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Opinion Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting troubles

Peshmerga soldiers patrol the area around their position in Kulajo, Iraq, in December 2019. ISIS militants are reportedly positioned behind the line of palm trees in the background. (Alice Martins/FTWP)
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In May 2018, Rukmini Callimachi, a star reporter for the New York Times, faced some questions about her reporting. Her podcast series, “Caliphate,” focused on a young Pakistani-Canadian man who claimed that he’d traveled to Syria in 2014 and joined forces with the Islamic State. “Abu Huzayfah” — the man’s nom de guerre — told Callimachi he had executed two men.

Trouble was, he told a Canadian interviewer that he’d killed no one.

Pressed on the discrepancy, Callimachi told CBC News, “We were able to get to both before any other media had gotten to him, but crucially before law enforcement had gotten to him.… He was speaking to us in this window of time when he essentially thought he had slipped through the cracks.” But last week, as reported previously in this space, Abu Huzayfah was charged with fabricating his life as a terrorist.

Scrutiny of this sort occasionally lands on Callimachi’s work. Her reporting has won numerous prizes, but it has also raised questions, including from her own colleagues, about how she gathers and verifies her scoops.

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Since joining the Times in 2014 from the Associated Press, Callimachi has become the most famous terrorism reporter in the world, in part because of her enterprise on Twitter, where she posted marathon threads about developments on her beat. She sought information everywhere, from chat rooms where terrorists lurked to hot spots like Mosul. Wired in 2016 wrote that she was “arguably the best reporter on the most impor­tant beat in the world.” Poynter in 2017 called her an “unrelenting and insightful observer of terrorism.”

A fine collection of plaques commemorates Callimachi’s hard work. She is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize: first in 2009 for an AP project on the exploitation of children in Africa; next in 2014 for a stunning investigation of al-Qaeda relying on the terrorist network’s own documents; and finally in 2019, for both an exposé on the Islamic State — also driven by documents — and the “Caliphate” podcast. She made history by winning two Overseas Press Club awards for that al-Qaeda investigation.

Like the awards, the journalistic stumbles of Callimachi have played out in public, right in the pages of the Times. They have prompted Times reporters to raise concerns with their bosses about her work and the reliability of her sources. Those concerns mix with an awkward and anguished institutional culture: Her critics worry that their complaints are interpreted as professional envy toward a multiplatform star of the Times. “There is some internal and external griping about certain elements of Rukmini’s reporting style,” one source told the Erik Wemple Blog in 2018. “She’s a classic giant personality.… She’s very good at describing her work and taking credit for it and living the risk. There are some people on staff who don’t like that.”

Last October, Callimachi published a scoop on an unorthodox situation in which the Islamic State was allegedly paying a rival group — Hurras al-Din — to provide security for late leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The basis for the story was a series of receipts secured by Callimachi, who had turned terrorist document-hunting into her niche. “The book of receipts, found in Syria by contacts of Asaad Almohammad, a retired American intelligence operative, looks like dozens of others that Islamic State bureaucrats abandoned in the offices they occupied as the administration they once ran crumbled along with their territorial caliphate,” wrote Callimachi.

Hassan Hassan, director of the Non-State Actors Program at the Center for Global Policy, wrote a thread poking at the various “holes” in the piece.

Then the story crumbled. An expert quoted in the story as endorsing the receipts’ authenticity wrote a post reviewing the whole situation. Whereas Callimachi indicated in her article that the expert — Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi — reviewed eight receipts, he had originally been given only four receipts, as a subsequent Times correction made clear. After reviewing all eight, he concluded that they were “not authentic.”

Days later, Callimachi wrote a story with this headline: “Experts Divided on Authenticity of Islamic State Receipts.” Which is to say, the newspaper punted the matter to its readers. An editor’s note on the original article features the strategic use of the passive voice: “After this article was published, questions were raised about the authenticity of the documents upon which it was based.”

