[After receiving praise from various mainstream critics and institutions for their podcast series Caliphate (2018), The New York Times has been confronted with allegations that their award-winning show was based on a hoax and they failed to do their due diligence. Jadaliyya interviewed journalist and author Laila Al-Arian to get a better understanding of these allegations and the broader dynamics of New York Times coverage of the Islamic State.]
Jadaliyya (J): Canadian authorities in September 2020 charged a man by the name of Shehroze Chaudhry with faking his involvement with the group known as the Islamic State. What is the background to this indictment?
Laila Al-Arian (LA): Shehroze Chaudhry, a twenty-five-year-old Pakistani-Canadian man, was charged with perpetrating a terrorism hoax (technically referred to as “hoax terrorist activity”) based on interviews he gave to journalists, including to the New York Times (NYT) for their blockbuster podcast Caliphate.
In these interviews, Chaudhry, who went by the name “Abu Huzayfah,” claimed—in disturbing detail—to have killed two people while he was a member of ISIS. Canadian authorities allege that he fabricated the entire story, and charged him on the grounds that his interviews sparked “public safety concerns amongst Canadians.”
Chaudhry had an initial court appearance on 16 November 2020. The trial is expected to begin on 25 January 2021. Canadian authorities have been investigating Chauhdry for suspected terrorism activities for years. So this terrorism hoax charge suggests that they found no evidence that he either joined ISIS or committed any of the crimes that he described in the podcast.
The New York Times’s Rukmini Callimachi, the lead reporter of the podcast, questioned on Twitter whether Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry with perpetrating a hoax because they were unable to collect the necessary evidence to charge him. However, the last two decades have clearly demonstrated that Western governments have not hesitated to indict and convict individuals for a whole slew of terrorism-related offenses in the absence of conclusive evidence. If they state that someone is not a terrorist, it means they decided there is no case to be made.
J: Chaudhry/Abu Huzayfah was the subject of the New York Times podcast Caliphate (2018), which won a Peabody Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The multi-part audio documentary claimed he was a Canadian who traveled to Syria, joined the Islamic State, fought and killed on their behalf, and returned to Canada. How and why does the indictment of Chaudhry undermine the credibility of Caliphate, its lead reporter Rukmini Callimachi, and the NYT?
LA: Abu Huzayfah was the main character in Caliphate and serves as the primary vehicle through which lead-reporter Callimachi informs her millions of listeners what ISIS believes and who it is "that we’re really fighting."
Callimachi had been reporting on ISIS for several years. In the first episode of Caliphate, she says that she was frustrated that—after interviewing so many members of the group—they weren’t willing to confess to the crimes they had committed. Instead, they went only as far as describing events they claim to have witnessed. In her words, “[t]hey present themselves as having been witnesses to horror, but never having carried out the horror themselves.” With Abu Huzayfah, Callimachi thought she had finally found someone who was willing to describe committing murders and provide the gruesome details, including how the blood of the man he’d stabbed in the heart was “warm, and it sprayed everywhere.”
Callimachi tells her audience that she found out about Chaudhry “through a researcher named Anat Agron.” What she doesn’t disclose is that Agron works for the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was co-founded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer and “has faced accusations of mistranslating items and cherry-picking incendiary sources to portray regional media and attitudes in an overly-negative fashion.” It appears that MEMRI identified Chaudhry as a member of ISIS based on some of his Instagram posts. These can be easily faked. Yet this was enough for Callimachi to travel to Canada and interview Chaudhry for hours.
The vivid but uncorroborated testimony she recorded formed the basis of Caliphate. She gave Chaudhry free reign to describe how and why he joined ISIS and what he participated in. We also find out that he’s a fan of Star Wars, the implication being that your next-door neighbor who shares your taste in movies could also be attracted to the group’s dangerous ideology. It wasn’t until episode six that the team finally began to signal to listeners that perhaps not everything Chaudhry was saying was true. That said, their doubts involved the timeline of his alleged travel to Syria, not the veracity of his account.
If Canadian authorities are correct that Chaudhry fabricated his entire story, then the whole podcast should be retracted given how much of it is based on his alleged first-hand accounts. If his stories are in fact fiction, then they are of absolutely no journalistic value. In some ways, this is a news organization and a reporter’s worst nightmare, and a huge embarrassment for Callimachi and the New York Times.
