A Canadian man who was the subject of a New York Times podcast called “Caliphate” was arrested last week for allegedly faking his past involvement with ISIS, putting the validity of the award-winning audio documentary in question.
“The charge stems from numerous media interviews where the accused, Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old from Burlington, Ontario, claimed he travelled to Syria in 2016 to join the terrorist group ISIS and committed acts of terrorism,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced on Friday.
“The interviews were published in multiple media outlets, aired on podcasts and featured on a television documentary, raising public safety concerns amongst Canadians,” the RCMP continued. “Chaudhry was charged with Hoax-Terrorist activity.”
Canadian outlet Global News reported that Chaudhry used the alias Abu Huzayfah to fool the Times’ podcast “Caliphate” into thinking he was a former ISIS fighter who vividly described participating in public executions.
“The blood was just ... it was warm, and it sprayed everywhere ... and the guy cried, was crying and screaming,” Abu Huzayfah said in the "Caliphate" podcast, according to Global News. “It’s hard. I had to stab him multiple times. And then we put him up on a cross. And I had to leave the dagger in his heart.”
Despite the graphic but apparently false story, his academic transcript contradicted his ISIS claims, as he was a student at Pakistan’s University of Lahore when he claimed to be a terror fighter, according to the Global News.
“Caliphate” launched in 2018 and the first five installments are based on Chaudhry’s claims that are now in question. Times terror reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who is the star of “Caliphate,” defended her podcast in a series of tweets following Chaudhry’s arrest.
"Big news out of Canada: Abu Huzayfah has been arrested on a terrorist 'hoax' charge. The narrative tension of our podcast ‘Caliphate’ is the question of whether his account is true. In Chapter 6 we explain the conflicting strands of his story, and what we can and can’t confirm,” Callimachi wrote, noting that Chapter 6 “exposes both what we know he lied about, explores the conundrum of what to do when you discover that a source has lied, and lays out for readers what we know to be fact and equally the many things we still don’t know.”
Callimachi then listed “enduring questions” she has as a result of Chaudhry’s arrest, but Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple feels it “merely refreshes pressure on the New York Times regarding its handling of ‘Caliphate.’”
“As the podcast rolled out in weekly installments, discrepancies arose between what Abu Huzayfah told Callimachi and what he told Canadian media,” Wemple wrote, noting that Canadian news outlets noticed issues with the Times’ podcast back in 2018.
“The same guy who told Callimachi about stabbing a man in the heart told Canadian outlet Global News he didn’t kill anyone."
The New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Part of what the series explored was whether Abu Huzayfah’s account was true,” a Times spokesperson told Wemple. “The uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him.”
Wemple disagrees with the Times’ talking points.
“We dissent. The first five episodes of the series, by and large, recount Abu Huzayfah’s story with minimal skepticism from the host,” Wemple wrote. “Snippet after snippet, Callimachi heaped credibility on Abu Huzayfah.”
Wemple then pointed out that the Times did not mention any “struggle for the truth” when it described Huzayfah’s story to the Peabody Awards.
“The hoaxing charge is problematic for Callimachi and the Times,” Wemple wrote. “Huzayfah is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 16 — plenty of time for top editors at the Times to consider how to respond if the proceedings further shred his various stories.”