In response to questions from this blog, the New York Times responded, “Given the complexity of the questions that arose after publication, editors decided the clearest and best way to explain would be to put an Editors’ Note at the top of the original story alerting readers that questions had been raised and directing them to the new story, which walked through the dispute in detail. We think this gave readers the fullest account possible.”

Questions were raised, too, over a February 2018 story on the deaths of four U.S. soldiers killed in a fight with militants in the Niger desert. Callimachi spearheaded the paper’s efforts to secure footage shedding light on the incident, and the newspaper issued this disclosure on the video:

Helmet-camera footage from Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson was apparently seized by the militants after his death. It was later provided to a news agency in Mauritania, the Agence Nouakchott d’Information, or A.N.I. The New York Times, seeking details that would help explain how the attack occurred, bought rights to the video from the news agency last month. (A.N.I. said it did not make any payment to obtain the video.)
Times reporters, working with a digital forensics expert, were able to verify the video’s authenticity and piece together the final stages of the attack. But because the video shows the deaths of the service members and also includes packaged Islamic State propaganda footage, Times editors decided not to publish the video itself.

The Times’s decision to purchase the video rights was particularly controversial. To Callimachi’s credit, the story — for which she was the lead byline — made clear the paper’s actions in pursuing the footage. Yet some Times journalists chafed: Why was the paper arranging to procure terrorist propaganda? In particular, the “news agency” from which the video was purchased was not exactly an objective, professional organization. A 2017 story co-authored by Callimachi noted that “Agence Nouakchott d’Information, or ANI, is associated with Al Qaeda’s branches in Africa.”

Objections splintered into an even more fundamental consideration, which stems from the paper’s ethical standards: “Staff members … may not pay for interviews or unpublished documents.” Said one journalist outraged by the arrangement: “We let a lot of stories go because you can’t pay for information.”

The Times told this blog that the video was essential to reconstructing the attack. “Times reporters, working with a digital forensics expert, were able to verify the video’s authenticity and piece together the final stages of the attack,” notes the Times response. “But because the video shows the deaths of the service members and also includes packaged Islamic State propaganda footage, Times editors decided not to publish the video itself.

“The transaction was approved by senior editors. We do not discuss the details of licensing arrangements.”

Video was also at the center of a 2016 Callimachi dust-up that embarrassed the Times. In August of that year, Callimachi published an investigative piece about Islamic State efforts to export terrorism around the globe. The narrative tissue for the piece was an interview with Harry Sarfo, a former Islamic State terrorist who fled the territory and returned to Germany, where he was arrested and sentenced to prison. It was such a coup that the newspaper did a “Times Insider” piece — titled “Talking to Terrorists” — in which Callimachi described coming “face to face with a former terrorist whose proof of identity and affiliation were solid enough that she could quote him in a story.

The story that Sarfo told Callimachi — and other outlets as well — was that he was turned off by the bloodlust of the Islamic State and didn’t partake in any such violence. Then The Post dug up some footage that challenged Sarfo’s version of events: “Previously unreleased video shows Sarfo moving doomed hostages into position for a public execution in Palmyra last year, and then apparently firing his own weapon at one of the fallen men."

The circumstances prompted Callimachi to write a brief dispatch headlined “Video May Contradict Ex-ISIS Member’s Claim on Rejecting Violence.” Michael Slackman, the paper’s international editor, told HuffPost’s Michael Calderone that Sarfo was but a single source in the story and that the reporting on the Islamic State’s operations relied on “multiple sources.”

New York Times journalists C.J. Chivers and Ben Hubbard both shared The Post’s story, with Hubbard commenting, “Surprise! Jihadists lie (even former ones).” The lying apparently cuts both ways, too: In the Sarfo situation, Callimachi failed to catch a terrorist soft-pedaling his own atrocities; now, in the case of “Caliphate,” Callimachi stands accused of failing to catch a terrorist exaggerating his own atrocities.

The Times defends the investigative story: “The anecdotal scenes that are solely attributed to Sarfo are clearly labeled that way — and, in fact, German investigators said that his description of the days and times he was training in Syria were supported,” notes the newspaper in a statement to this blog.

