The conversations between a young woman in rural Washington State and a British man with ties to radical Islam may provide clues about how ISIS recruits new members around the world.
Friends With ISIS: How To Tell One Young Woman’s Story
By Poh Si Teng
Like most developing stories, nothing was for certain. Earlier this year I went to rural Washington State to meet a young woman who had befriended Islamic State sympathizers over the Internet.
Rukmini Callimachi, the reporter on the story, received a tip about “Alex” from an online activist. In February, we spoke to the 23-year-old woman and her grandmother by phone and discussed protecting their identities in exchange for telling her story. They were worried that Alex could become targeted by Internet trolls and her community. There was also concern on their end, as well as ours, that others might want to physically harm her.
Both Alex and her grandmother wanted anonymity and we offered it. They agreed, and about a week later we flew out to see them, knowing they could still turn us away at their doorstep.
Before our meeting, I was trying to figure out two things.
The first was the best way to conceal Alex’s identity and still tell a compelling video story. Shooting an entire video without revealing two of the three characters would be a little challenging. Especially since Alex had distinguishing frizzy red hair often tied up in a French braid and a distinctive way of speaking — she rocks back and forth when talking and has tremors in her hands, conditions most likely related to fetal alcohol syndrome.
While I could film her in silhouette, from the back and below her chin, I worried that someone in her small town could identify her should they watch the video. Rukmini and I felt very strongly that we had to talk to Alex and her grandparents to explain the potential consequences of going public with the story.
I told them that once the video was out, it could be picked up by national and local broadcasters, and that we had no control over the public’s reaction. We were very open throughout the entire process, and I tried my best to address all their concerns. This, plus the amount of time we spent with both Alex and her grandmother, allowed them to open up.
My second concern was getting enough one-on-one time with Alex while giving Rukmini and Andrea Bruce, the photographer, the space they needed to do their reporting as well.
Having a background in print journalism, I can tell you that interviewing someone on camera is quite different from doing so for an article. In print, a reporter needs to get good quotes, details and facts to write a clear description, a timeline of how events unfolded, and context for the story.
So Rukmini had to do some interjecting to ask lots of questions, which sometimes broke the stream of thoughts and emotions I wanted to catch on video. (And there’s also the sound of the pen scratching. Audio mics can pick up the softest noises, and there were moments where I may have shushed Rukmini for scribbling on her notepad. Sorry, Rukmini!)
On camera, it’s all about capturing scenes that show some sort of conflict, and about the moments where characters break down and start to question themselves. It’s hard to write a script around it. You either got the moment or you didn’t.
Luckily I was able to interview Alex separately for the video. Rukmini, Andrea and I gave one another the personal time and space needed with Alex. We worked together — giving cues on who should lead and who should hang back throughout our time with her.
I liked working with Rukmini and Andrea, especially as they did not see things in black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. For stories on Islamic State recruitment and jihadist movements in general, it’s very important to suspend judgment to really get at the heart of what motivates people to do certain things.
I’ve always felt that we should do stories to help others and, more important, ourselves come closer to understanding our world a little better. Otherwise why do it at all?
To see another video by Poh Si Teng on jihadist recruitment, watch “The Jihadist In Our Family.”