?

And so as soon as anybody makes a hole, you can see from miles away. It creates a disturbance in the sand that you can see from a distance. And so initially, people would tell me, we saw the soldiers go in this direction or that direction. And we would just walk, and we would find a disturbance in the sand. And then we would return with the family members of the deceased.

And I know that this is kind of an unusual way for reporters to behave, but what happened is at a certain point there were no reporters left in Timbuktu. And whenever a person was taken, the families would call me. I was still at my hotel. They would call me. And I started to feel this strange sense of responsibility that I was their only hope of finding answers, you know, for these - for their missing loved ones.

GROSS: So some of the bodies you uncovered - you not only saw, you know, the change in the sand that you're describing, but you saw...

CALLIMACHI: Yes.

GROSS: ...A piece of clothing sticking up from the sand...

CALLIMACHI: Yes.

GROSS: ...Or a piece of shoes sticking up from the sand.

CALLIMACHI: Yeah. The very first ones that we uncovered - I was with my Malian colleague at my hotel. And we started hearing rumors that a couple of Arabs had been picked up and had been executed. And Baba (ph), who is my very talented Malian colleague, was kind of going stir crazy at the hotel. He had nothing left to. So I thought, it's going to take a long time. If these people really were killed, it's certainly going to take a long time, you know, to find where this happened and to try to put this together.

So I sort of gave him a challenge. I said, Baba, why don't you go look into this and see whether you can find anything. I thought, he'd be gone all day and would give me the peace of mind to be able to finish my story. Baba, I think, came back maybe an hour and a half later. And he said, Rukmini, I need money to go buy a shovel. I said, Baba, why do you need money for a shovel? And he said, we found them. There's - their clothes are sticking out of the sand.

And I couldn't believe it. I mean, I got into my car right away, and Baba and I drove back there. And it was actually children that were playing soccer near where this poor man was buried that had led Baba to the spot. There were multiple witnesses, multiple people that had heard the gunshot, multiple people that had seen him be buried. And it just - it was so remarkable to me - the audacity with which the killers were behaving - that they appeared to fear no one at that point in time.

GROSS: So what is the protocol when you uncover a dead body that has secretly been buried because the person was basically executed?

CALLIMACHI: Basically, there was no state, you know, in northern Mali at this point of time. Even now, I'm not sure that the justice system - that the courts have opened up again in the city. And so what we did is we - it's too much to say that we unburied the body. We basically just pulled the sand back enough to be able to see that there was something there. And then we went and got that person's family.

And the families in almost every single case - the families knew that their loved one had been taken and had been killed. They had heard from the same witnesses that we'd heard from. But they were too scared to go out there on their own.

So once we showed up, they felt - they felt more emboldened. And in the case of that first body, we returned with his wife and with her mother and father. And they brought their shovel and uncovered the body, identified him and then reburied him and went back to their house. That's the only kind of justice in Mali right now.

GROSS: What about your safety after doing this? Because you're pretty sure that the Malian military or government was behind these executions. Here you are uncovering the bodies, bringing the relatives to identify them and to recover their remains. And then, of course, you write about it for the Associated Press. So I don't imagine that the authorities in Mali were pleased by this?

CALLIMACHI: Right. Within a couple of days of us doing the first story, we started getting visits - random visits from soldiers would come to our hotel. The thing that sort - that protected us in one way is that I was working for the AP, and the AP is in English. And so if you - if you're in Mali, your Google is not Google.com. It's Google.fr. It picks - it's the French version of Google, so it picks up our articles in French, not articles in English. What happened is we did our story, and then the French press went and duplicated our reporting. So it started to appear in the French press, as well.

So these soldiers would come to our hotel, and they would say things like, we'd like to speak to the AFP reporter that found the bodies. And so - then they'd come up to me. And I'd say, well, there is no AFP reporter here. OK, we'd like to speak to the France 24 reporter that reported on the bodies. And they would basically go throughout - they didn't know that it was the AP, right?

GROSS: Oh, I see.

CALLIMACHI: And they didn't know that it was me.

GROSS: I see.