J: What led to the charges against Chaudhry? Were any concerns about the veracity of his account, the reporting of Callimachi, and the Caliphate podcast raised previously? Is it reasonable to assume that Callimachi and the NYT did their due diligence and simply had no reason to suspect that Chaudhry fabricated his story?
LA: In my view there were multiple red flags that suggested that Chaudhry’s account was problematic. For example, his father informed the NYT’s Pakistan correspondent that Chaudhry had not traveled to Syria. One could argue that the father did not know or was protecting his son. I would nevertheless have tried to track down additional family members or friends to get to the bottom of this.
Additionally, the NYT confirmed, through US intelligence sources, that Chaudhry is on the US “no-fly list,” “because of terrorism-related activities.” But that should not have been considered definitive evidence, since there have been problems with the no-fly list, including lawsuits about infants and toddlers being included in it. Further, Shehroze Chauhdry is hardly a unique name, so the person on the no-fly list could have been a different individual. It is also possible that he was added based on the MEMRI report.
The NYT also had one of their specialists geolocate Chaudhry on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria, possibly based on photos he had uploaded to Instagram. Yet that specialist himself tweeted that he “didn’t see his [Chaudhry’s] face” in those photos.
It is unclear what exactly transpired, but if the shoddy reporting on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction leading up to the US invasion of Iraq has taught journalists anything, it is the importance of corroborating claims made by US intelligence sources. It should also provoke questions about the ecosystem of the “terrorism industry,” which is often based on flawed intelligence or speculation by amateur pseudo-detectives who make no effort to hide their political biases.
After Caliphate came out, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported in May 2018 that “Abu Huzayfah” had told them that he hadn’t killed anyone. But rather than serving to give the Caliphate team pause, Callimachi believed the discrepancy was because she had met with her source before he appeared on the Canadian authorities’ radar, at a time when he felt more comfortable speaking candidly.
When it was reported in November 2020 that Chaudhry was being charged with perpetrating a hoax, the NYT responded by claiming they had built “narrative tension” into the podcast, implying that the Caliphate podcast had recognized and acknowledged this possibility. But this was quickly called into question, since the podcast hadn’t raised any doubts about the substance of Chaudhry’s account, only the timeline of when he went to Syria. The NYT has since backtracked from its “narrative tension” defense. It is now looking into Caliphate and some of Callimachi’s other reporting as well. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pointed out, Caliphate’s write up for the Peabody Award “makes no mention whatsoever of this struggle for the truth.”
I believe that reporting from and about the Middle East typically receives less scrutiny than other journalism. In part this is because it can be difficult to fact-check this kind of material. But it is also the case that stories that deserve normal professional scrutiny often don’t receive it if they confirm people’s biases about the region.
J: This is not the first time Callimachi is the subject of serious scrutiny with respect to her work on the Middle East. Can you tell us more?
LA: Indeed. There was a backlash against Callimachi and the NYT when in 2017 she took more than 15,000 internal ISIS documents out of Iraq without permission from the Iraqi authorities, and which the NYT later published as the “ISIS Files.” She and the NYT were also criticized for not redacting some of the documents and failing to protect Iraqis’ names and personal information, including minors. Her decision to stuff the documents into trash bags and take them out of the country raised larger questions about the ethics and history of what Maryam Saleh of The Intercept calls “outsiders taking historically important documents out of a country at war.”
In the wake of the Caliphate controversy, Callimachi has faced questions about some of her other work, including the case of James Foley: a US journalist who was taken hostage and executed by ISIS in 2014. Foley’s brother Michael said Callimachi “threatened to publish a detailed torture story” about James unless Michael agreed to do an interview.
A story Callimachi wrote in October 2019 about how ISIS was paying protection money to a militia aligned with its arch-rival, al-Qa'ida was apparently based on distortions of specialist opinion. Yet the NYT chose to deal with these claims by merely stating that “experts were divided” about the authenticity of the documents.
Similarly, a Syrian journalist who helped report a story for Callimachi, published in December 2014, recently told the NYT’s Ben Smith that his warnings about the credibility of a source she relied upon were dismissed. “With Rukmini, it felt like the story was pre-reported in her head and she was looking for someone to tell her what she already believed, what she thought would be a great story,” Karam Shoumali told the NYT.
