Canadian Shehroze Chaudhry became famous thanks to a podcast. Starred Caliphate (Caliphate), a 10-part series released in 2018 by The New York Times acclaimed for its narrative strength and journalistic quality. In the podcast, the young man was called Abu Huzayfah, a member of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, and he showed the guts of jihadist barbarism. But his arrest on September 25 in Canada, accused of constructing a lie about his role in the radical organization has shaken the foundations of the journalist who brought him to fame and the reporter who signs the series, Rukmini Callimachi, revered by your information on the jihadist phenomenon.
"The crime of deception creates fear in the community and creates the illusion that there is a threat to Canadians, when we have considered otherwise," said Superintendent Christopher deGale, responsible for counterterrorism in Canada, after his arrest – young man is on probation awaiting court hearing. So, was Abu Huzayfah really the dangerous jihadist whose story traveled the world thanks to Callimachi's information? It is not clear. Did the newspaper's star journalist do everything possible to corroborate her terrifying story?
American Jesse Morton met Chaudhry in July 2019. Morton spent three years in prison for recruiting jihadists online. Today, on the other hand, at 41, he is one of the leaders in the world of de-radicalization. What Chaudhry, 25, a Canadian from Ontario, did when he came into contact with Morton through the networks was to tell him that when the caliphate returned he would be “punished” for turning his back on fundamentalism.
"Since that contact," Morton says on the phone, "I have worked with him, he went to college and was committed to non-violence." That is, according to Morton, who is responsible for the Parallel Networks project, it was not a threat, and was in the process of de-radicalization. Did you tell the truth to The New York Times? That is between patient and specialist. "But Rukmini Callimachi didn't do anything wrong," says Morton. This points to Canada, where Abu Huzayfah was also interviewed, for the CBC channel, in September 2017, even before the launch of Caliphate. According to Morton, Abu Husayfah asked that the interview not be broadcast in Canada, but was unsuccessful.
In one way or another, these are the facts: Callimachi, born in Bucharest 47 years ago, specializing in Islamist terrorism, contacted in 2016 a Canadian linked to ISIS, one of those returnees after having lived through the wild adventure of the caliphate for months that sowed terror in Syria and Iraq for three and a half years (2014-2017).
Callimachi traveled to Canada to interview him. It is the first seed of a work that over a dozen podcasts tries to reach the bowels of radicalization in the world of ISIS. Caliphate hit the Web in April 2018. It won the prestigious Peabody Award and was a Pullitzer finalist. Abu Huzayfah even shared with Callimachi the details of an execution: "I stabbed him, the blood was hot, it spread everywhere." But while half the world was hooked on the audios, the Canadian chain CBC questioned the young man's story. They had also interviewed him and he had denied any violent acts. On May 24, 2018, The New York Times He reacted and introduced a new chapter, the sixth, in which he recounted the doubts they had about Abu Huzayfah and how they resolved it.
"Our gold standard," says a journalist from The New York Times familiar with the work that was done in the newsroom and who prefers to remain anonymous, "is having two credible national security sources to confirm something." According to this same source, to go ahead with Caliphate and to corroborate the presence of Abu Huzayfah in Syrian territory, the team – together with Callimachi were journalist Andy Mills, correspondents and a good group of editors of the New York newspaper – had two intelligence agents who linked him to ISIS and Syria; three that confirmed that the individual was in the no fly list North American, a list of people who are prohibited from traveling to or from the US because they pose a real threat.
Fountains in the caliphate
They also had access to two sources within the jihadist group who claimed to have seen Abu Huzayfah at some point and information from Pakistan (where the young man's family has roots and it is assumed that he was when he traveled to Syria).
In addition, Malachy Browne, a great expert of the American newspaper in the use of online tools for the verification of information, geolocated an image stored on the mobile of the young Canadian. It corresponded to Syrian territory, in Raqa. Of course, it was impossible to clearly identify the subject that appeared there. Despite all this, Callimachi contacted Abu Huzayfah again and asked him if he lied (a conversation that appears in the sixth chapter of Caliphate). He admits it, if only on the dates of his stay in ISIS-ruled Syria. "I would like," he says during his talk with the reporter, "for the CSIS (Canadian intelligence service) to think that I am lying, for the FBI to believe that they are lies (…), I really would like, Rukmini." The New York Times He went ahead with the broadcast despite the fact that, according to Jesse Morton, the alleged jihadist tried to get Callimachi to stop him. There was a lot of work done and it was too late.
The veteran journalist also spoke for this chapter with Mubin Shaikh, a 45-year-old Canadian, former Islamist radical, who ended up working for the intelligence services and today is an expert in de-radicalization. It was to him that he introduced Abu Huzayfah after that first interview in Canada. Shaikh worked with the alleged returnee for a year. “He is a follower of ISIS,” Shaikh says in a message exchange, “but I think he has been on the Internet so much, consuming so much ISIS material, that he has created a fantasy of himself. I think he started with the lie to Rukmini and did not think how big the story would be with the launch of the podcast in 2018 ”. This expert on jihadism does not believe that the protagonist of Caliphate He even went to Syria (other sources consulted do believe it even if he exaggerates his story) He even thinks that he falsified his de-radicalization process with him.
Following the launch of the series The New York Times, Shaikh and Abu Huzayfah broke their relationship. By then, the supposed ISIS jihadist had already passed through the sets of Canadian television. “I wonder,” Shaikh continues, “how my own efforts to bring him to the media affected his ideas about how he viewed himself. Maybe you liked the attention? Maybe he liked that there was all this buzz about him and felt some satisfaction in it. " According to this former covert Canadian espionage operation, Abu Huzayfah felt "comfortable" when he spoke to the media in his country. "Now that we know he is not a returnee," he continues, "the fact that he mocked everyone, including me, tells me the kind of threat we face from aspiring ISIS."
Doubts about the veracity of Abu Huzayfah's story have stirred the waters in The New York Times. On October 11, Ben Smith, one of his columnists, published a harsh article under the title “An Arrest in Canada Shadows a Star of The New York Times and own The Times”. As if it were not with the New York newspaper for which he works, Smith reported on the internal review undertaken by journalists the newspaper on the podcast series.
And he tried to portray Callimachi, as they saw her in the newspaper, a "star" endorsed by the editors, but with critics inside such as the veteran C. J. Chivers, who has complained of his "sensationalism and imprecision." "My work (for the article)," concludes Ben Smith, "suggests that she (Rukmini Callimachi) delivered what the editors asked for, with their support."