The New York Times now admits a key storyline of its award-winning podcast Caliphate, which featured the experience of a Canadian man who claimed to have fought for ISIS, appears to have been made up by the criminally accused hoaxer.
Caliphate, released in 2018, featured the story of Shehroze Chaudhry, a Burlington, Ont., man who claimed to have travelled to Syria and joined ISIS in 2014.
Chaudhry, who said he went by the nom du guerre Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi (Abu Huzaifa the Canadian), told terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi that he had received combat training and that he’d seen plans for terror attacks.
He also described killing civilians in graphic detail.
In September, however, Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry, 25, with hoax-terrorist activity after a four-year investigation found no evidence to support his claims.
After Chaudhry was charged, the Times recruited a team of its own reporters to scrutinize the journalism behind Caliphate. The result of that investigation was published Friday morning.
“This was an institutional failing,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, said in a special episode of Caliphate released Friday. “This was a big story for us. A major story.
“I think this guy, we now believe, was a con artist who made up most if not all he told us.”
He said the findings provide a compelling account of how “Chaudhry repeatedly misled people, provided false information in a way that, to be honest, should have cast ample doubt on his story.”
The Times team reviewed all of the records of Chaudhry’s travel, photos and social media activity, eventually concluding they were unable to corroborate many of the claims he made in Caliphate.
For example, they found that one of the photos Chaudhry had supplied as evidence he had been to Syria, which showed an armed man in silhouette, had in fact been taken by a Russian news agency in Aleppo and was widely distributed by Getty Images.
An editor’s note was placed on the podcast Friday that stated the journalism around Chaudhry’s story didn’t meet the Times’s standards and wasn’t “sufficiently rigorous.” The Times did not remove the episodes featuring Chaudhry.
Baquet said Caliphate was an ambitious piece of journalism that did not get enough editorial scrutiny before it was released.
“I didn’t personally pay enough attention to this one,” he said.
Controversy in Canada
Chaudhry claimed he returned to Canada in 2016.
Upon its release in 2018, Caliphate sparked a furor in the House of Commons and prompted the Opposition Conservatives to demand how Canada could allow a purported terrorist to roam free in this country.
In fact, Canadian authorities had been investigating Chaudhry since 2016 because of his online claims.
In one of the episodes of Caliphate, Chaudhry described participating in two executions, but in a subsequent interview with CBC News, he denied having any role in any killings and admitted he made it up. He also claimed the RCMP gave him a polygraph test.
The RCMP said they did not have any comment on the Times’s investigation of Caliphate.
In an email statement to CBC News, Chaudhry’s lawyer, Nader Hasan, said his client has been “charged with a very serious criminal offence of which he is not guilty,” and intends to “vigorously defend himself.”
“As the matter is at an early stage before the court, I cannot say more at this time,” Hasan said.
Chaudhry’s next court date is slated for Jan. 25.
‘My spidey sense was always going off’
In the months before Caliphate was released, Chaudhry was getting extremism intervention counselling from Mubin Shaikh, a former CSIS and RCMP counterterrorism operative.
“My spidey sense was always going off,” said Shaikh, now a professor of public safety at Seneca College in Toronto.
Shaikh said the sessions were too easy.
“It’s very rare that they just accept everything you say. There’s always pushback,” he said. “And I didn’t get any pushback.”
He said after listening to Caliphate, he confronted Chaudhry about some of the details in his story that didn’t add up.
After that, he said, their relationship became acrimonious and Shaikh walked away.
While The New York Times says it has debunked Chaudhry’s story in Caliphate, Shaikh says the questions it raises about how Canada deals with returning foreign fighters are still valid.
“Let this be a cautionary tale, and let this prepare us for the eventuality that there are real ISIS members who really did kill people, who are waiting to be repatriated,” Shaikh said. “Let’s see how we deal with that when that time comes.”
Journalist apologizes to listeners
In 2017, CBC News learned Chaudhry was a person of interest under surveillance by RCMP and CSIS because he held radical views and had travelled abroad. CBC News interviewed him and hid his identity. In the course of that interview, he claimed, among other things, to have regularly witnessed public lashings, beheadings and crucifixions.
CBC News updated its original story with an editor’s note stating Chaudhry had been charged with hoax-terrorism activity as well as a link to its own journalism that raised questions about his claims, and removed two videos of interviews with Chaudhry.
Rukmini Callimachi, the host of Caliphate, released her own statement Friday on Twitter.
“I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on the ISIS beat. But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves,” she said.
“I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have.”
She said the thinking of her colleagues and newsroom she let down is “gutting.”
“To our listeners I apologize for what we missed and what we got wrong.”
Callimachi will be reassigned to cover other beats for the Times.