Recently, a leading scholar on Jihadism in the Sahel also criticized her framing of al-Qa'ida in Mali. After the October 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, there were unverified claims in ISIS chatrooms that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had converted to Islam and carried out the shooting at the behest of ISIS. Callimachi spent days recklessly regurgitating this ISIS chatter to her large Twitter following.
I question whether the NYT would allow this kind of speculation by its reporters covering other subjects. It has also been pointed out that Callimachi does not read or speak Arabic, though much of her high-profile work is based on Arabic language documents.
In general, I believe Callimachi’s reporting on ISIS over-emphasizes religious ideology while stripping the group’s emergence and growth from its geopolitical context, specifically Iraq, a country that was destroyed by the 2003 US invasion and occupation, which also led to the destabilization of the region as a whole. A leitmotif of her work is that ISIS and other Jihadi groups are a legitimate and perhaps revealing manifestation of Islam. By Callimachi’s count, 40,000 Muslim foreigners joined ISIS. In a religion of 1.8 billion, this is a statistically insignificant number for generalizations. Yet she devotes the majority of her reporting on ISIS describing, explaining, and at times acting as a borderline stenographer for, a murderous cult’s religious and theological beliefs and rationalizations.
J: How do you make sense of Chaudhry fabricating his involvement with the Islamic State, Callimachi and The New York Times production of an entire podcast around him?
LA: Journalists know that there is always a risk that a source could be lying. It is therefore important that we put aside our pre-existing notions or biases, and make every effort to confirm that what they’re saying is true, even if it means not moving forward with a story. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think there were too many red flags here for the NYT to proceed with Caliphate. Scandals like these undermine the public’s trust in journalism. I believe the blind spots that many journalists have when it comes to the Middle East unfortunately result in insufficient professional scrutiny and make it more likely that scandals like this can happen.
Caliphate had a significant impact in Canada. There was a huge uproar in the House of Commons that led the conservative opposition to decry how an ISIS murderer was roaming the country’s streets. The reaction effectively ended the debate on repatriation of former ISIS members and their families.
Journalism has a powerful role in shaping narratives, public perceptions, politics, and policy. It is important to get it right because the stakes are high. This incident should provoke larger questions in the media industry about the approach to and framing of large, blockbuster projects like Caliphate, as well as reporting on terrorism and the Middle East more generally. As Ben Smith, the NYT’s media columnist wrote, “But while some of the coverage has portrayed [Callimachi] as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support”.
What I hope journalists reporting on the Middle East can take away is that while sensationalistic stories from the region can be tantalizing and attract eyeballs, the truth is often more complex and nuanced. And it sometimes comes out.
Postscript (23 December 2020)
J: On 18 December 2020, the New York Times issued a statement announcing the completion of its internal review (referenced above). The review’s conclusion is that there is no corroboration of Chaudhry’s claims to have “committed atrocities” and that the series was “not sufficiently rigorous.” It has since reassigned Caliimachi away from “terrorism reporting” and added an editor’s note to the series episodes claiming the show should not have been produced with Chaudhry at its center. We returned for one final comment from Al-Arian, in particular as to what she makes of this announcement given previously publicized critiques of Caliphate, Callimachi, and the New York Times’s Middle East coverage.
LA: In its coverage of the internal investigation of what went wrong with Caliphate, the New York Times acknowledged that this was an “institutional failure,” concluding that they should have assigned “an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series.” They did not explain or define what a “terrorism editor” is, and even the most basic level of journalistic scrutiny should have identified the red flags that were all over Caliphate, including the lack of corroboration for Abu Huzayfah’s testimony.
They added that the lack of oversight was due to the fact that because the NYT was new to audio, the podcast was not subject to the usual editorial scrutiny. Contradicting such claims, that same day the NYT announced that it was appending editor’s notes to two articles (one from 2014 and another from 2019) by Callimachi after finding significant problems.
What was glaringly missing from the New York Times’s post-mortem is any mention or acknowledgment of the criticism that the lack of scrutiny was also due to the subject matter. The terrorism beat lends itself to sensationalist and reductive coverage, particularly when Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East are concerned. The confirmation bias that led to them falling for this hoax cannot be divorced from that.
Furthermore, there was no reckoning or apology from the New York Times about the impact this podcast had in shaping policy in Canada, from repatriation to refugee resettlement.
The NYT returned the Peabody award it won for Caliphate and withdrew its entry for the Pulitzer Prize from consideration (it was given a “Finalist” citation). The Overseas Press Club also rescinded its award.