New York Times Says Its Popular Podcast About ISIS Is Based on False Accounts

New York Times Says Its Popular Podcast About ISIS Is Based on False Accounts
The New York Times building in New York City, N.Y., on June 30, 2020. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Bill Pan

The New York Times is retracting the core of its highly acclaimed podcast series about ISIS, after the man the program relied upon was deemed telling false stories of his participation in the notorious terrorist group.

First released in 2018, the 12-episode podcast "Caliphate" featured the tale of Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian national who claimed to have been radicalized to become a jihadist. In 2016, Chaudhry claimed to join ISIS under the name Abu Huzayfah in Syria, where he allegedly performed at least two executions on the terrorist group's behalf before his departure.

The podcast series, hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, The NY Times' star reporter on terrorism, was met with immediate success. It made it into the finalists of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize Awards, and won a Peabody Award, one of the highest honors in the field of broadcast journalism.

The growing popularity of "Caliphate," however, drew the attention of Canadian authorities.

"Canadian ISIS terrorist Abu Huzayfah is reported to be freely walking the streets of Toronto even though he publicly confessed to joining a terrorist group, sadistically enforcing Sharia law, and slaughtering dissidents like they were animals," said Pierre Paul-Hus, a leading opposition lawmaker, on the parliament floor in 2018. "Can the government confirm that this terrorist is in Canada? What is the Prime Minister doing about it?"

In response, Chaudhry came forward to deny any involvement in the execution-style killings of innocent civilians that he once described to Callimachi and The NY Times in detail. He was arrested this September for lying about his participation in ISIS, which is punishable by at least five years of imprisonment under Canada's terrorism hoax law.

"The hoax charge led The [NY] Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry's account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity," the newspaper announced Friday in an editor's note. "This new examination found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the 'Caliphate' podcast."

Despite the said issues, The NY Times is not going to remove "Caliphate" from its website or podcast mobile apps. Instead, the company is affixing audio corrections to the episodes and releasing one additional episode about those corrections, alongside the editors' note.

Callimachi is going to remain at the paper, but will be assigned to other projects, The NY Times said.

"She's going to take on a new beat, and she and I are discussing possibilities," said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The NY Times. "I think it's hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she's a fine reporter."