CALLIMACHI: Right? And so we managed to kind of flick them away, you know, for awhile. And we also - at a certain point, we also took a break from that line of inquiry, and we are working on - you know, more intently on the documents. What began to feel more sinister is that while - when we first arrived in Timbuktu, the place was mobbed with reporters. We basically got, I think, the last hotel rooms at my - at my hotel. Within about a week, the reporters had almost all left. And then, at that point, we are much more exposed.

I didn't - I didn't fear so much for me. I mean, I thought it would have been really incredible, you know, for them - for the Malian government, which has a positive relationship with the U.S. government, to have done anything to me. But I did begin to worry very much for Baba, who's my Malian colleague and who happens to be himself an Arab from Timbuktu.

When we were doing our reporting, one of the elements that we kept hearing over and over again from the families who had witnessed their relatives being taken away is they would always say to us, they came with a truck - (foreign language spoken) - a truck with a tarp on it. The tarp was over the bed of the back of the truck. They described as olive-colored. And they said that the victims would be forced to lay down like sardines underneath the tarp.

And the first time - the first couple times we heard this, we didn't even put it, you know, in our reporting because it just seemed sort of random. But then we heard it over and over again, every single time. It seemed that there was this one particular truck that was coming with soldiers. And one day, Baba and I were in my hotel, and I asked him to go to the pharmacy to interview the pharmacist for a story that we were working on. And at the last minute, I just said - I just had this sort of - I don't know if it was a weird feeling or not, but I just decided I'm going to go to with him. And Baba and I walked in, and we were talking to the pharmacist. And suddenly, out of nowhere, this soldier that was heavy-set, that was clearly agitated because he was sweating and his eyes were, you know, really kind of bugging out - he came barging into the pharmacy. And he walked straight for Baba, and then he noticed me.

And I just instinctively put out my hand and put it sort of on Baba's arm to make clear that we were together. And he said, bonjour, and we said, bonjour. And he then kind of just loitered there for a second. He didn't have any business in the pharmacy. He didn't buy any drugs. He didn't ask any questions of the pharmacist. He just kind of stood there for a second, and then he left.

So we sort of looked at each other and, you know, thought, that was strange. And, you know, we finished up what we were doing. And then we went back outside and got into a car. And we realized suddenly that we couldn't back our car out because that soldier's truck with blocking ours. And I looked at the truck, and I suddenly realized that it had an olive-colored tarp on the back.

GROSS: Wow.

CALLIMACHI: And it still - it still gives me chills to think about this because I was the West Africa bureau chief at this point in time, so I was responsible, you know, for Baba. And at multiple times during this investigation, my editors had asked me, is it safe for Baba to be there? And I had let myself be eased into thinking to thinking he was safe by Baba himself because he did not want to leave. He kept on saying to me, Rukmini, I'm fine. I'm safe. And I mean, I don't know what I would've - I don't think I would've ever been able to forgive myself if something had happened to him.

GROSS: Were you able to finally pull out?

CALLIMACHI: What happened is I then - I then immediately set to work trying to find him transport to leave. And most of the reporters who were still in Timbuktu at this point in time refused to take him in their car. They said that it was a security risk for them to take him in their car. It was this incredible, strange moment. And it was actually Jon Lee Anderson from the New Yorker, who was there doing a big piece, who came to our rescue. And he gave Baba a seat in his car, and Baba left with Jon Lee. And I'm forever grateful for that. I stayed another couple weeks after Baba left. It was much harder to work after he was gone, and honestly, I started to get a little scared. At one point, I was literally the last person in my hotel. This enormous hotel, and I was the only guest. And the reporting got more creepy. I would go out to the dunes to look for more remains. I blew through translators. Nobody wanted to work with me. (Laughing) One translator - we were...

GROSS: Because it was too - because it was too dangerous to be associated with you?

CALLIMACHI: Because it was - because it was too dangerous, yeah, and because, at this point - I think, at this point, the military in Timbuktu - I mean, there was no hiding now. They knew clearly that I'm - it's the American woman who's here, who's writing about this.

GROSS: Well, Rukmini Challimachi, thank you so much for all the risks you've taken to do such extraordinary reporting. Thank you very much for talking with us.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Rukmini Challimachi is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Her article on Al Qaeda's kidnapping industry was published this week. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews a new miniseries on the Sundance Channel whose backdrop is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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