Journalist describes fight for Mosul at Benedictine talk
To do her job in northern Iraq, Rukmini Callimachi travels with the biggest trash bags she can fit into her backpack.
A foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a highly regarded expert on the Islamic State, Callimachi knows the terrorist group has established a complex bureaucracy in Mosul.
So during a recent trip to the war-torn city, she searched for the red tape, stuffing bags with administrative papers stashed in buildings deserted by ISIS fighters.
Callimachi, a former Daily Herald reporter, returned home with exclusive documents that help shed light on the group's state-building activities. On Thursday, she shared some of her findings with about 300 people at Benedictine University in Lisle.
The school's Center For Civic Leadership invited Callimachi to speak as part of a series of talks this year focusing on the threat of terrorism to national and international security.
Callimachi warned against underestimating the threat of ISIS and its foothold in parts of Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
"I would caution you in how you view the Islamic State," Callimachi told her audience. "There's a lot of misinformation about the group out there, and I think that going forward, one of the things that we need to do is to take them seriously and to take them at their word."
Callimachi spent a month in Iraq until March 6. She was embedded with Iraqi forces in western Mosul three times, the longest of which lasted four days.
Though aided by U.S. and allied airstrikes, Iraqi troops claimed only the city's eastern half after about three months of fighting to liberate Mosul from ISIS control.
Callimachi expects continued resistance as the offensive moves into the densely populated western edge of the city split by the Tigris River.
The streets are too narrow for armored vehicles, forcing Iraqi units to proceed on foot, she said. ISIS fighters in recent months also have modified drones to drop bombs on Iraqi troops.
"That changes the dynamic because up until last year, the coalition and the Iraqis basically owned the sky," Callimachi said. "It was the coalition bombing ISIS using aircrafts and drones, and now ISIS is doing the same thing, of course on a much smaller scale.
"But it creates an element of surprise and an element of psychological warfare because the Iraqi troops no longer feel secure."
The Islamic State has occupied the city since June 2014 and has generated revenue from taxing civilians on their assets and even electricity.
"They're making money hand over fist just as any country is making money, and that's another reason why it's very important that this territory be taken back," she said.
If Mosul falls, other cities, though not as large, remain occupied by ISIS in Iraq. And even if the group loses extensive ground, at that point, ISIS "just becomes Al-Qaeda," a group that now doesn't hold much territory and still carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack and others, Callimachi said.
How does ISIS plot violence abroad? Callimachi reported last month in the Times about a style of attack "remotely controlled" by ISIS handlers in Syria and Iraq. Through encrypted communications, the ISIS operatives guide recruits in India, France and other countries.
French authorities began using the remote-controlled term in 2015 in the case of Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who was supposed to target a church near Paris, but ended up shooting himself in the leg.
A transcript of chats between Ghlam and ISIS handlers detail specific instructions about where he could find a bag of weapons in a parked car near Paris, Callimachi said.
"Do you see how incredible this is? Somebody sitting in Syria is able to organize basically a weapons drop inside of a garage somewhere on the outskirts of Paris," Callimachi said.
At Benedictine, Callimachi compared that hidden threat to the image of a tunnel near Mosul that extends below ground for more than one mile and provided cover for ISIS training. Iraqi forces discovered it only after ISIS had abandoned the tunnel.
"Even the people that are closest to it are not able to see it for what it is until they're right upon it," she said.