After Callimachi’s December 2014 story about paying ransom for Islamic State hostages, the Times assigned one of its journalists to vet the story. Tim Arango, then an overseas reporter for the paper, looked into a source who provided the narrative bookends for the story, a man identified as Louai Abo Aljoud, a Syrian journalist who was reported to have glimpsed U.S. hostages of the Islamic State in confinement. Arango’s assignment came after voices both within and outside of the Times raised objections to the reporting. More than a month after the story’s publication, this correction was added:

An article on Dec. 28 about the consequences of the United States’ refusal to pay kidnappers to free American hostages referred imprecisely to a Syrian journalist who had been held by the Islamic State terrorist group and said American officials did not pursue information he gave them about Americans being held by the group. The surname of the journalist, Louai Abo Aljoud, is an assumed one that he has been using for several years to protect family members still in Syria; Aljoud is not his real family name. This correction was delayed to verify Mr. Abo Aljoud’s information.

The Times told this blog, “After questions were raised, we sent reporters to do a follow up in person interview with the source and did not learn anything that called for further action. We added a correction to the story [] that addressed the source’s name.”

“Caliphate,” Callimachi’s best-known work, narrates Abu Huzayfah’s sensational tale of radicalization and murder across five podcast episodes with only occasional injections of skepticism. A fact-checking episode comes in at the sixth installment — a corrective that was published after Canadian outrage over the idea that a murderous terrorist was running free.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked the Times whether the podcast inserted the fact-checking material in the series in response to the backlash up north. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, responded that “production” of that episode “began before publication of the series as a whole.” Based on that statement, it is difficult to assess the decisions made by “Caliphate” producers to sit on the fact-checking episode for so long.

Terrorism reporting is one of the toughest beats in journalism. The field is strewn with liars and murderers who are keen on manipulating the world’s most prominent outlets. So occasional screw-ups will happen. But Callimachi has shown a reluctance to reckon with the scrutiny that comes with her standing as journalism’s No. 1 terrorist correspondent.

In the Sarfo case, for instance, The Post disclosed that “[p]ortions of this additional footage were provided to The Washington Post by an individual inside the Islamic State, which is eager to discredit Sarfo because of his repeated denunciations of the group.” Jumping off that note, Callimachi tweeted: “Finally I find it interesting lengths IS has taken 2discredit Sarfo. Whose interest does that serve do u think? Media complicit?” She later acknowledged getting “carried away. No way did I mean to suggest that WaPo’s piece wasn’t a legitimate one to do.”

A redux of that approach greeted last Friday’s news of the hoax charge against Abu Huzayfah. On Twitter, Callimachi — who has recently been covering the Breonna Taylor case — claimed that the truthfulness of his story provided the “narrative tension” of the series — an argument that we challenged here. In the same thread, however, she questioned not her own reporting, but the investigative prowess of Canadian authorities. Here are a few of the tweets from the thread:

7. But it was in the course of that exchange that I learned that Canadian intelligence had not — and possibly could not — send Canadian personnel to Syria to interview the detainee and collect information on ISIS. If the RCMP is so hamstrung that they can’t go to Syria …
8. ... how do they hope to build a case against a member of ISIS? But that brings me back to Huzayfah. Why haven’t they charged him? His social media alone in an American setting would likely be enough for a material support of terrorism charge. I was told Canada is different.
9. So did they not charge him because they *couldn’t* gather the information about him (physically, since they apparently can’t go to Syria) or because their laws don’t allow it? Or because they thought he was making it up?

In the immediate aftermath of the Abu Huzayfah news last Friday, the Times supported Callimachi, stating that “uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him.” It also called the series “responsible journalism that helped listeners understand the power and pull of extremism.” On Wednesday, however, the Times sent a new statement with a different tone: “While the uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story was explored directly in episodes of Caliphate that featured him, his arrest and the allegations surrounding it have raised new and important questions about him and his motivations. We’re undertaking a fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series. We will have more to say when we complete that effort.”

Here’s one major New York Times project on the Islamic State that’ll have to proceed without the input of Rukmini Callimachi.

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