Iraq
A Times Correspondent Describes Meeting ISIS Militants in Iraq

A Times Correspondent Describes Meeting ISIS Militants in Iraq


Rod Nordland, The New York Times’s International correspondent at large, first went to Iraq in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. In the years since, including several as a correspondent for The Times in Baghdad, Mr. Nordland has covered the complex political and social currents of a nation seemingly in perpetual turmoil.

 

Earlier this month, the Iraqi army freed the city of Hawija from control by the Islamic State, leading 1,000 militants, who had operated a regime of comprehensive violence in the city, to surrender to Kurdish authorities. Mr. Nordland was able to interview some of the men in detention — an experience he described on Facebook Live on Oct. 24.

 

Mr. Nordland, who had been visiting The Times in New York City during his scheduled “home leave,” spoke with Herbert Buchsbaum, The Times’s Middle East editor, while viewers submitted questions for Mr. Nordland about his career. Here are edited excerpts from the Facebook Live broadcast.

 

Were you afraid?

 

He was unarmed and his hands were tied behind his back, yet even so, we’ve been nurtured on this image of the ISIS boogeyman, and I think it affects all of us — aside from his physical presence, just the idea of what these people had been capable of. But the more I talked to him, the more that went away. I had that impression with a lot of the guys I talked to. They start out kind of scary-looking, but once you talk to them you reduce them to just another person.

 

It was just dawning on them that what was going to happen to them was that they were going to a court, and probably to jail for having been in ISIS. And this guy was concerned. His wife was very pregnant, about to have their first child, and he realized in the course of my talking to him that he was not going to see his wife. He was pretty beaten down by that.

 

So he has some human feelings after all.

 

They’re human beings — human beings that took an ugly path, but still human beings.

 

The question I think a lot of people have is: Is ISIS finished? Are we seeing the end of them?

 

I think, in some ways, yes. The ISIS prisoners we talked to said they had been ordered by their leaders to surrender themselves and to escape. They were also very bitter and their morale was at a real low point. They felt that they had been betrayed by ISIS leadership, that their leaders were just saving themselves and that the whole organization was finished. And it’s true that they have basically lost all their important territory.

 

But, they started out as an underground organization, and there’s every reason to believe that they’ll continue in that capacity. They still have a lot of ability to wreak havoc in that form.

 

Why are there so few news organizations in Iraq and Syria? Did you see reporters from other organizations there?

 

It was a fairly large media presence. But it’s expensive to cover wars — especially to do it in a conscientious way, in which you take a lot of precautions. A freelancer who, for instance, went to Kurdistan would find himself facing fixer/translator fees of $500 a day typically. A driver would cost maybe $200 a day. And if you’re going for anybody on assignment they should be providing you with some sort of security. And that’s very expensive. That can be as much as $1,000 a day from some companies.

 

Do you travel with armed guards?

 

We don’t usually. In general, the principle that most journalists follow is that the lower your profile, the safer you are. In Afghanistan, where I work a lot, there are typically embassies and international organizations that move around in armored car convoys. We never do that because when you move like that, you’re making yourself a target. You can protect yourself against gunshots, but gunshots are not what we’re worried about these days. It’s bombs. Roadside bombs. And no amount of armor is going to protect you much against those.

 

When you’re in a place like Iraq, in a war zone for weeks at a time, is there stuff that you miss?

 

Nowadays we can pretty much get everything everywhere. Like in Kurdistan, one night a couple of us were sitting around and said “Let’s go to the movies.” So we went to the mall with a multiplex with 15 screens and we watched a movie. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”